Jackie Brown Programme Notes

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Spoiler warning: these notes are best read after viewing the film. They contain discussion of plot and character details.

Long time unorthodox filmmaker Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown celebrates its 25th anniversary as one of the more suave crime thrillers to hit the box office at the height of the millennium. The film focuses on completely overturning the common narratives behind the classical dynamics of heist films. Starring Pam Grier, the opening portrays her atypical role as a middle-aged air hostess-with-the-mostest strutting through the baggage claim at LAX, as the gritty single ‘110th Street’ by Bobby Wormack plays. It sets a tone of resilience, peppered into the lyrics ‘you got to be strong if you want to survive’, that immediately sets us up to root for Jackie with all the unconventional underdog references. Flight attendants have traditionally been held to scrupulous standards and strict guidelines based on attractiveness among other sexist eligibility criteria and Jackie's character is confined and pressured to subscribe under this power dynamic from the outset.

The airline sector (along with many others) underwent widespread economic deregulation and privatisation in the 1980s, which gave many carriers the power to lower safety and staff pay in order to offer cheaper fares. The Reaganomics changes ultimately led to a tendency for policies that jeopardised the job security and dignity of large numbers of workers, in this case cabin and ground crew, which justified utilising all means required for workers to defend their own interests, including smuggling. In other words, due to the steadily declining pension granted by Cabo Air, Jackie has to do whatever it takes to have enough money to retire on. Upon this hand of cards Jackie is dealt, we root for her as the hero who could pave her own path, coming off as tough, capable of handling herself and having the last word while doing it all.

Ordell, a firearm smuggler on the other hand sits on the opposite end of the spectrum — a ruthless but smooth arms dealer who uses Jackie to smuggle in money he has stowed away in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Both share interests that cross, most prominently doing whatever it takes to secure that decent retirement package that will allow them to find a way out of ‘the game’. One crucial difference is the means of violence that each is willing to use to manipulate the other. Ordell is presented as a streetwise tactician who, from his first scene, depends on others around him to ensure that his operation runs smoothly. In a way both share the same conditioning of precarious work. Ordell, for starters, is shown to have referred to junior gun runner Beaumont Livingstone (played by Chris Tucker) as an ‘employee’ right after he sets him up to be assassinated after Ordell suspects his betrayal following a drunk driving, pistol flaunting escapade. Beaumont is intentionally presented as being afraid of the 10 year sentence he might serve and in a classical prisoner dilemma betrayal move indicates that he’d be willing to take down Ordell to reduce his time. Things do not go down well when Ordell bails him out, another subtle use of the power behind his meagre fortune. It's worth pointing out that Beaumont, to a higher extreme, stands in as a model of many post neoliberal era workers who have non-standardised employment contracts, pay insecurity, and weak employment and social rights against their bosses.

As we follow and get to know Jackie, she is caught in an extremely vulnerable position after she is apprehended by a shady anti narco/police duo played by Michael Keaton as Ray Nicolette and Michael Bowen as Mark Dargus. Jackie is first and correctly suspected of smuggling money from Cabo tied to Ordell, given her criminal record figuratively and literally aired out. Authorities like Ray and Dargus use a variety of pressure tactics, often preying on racial prejudices, to compel confessions from detainees. It is telling how miniscule representations of the lived realities of institutional racism emerge through the interrogation scene, which remains unchanged to this day. With the United States having over 20% of the world’s prison population (roughly 20 million people), a majority are of Black descent[1]. Due to procedural errors and inaccurate information, oftentimes at the initial point of contact, a disproportionate number of persons have been wrongfully convicted; this is what causes Jackie to become hyper-vigilant as soon as she is stopped and questioned. Tarantino is no stranger to capturing many different interrogation scenes. For example, the interrogation of Bridget von Hammersmark in Inglorious Bastards (2009) is notably different from Jackie’s; however, the common thread is that of two renegades who refuse to budge to the predominantly towering white male characters, presented through certain angles and shot choices to reflect their power. Jackie tips the scales in her favour over the course of the film by ultimately taking matters into her own hands, using the very same leverage Ordell and the feds attempt to use on her.

Ordell’s eventual downfall occurs as the ego-driven patriarch's small-time crime syndicate is suspensefully and chaotically dismantled amid rising tempers, betrayals and following a trail of the deaths of all four of his associates. Tarantino threw a spanner in the works of blaxploitation film by rewiring the traditional stereotypes of the Black community cast with sinister roles from the 1970s. He instead intuitively grounds personal narratives through representing race, class, power, and resistance of women. We get to see Sherronda, and Simone, two of Ordell’s safe house caretakers, no longer dependent on his money when Jackie's heist ultimately works.

Reflecting upon the politics and culture of the era, the storyline puts viewers in the front seat of taking on traditional figures of authority and places power back in the hands of underpaid workers with odds stacked up against them. Making history for the evolution of how the Black experience was portrayed, Jackie Brown gives us just cause to fight an unjust system.

Daniel Mwangi
16 September 2022

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[1] American Civil Liberties Union. 2019. We Can Cut Mass Incarceration by 50 Percent https://www.aclu.org/news/smar...

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