In this series, Bhaskar Chattopadhyay talks about relatively lesser known and yet brilliant films by influential directors which were somehow overshadowed by some of their more popular films.
In 1997, right on the heels of two of his most popular movies – Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) – both of which introduced him to the world as a force to reckon with, Quentin Tarantino made a film called Jackie Brown. An adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s 1992 novel Rum Punch, this film is Tarantino’s homage to the blaxploitation films of the 70s, and many critics consider Jackie Brown to be the best movie in Tarantino’s filmography. However not many people know about this film, and it remains, to date, Tarantino’s most criminally underrated film.
Jackie Brown is a 44-year-old African-American flight stewardess working for a cheap Mexican Airline. Owing to a criminal record in the past, she has had to accept the only raw deal of a job offer she has got, with a meagre salary and no retirement benefits. To make ends meet, Jackie has been smuggling money from Mexico into the United States for a black-market weapons dealer named Ordell Robbie. On one such trip, when she is apprehended by the police, Robbie bails him out with the help of a seasoned but jaded bail bondsman named Max Cherry. But despite having done so, Robbie begins to suspect that Jackie may have struck a deal with the cops, who might be using her to get to him. Robbie decides to silence Jackie, but she turns out to be too clever for him.
While Jackie Brown has most of the characteristic traits of a Quentin Tarantino film, there is one thing about it which sets it apart – and which is also perhaps why the film never got its due. Unlike most of Tarantino’s other films, Jackie Brown does not make use of fantastic stylizations. There are no ultraviolent action sequences, no long-winding dialogues that sound more like poetry than like film dialogue, no rambunctiously dramatic character introductions. On the contrary, it harks back to an era of noir films, where the constant flux of relationships between characters guide the plot forward, and not the other way around. What’s more, Tarantino spends an uncharacteristic amount of time to establish the relationship between his characters. After such contrastingly different films as Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs that came to ‘define’ Tarantino’s filmmaking style, the audiences perhaps could not reconcile with this new creative side to him. The closest he ever came to doing something similar was The Hateful Eight (2015), but that film too had exotic locations and massive mounting to fit his most commonly accepted style. And this is tragic, in the sense that the lukewarm response to Jackie Brown permanently shut out an entirely different Tarantino to us.
Tarantino brought veteran African-American actress Pam Grier out of obscurity and cast her as Jackie Brown. That he did it purely for his love of blaxploitation films which he had grown up watching as a kid is evident from the fact that in the original novel, the character was not black. Tarantino even borrowed from the title of Grier’s cult-classic blax film Foxy Brown (1974), whereas the original character was named Jackie Burke.
Tarantino brought veteran African-American actress Pam Grier out of obscurity and cast her as Jackie Brown. That he did it purely for his love of blaxploitation films which he had grown up watching as a kid is evident from the fact that in the original novel, the character was not black. Tarantino even borrowed from the title of Grier’s cult-classic blax film Foxy Brown (1974), whereas the original character was named Jackie Burke. These are small and yet effective ways in which Tarantino makes race an important element of his commentary – by making a statement on how prejudices originating from skin colour may force a helpless aging woman to fend for herself. When everyone tries to take advantage of her, this middle-aged black woman refuses to cower down and pulls the perfect stunt to walk away into the sunset. This is a steady theme that Tarantino has revisited in his later films, including Django Unchained.
The other remarkable thing about Jackie Brown is the way it draws us into the narrative. Right from the opening scene, where we see Jackie moving down an airport travellator as the tune of Bobby Womack’s ‘Across the 110th Street’ sets the mood, pace, setting and the ghetto-survival message of the film, we are hooked. The performances themselves are top-notch – be it Samuel Jackson as the merciless Ordell Robbie, or Robert De Niro in one of his most underappreciated roles as Louis Gara – Robbie’s former cellmate and reticent friend. Bridget Fonda plays Melanie – Robbie’s perpetually irritating girlfriend – like the role was written for her. But perhaps the best of the lot comes from Robert Forster, who puts up a nuanced and muted performance as the aged bondsman Max Cherry who gets caught in a series of cons and tricks against both sides of the law merely because he is lonely. Coming out of a long and hopeless career slump, Forster’s performance went on to earn him a nomination for the award for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars that year.
It only takes a mind stripped of preconceived notions to enjoy Jackie Brown – notions such as the one that dictate that a specific filmmaker can only make a specific kind of movies. One can only wish that the film would have found a more far reaching appeal. Perhaps then, we would have been able to understand the true potential of this remarkable filmmaker. Because thirty years on, as he advances closer and closer to his much debated and self-proclaimed retirement from filmmaking, it almost feels like Quentin Tarantino has just begun.