CINEMA REMEMBERED: Jackie Brown and The “IS THAT A GUN AGAINST MY D*CK?” Moment
THIS WEEK: Jackie Brown (1997) An airline stewardess gets entangled in a criminal enterprise, and isn’t sure who to turn the tables on – the cops or the robbers.
HOW THE MOMENT STARTS: Our hero confronts the villain, when least expected.
THE PREFACE: With his third movie, director and screenwriter Quentin Tarantino, decided to direct someone else’s story for the first time. While some may say Tarantino always homages (or steals) from his favourite filmmakers, he’s always mixed these elements into his own ideas. For the first time, Tarantino was giving up some control by basing Jackie Brown off an Elmore Leonard novel.
The resulting effect is a film that doesn’t really feel like Tarantino – and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In retrospective, Jackie Brown is a refreshing chapter in this mad scientist’s legacy. Tarantino himself jokes that those who love this particular film don’t really love his movies. Then again, his ego knows no bounds, right. Love him or hate him, the man’s work is impressive. This master storyteller combines the perfect blend of strange ingredients and flavours that you wouldn’t normally expect.
To put it simply, the story follows an airline stewardess, Jackie (played by 70s Blaxpoitation star Pam Grier) tasked with smuggling money for a criminal enterprise (led by Samuel L. Jackson’s slimy Ordell Robbie). Both of their paths cross with a bail bondsman named Max Cherry (70s cult classic actor Robert Forster). Double-crossings and paranoia fuels an operation involving the authorities (including Michael Keaton) to either put Jackie behind bars or set her free.
A trademark of a Tarantino flick is a jammin’ soundtrack, and Jackie Brown definitely has a few highlights, ensuring QT’s vibe isn’t missing despite a story by Leonard. Songs are selected early on in the process, so by the time cameras are rolling Tarantino knows what he’ll need in the editing phase. He’s also confident enough to let a track play out over an extended sequence, with limited editing. Tarantino lets the song’s rhythm dictate the pacing for the edit. A highlight track is “Street Life”, which plays as Jackie drives around thinking about manipulating Ordell and the authorities, cross-cut with Max.
The standout song is the iconic (for a certain time and certain music fans) “Across 110th Street”. The movie begins with this unforgettable single playing over the opening credits. We meet Jackie at her job, exiting one flight to head for the next. The stage is set as we watch her hover along, moving on a conveyor belt at the airport, to the soundtrack. She stands perfectly, in her dapper blue suit uniform, with a fake plastic smile. This is her armor.
The song talks of what separates cultures and classes, kind of like an 8 Mile dividing line between the ghetto and opportunity. The camera simply follows Jackie as we listen to the song’s lyrics, providing us with a glimpse into her mind. The lyrics help us realize that Jackie is trying to move on up in a society that has stacked the deck against her.
Next up, we see the security process at the airport: x-rays searching for guns, drugs, or money. This is a perfect setup for the criminal plot-line that develops later.
THE SET-UP: After the security scan in (during the opening credits), we see Jackie, boldly strutting, center of the frame. Then she starts to jog. The camera dollies alongside her. There’s no fast MTV editing. We either notice her compusure has lifted or we don’t. Gone is the fake smile, as anxiety urges her on. As always (we assume), Jackie arrives at her next flight just in time, grinning ear to ear for the next customer.
Tarantino uses this sort of casual internal storytelling throughout. The tale that unravels is quite complex, but doesn’t feel that way. We more or less know what will happen by the end. The plan is laid out well ahead of time. Before we figure out if the plan to smuggle money will work, or who will double-cross who, there’s a lot of hanging out to do. This is an unexpected bliss. With the wrong script this would be torture, but Tarantino knows how to structure the plot, and he definitely knows how to write interesting dialogue. ‘Just’ hanging out with a movie has never been so fun.
All of the excitement of the final act hinges on how much we care about Jackie Brown. Whether or not she goes to jail, kills them all, or uses her mind to outwit them all, we need to believe in this character. Pam Grier returns to the silver screen, making sure we are with our hero every step of the way. Grier gained popularity in the 70s for appearing in Midnight Screening classics like Coffey (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974). She usually played a ‘lady of the night’ bent on revenge, kind of like Alabama in Tarantino’s True Romance (1993).
While decades have passed, Grier is still as stunning as ever. Dismissed for her beauty and ample assets, Grier proves that her acting was never something to gloss over. This stunning actress owns every scene she’s in, alongside some formidable talent like Samuel L. Jackson, Robert DeNiro, and Michael Keaton.
THAT MOMENT: Ordell tries to strangle Jackie, but she turns the tables on him. He thought less of her, thinking he could manipulate her easily and exploit her occupation as a flight attendant. Everyone seems to underestimate Jackie, which is why Ordell wants her to transport money. No one would expect it. Except, now in this Moment he’s guilty of the same thing.
Filmed in darkness, and framed in silhouette, this scene invites you to imagine what’s happening . . . until Ordell says it: “Is that what I think it is?” Jackie plays it cool, “What DO you think it is?” He doesn’t miss a beat, “I think it’s a gun pressed up against my dick.” Jackie snaps back quick, “Fool, you thought right. Now, take your hands from around my throat, n*gga.” She slams him against the window, still in darkness, gun to his back.
There’s no manipulative close-up, or emotional scoring, the scene is restrained and subtle, playing out as if it was on stage in a theatre. The camera pushes in or pulls back when needed, as Ordell tries to talk his way out of it. Jackie is sure to be very explicit about what she knows. She knows what he is thinking. Ordell is worried Jackie will take a plea bargain and rat on him, so she knows he wants to silence her for good.
However, since these characters are so complex, we’re never really sure what they will do – Jackie included. She orders Ordell, “If I have to tell you one more time to ‘Shut up’, I’m gonna SHUT you up.” This clever threat shows how far Jackie will go to ensure a better future for herself. Spoiler free here, but this Moment boils with intensity for all of these reasons and more, from the staging to the character work.
THAT MOMENT REMEMBERED: Despite controversy, Tarantino can write black characters better than most white people can. He isn’t reinforcing racial stereotypes, he’s aiming for realism. I‘m sure he‘s had a lot experience with the culture, from friends and family. I’ve lived in neighbourhoods where this kind of racial slang is a sort of ownership, and other creative expressions demonstrate individuality.
Outsiders may think the language is offensive and overly colourful, but it’s actually toned down compared to a lot of casual talk I’ve been in on. Unfortunately, this factor gets misconstrued to the point of Tarantino being racist (even when he stands up for Black Lives Matter and risks his career). The language, the style, and the music all reflect a certain area authentically in this film. The 70s soundtrack may be the best cultural element of all.
It was challenging to nail down one scene that captures the theme of the film. While it could be the opening credits, and its message of how hard it is to move up in society, I think the selected Moment shows how Jackie takes the mission into her own hands. She weighs her options, but isn’t afraid to act brave to save her life. Like the songs says, in a man’s world, Jackie reminds Ordell it wouldn’t mean nothing without a woman. She was more than a pawn in his game of chess.
Jackie Brown is a confident woman that would be right at home with other powerful candidates from 2015 – the supposed year of Silver Screen feminism. I mean, this Moment couldn’t aim at the symbol of manhood any better. Grier was ahead of the curve here, with a determined hero standing up for herself in a world of corrupt men. While the Tarantino flavour may be a bit light, this entry into his grande oeuvre still feels right at home nearly two decades later.
Quentin Tarantino (written for the screen by),Elmore Leonard (novel)
Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster
NEXT WEEK: A sci-fi classic to ring in the new year, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.