Although I hate to admit it, there is a good chance that Quentin Tarantino is my favourite director. The film snob in me would love to say it’s Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese but the truth is that, apart from The Godfather films, none of those great directors’ projects feel as fun to watch as many of Tarantino’s work.
I own every one of QT’s films apart from Death Proof, but Jackie Brown was a film that I paid little attention to. In fact, until recently, I am sure that I had only seen it once. There was no reason for this, I liked the film when I initially watched it so I am counting it as an oversight.
Well I’ve refreshed my memory and the truth is Jackie Brown is the most un-Tarantino film of all of the Tarantino films – and I don’t mean this as a slight at all. For starters, the film is almost (almost!) linear in plot and the dialogue, although fantastic, doesn’t have the same Tarantino quirk. The dialogue is still sharp and funny but in the most un-Tarantino of ways.
Here is the thing – Jackie Brown feels like Tarantino took the criticism that he faced about being a gimmick director to heart. It’s like he purposely went out to make a straight film and the result is a fascinating piece of work. The plot is very simple to follow, probably the simplest of all Tarantino films, but the plot is a pretty solid foundation for some extraordinary characters.
Samuel L Jackson’s turn as Ordell is right up there with his Pulp Fiction performance – it could very well be better. Ordell is both absolutely terrifying and, to me, hilarious – simply laugh out loud funny. Jackson uses the word ‘motherfucker’ in this film like a weapon and he wields it masterfully. Honestly, just the way he says the word is like Stevie Wonder singing you to sleep – it’s beautiful. Jackson damn near steals the whole ball game in this film and there are many scenes you can point to as standouts, but for me the one with De Nero in the van after the botched heist is masterful. Let’s not forget, he is acting opposite De Nero who is no slouch in this film – but it is a joy to watch Jackson’s Ordell go from being loving and friendly to slowly building up a murderous rage.
In fact, everyone is marvelous in this film – the supporting cast in stellar. Louis may have been the last great De Nero role and it is wonderful to see the great man be so understated and so… well, un-De Nero like. I love how unsure of himself and how bumbling Louis is in this film. Robert Foster is charming and believable as the man who falls head over heels for Jackie and Bridget Foster is just all shades of fine in this film.
But this whole film hangs on the title role and, let me tell you Pam Grier is one bad motherfucker. She is simply sensational in this film to the point that I fell head over heels in love with Pam all over again. What blew my mind about her performance is how powerful it was and she was acting in the same film as Samuel Jackson, Robert De Nero and Batman (Michael Keaton) for crying out loud. I cannot remember the last time a female lead grabbed me in the way that Pam Grier did in this film.
What blew my mind further is the fact that Pam Grier’s Jackie Brown was a black female lead character in a major film – to me that is still a big deal in 2014. I can’t name you a single actress whose name isn’t Halle Berry who could front up a movie like this… and even Halle would struggle. Not only is this a black female lead, but this is a black female action star and once again, I can’t name you a film that would have a character that fits this description. Every credit for this racially important role and character has to go to that big black culture hating racist Quentin Tarantino.
For somebody who has been lambasted by black intellectuals over the past couple of years, this film gives off the impression that Tarantino cares a whole lot about black culture. From the film’s soundtrack, the characters in the movie and the nods to Blaxploitation films – you feel like this was made by someone who understood and respected African American cinema and how it helped shape the industry as a whole. Yes the N word is used liberally like hot-sauce at a black family’s barbecue but I, a black man, never got the impression that Tarantino was misusing the word.
There is also some important social commentary on this film. The scene where Jackie Brown is being shaken down by the police got me at the heart strings. She is told that life is already difficult for a woman with a criminal record, but for a black woman of Brown’s age it is even harder. Again, this film was written by a white man who was damn near slandered by the black intelligentsia.
I absolutely loved this film. I now understand why a lot of my friends consider this to be Tarantino’s best. Is it better than Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs? For me it isn’t, those two films feel a level above, but Jackie Brown should certainly be in the conversation.
Just like Django Unchained, I am astounded that this was made by a white man – I don’t care how racist that sounds. These are the sort of interesting and quirky films that black directors should be making and it’s a shame that they don’t.