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Photo: ‘Jackie Brown’
‘Jackie Brown’ was, to say the least, an unexpected follow-up to the epochal ‘Pulp Fiction’. The seedy, low-level crime narrative that unfolds in this Elmore Leonard adaptation, moves at a slower, breezier rhythm than any other Quentin Tarantino offering, save perhaps 2019’s ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’. The story of a middle-aged flight attendant fighting for her life in order to outfox a cunning, unpredictable mid-level gun runner, and evade incrimination from a tremendously suspicious pair of police detectives, all while grappling with what it means to be an aging woman of color caught in a desperate financial fix, makes this Tarantino’s most intimate character piece to date.
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A Sense of Time and Place
Tarantino categorizes ‘Jackie Brown’ as a “hangout movie”. Meaning that the movie is primarily concerned with character, above all else. Therefore, its appeal doesn’t come down to a predictably propulsive plot littered with cinematic set pieces, but instead is defined by a vast amount of highly-specific stylistic choices made by Tarantino, and executed by his cast and crew respectively. The world that ‘Jackie Brown’ takes place in is utterly distinct. The costuming is uniformly fantastic, (Samuel L. Jackson’s perpetually Kangol-topped Ordell Robbie being a standout in that department). The look of each character’s silhouette was carefully considered, which helps to build a genuine sense of interiority and alludes to the rich literary backstories that they all possess. The film also belongs to a long tradition of Los Angeles set movies, whose stories could take place nowhere else but the city of angels. The filming locations, all of which are scattered across Los Angeles’s South Bay, are seldom utilized by any other L.A.-based stories.
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The movie was shot by frequent Guillermo del Toro collaborator and world-renowned cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, who lays a dusty, glowing warmth onto the interior scenes, and a twinkly, dreamlike haze to the nighttime exteriors. The production design of every interior is meticulously considered. Each location, like Jackie’s cozy but unremarkable Torrance apartment, Ordell’s shaggy beachside condo nestled on Hermosa Beach neighborhood, or the still functioning and essentially unchanged Del Amo Mall, carries such a sense of balance between bold stylization and grounded verisimilitude. The unique settings, and the style in which they are photographed, all coalesce and work to imbue this movie with an almost unrivaled sense of time and place.
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The Sounds of Soul
One of the truly indelible aspects of the film, aside from its unmistakable sense of mise-en-scene, is its immaculately groovy soundtrack. The iconic opening tracking shot (a direct allusion to ‘The Graduate’) set to Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” showcases one the finest examples of Tarantino’s impeccable ability to pair a striking piece of imagery with an expertly selected, unexpected piece of music, and amplifying the power of both elements. The soundtrack rarely strays from classic 70s Soul, Motown, and R&B records. From the Meters to the Supremes, to the use of instrumental music from previous Pam Grier vehicles like Roy Ayers’ effortlessly cool score for Coffy. The needle drops, several of which are purposefully diegetic, range from soothing, to ominous, to genuinely romantic. The songs are so carefully chosen, and tonally calibrated for the exact moment in which they arise, that it is nigh impossible to hear any tune from the soundtrack outside the context of the movie itself, and not immediately get drawn back into this world with these characters. In a filmography that boasts numerous classic soundtracks, ‘Jackie Brown’ may be Tarantino’s single best collection of music compiled for any of his films.
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Adaptation of Elmore Leonard
Perhaps the thing that separates ‘Jackie Brown’ the most from the rest of the Tarantino filmography, is that it is his only work of genuine adaptation. In case you weren’t aware, ‘Jackie Brown’ is actually based on legendary crime novelist Elmore Leonard’s 1992 novel, ‘Rum Punch’. Tarantino frequently cites Leonard’s celebrated catalog of crime novels and westerns as a prevailing influence across his own work. Adapting Leonard’s trademark style of characterization and dialogue allows Tarantino to lean on some of his lesser-utilized tones –namely a warmer, more mature sense of character and narrative pacing. Leonard created all the characters, Tarantino interpreted them in his instantly recognizable style, and the stacked cast of nuanced performers brought them all to life. On the subject of nuanced characterization, Robert de Niro is unsettlingly spaced out as the recently released, once-respected petty criminal Louis Gara.
His hysterically deadpan, punch-drunk menace adds tremendously to his scenes alongside Samuel L Jackson and the exasperating Bridget Fonda. Adapting Leonard also plays to Tarantino’s facility as a writer composing hilarious, deeply specific pop-culture-infused dialogue, and at times, unleashing a series of stunningly unpredictable, darkly humorous plot twists. The lengthy dialogue scene between Beaumont Livingston, (played brilliantly by Chris Tucker) and Ordell is in the running for the funniest scene that Tarantino has ever written. This sequence itself, which culminates in a chilling Hitchcockian nocturnal murder, doubles as one of the finest literary dialogue exchanges, and one of the most cinematic accomplishments, of his entire career.
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What Pam Grier Represents As A Cinematic Icon
In the screenplay for ‘Reservoir Dogs’, there is a section in which Tarantino dedicates the script to a short list of artists that inspired him while writing it. On a list of a dozen names, Tarantino included 70s Blaxploitation icon Pam Grier. And ultimately, the act of centering the look, feel, and sensibility of the story around her remarkable essence, is the movie’s defining stroke of genius. Every aspect of the writing, directing, casting, and production design stems from a palpable sense of love and empathy that the film, and thus Tarantino, feels for Grier and what she represents as a jaw-dropping, shotgun-toting, grindhouse icon. But what makes it special is the way that the movie doesn’t just rely on her legacy as a highly sexualized female action-hero, but in the end allows her leading performance to positively transcend that facile categorization.
We see her go head to head with the likes of Robert De Niro, Samuel L. Jackson, and fellow 70s independent film star Robert Forster, who received an Oscar nomination for his wonderfully nuanced work in this movie. The movie is so lovingly filled with small referential details to the films and genres that inspired it. Even the decision to cast a lesser know character actor like Sid Haig (who appeared in numerous classic Blaxploitation films) as the judge who sentences Jackie to ninety-nine days behind bars, is a choice that is indicative of the lengths that Tarantino goes to in his work, and in ‘Jackie Brown’ in particular, to pay homage to the minutiae of his beloved influences.
This year will be the twenty-fifth anniversary of ‘Jackie Brown’. Nearly a quarter century later, the film is still offering fans the opportunity to unearth new layers of character, recognize previously unseen filmic allusions to cinematic history, appreciate a different line of the hilariously written and delivered dialogue, and resonate with a story that follows a person of a certain age, skin color, and economic status that is still woefully underrepresented in most movies and television to this day. So as Jackie would say “Shut your raggedy-ass up, and sit the f**ck down!”. Then watch ‘Jackie Brown’ if you haven’t already!
Director: Quentin Tarantino
By Dillon Goss-Carpenter
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Dillon is a writer, and a lover of storytelling and creativity across all mediums. He studied Film and Digital Media at UC Santa Cruz, where he became a voracious consumer and ponderer of the creative arts. He has a background in screenwriting, as well as freelance film theory and pop culture journalism. Dillon connected to the inclusive, empowering mission statement of The Hollywood Insider, because of his shared belief in the power of storytelling, and its facility to engender empathy and understanding, as well as entertain. He believes in finding joy and purpose through making, watching, discussing, and dissecting the diverse collection of creative media that inspires him. He has particular interest in stories that come from largely unheard, historically excluded perspectives.