When you think of influential directors of the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino jumps to the top of many people’s lists. He exploded onto the scene with his feature debut, Reservoir Dogs, and then completely reshaped how audiences experienced film in his follow-up, Pulp Fiction, which is widely considered a masterpiece. For this third film, Jackie Brown, Tarantino flips the script by adapting the novel Rum Punch and paying homage to the blaxploitation movies of the 1970s, shifting perspective towards a Black middle-aged working woman as his protagonist. Pam Grier plays the titular role and is joined by fellow acting heavyweights Robert Forster, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, and Michael Keaton.


Pam Grier, who made a name for herself in hit blaxploitation films such as Foxy Brown and Coffy, stars as Jackie Brown, a flight attendant who smuggles money for a gun runner. Once she gets caught with cocaine and arrested, she comes up with a plan to double-cross the agents who arrested her and the gun runner she works for with the help of a bondsman. It’s significant that Tarantino chose Grier as the lead, who carries each of her scenes with charism and control. As the agents and Ordell play their games against each other, it’s Jackie that holds all the cards and gets to walk away the true victor in the end. Grier’s performance in Jackie Brown helped revitalize her career and earned her a SAG Award nomination.

Starring alongside Pam Grier, Robert Forster brings a gravitas as Max Cherry, the bondsman that befriends Jackie and works with her. The way he’s able to communicate emotion with just a look earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Meanwhile, Samuel L. Jackson’s Ordell Robbie is one of the funniest and flashiest characters he’s portrayed in a Tarantino film. His loud performance highlights how despite his best efforts, he grapples with maintaining control and handling loose ends in a way that’s magnetizing. Ordell Robbie is more intimidating than Jules Winnfield.

Pam Grier and Robert Forster in Jackie Brown (1997)
Image via Miramax Films

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The story itself is a slow burn, heavily relying on the performances to keep audiences intrigued as it moves toward the climactic money exchange. Though Jackie Brown has more of a traditional narrative than his previous work, Pulp Fiction, Tarantino still utilizes creative techniques that allow narrative reveals to make more of an impact. For instance, the final money swap is shown from three different perspectives, which peels back how Jackie and Max are able to pull one over on both Nicolette, played by Michael Keaton, and Ordell. It’s a clever reveal, but in some ways, it feels like a step-down from the innovation of tap dancing with the timeline in Pulp Fiction.

What drives this story more than anything is the budding romance between Jackie and Max. From the second he sees her and “Natural High” by Bloodstone plays non-diegetically, Max is taken with Jackie even after spending time in jail. The genuine bond that forms between them is one of respect and admiration. Grier and Forster convey the desire building between them yet the loss that comes from their farewell at the end of the film. After Ordell is killed and she walks away with the money, Jackie decides to take the money and take a trip to Madrid. Though Max confides in her that he was ready to retire from the bail bonds life, he remains there, unable to go with her. Their farewell is tinged with angst and the “would’ve, could’ve, should’ve beens.”

For a film that was released in the late 1990s, Jackie Brown holds up relatively well. Once again, it’s a crime story set in Los Angeles, filled with references to the OJ Simpson trial, the most-watched TV series of the 1990s. What hasn’t aged well is the beginning of Tarantino’s overuse of the “n-word,” something he did receive criticism over when the film was initially released. Instead of coming across as authentic to Ordell’s vocabulary, it comes across more gratuitous than necessary.

Robert De Niro and Samuel L. Jackson in Jackie Brown (1997)
Image via Miramax Films

Something else that seems to fall short in Jackie Brown is the portrayal of Ordell’s network of women. Melanie, played by Bridget Fonda, is seen as an immature, mistrustful girl throwing a temper tantrum every chance she gets; her only goals seem to be getting high and trying to recruit Louis, played by Robert De Niro, to betray his partner. Sheronda, played by LisaGay Hamilton, is one of Ordell’s girlfriends new to Los Angeles, only to be taken advantage of by this man. Even Jackie herself, the protagonist who ends the movie with complete autonomy, is still treated like a pawn between the agents and Ordell. Jackie Brown fails to be as empowering as the film thinks it is.

Something Quentin Tarantino does continue to do well with in Jackie Brown is the film’s soundtrack. He has a great ear when it comes to crafting his soundtracks, and Jackie Brown is no exception. Trading out rock music for soul and R&B allows Jackie Brown to stand out. Artists like Randy Crawford, The Delfonics, and Bobby Womack and Peace infuse the film with sultry, smooth sounds. In particular, The Defonics’ “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” acts as a leitmotif for Jackie, as Max sees her and his affection for her grows. Plus, the film features Pam Grier’s own song, “Long Time Woman,” from her film The Big Doll House.

In Tarantino’s filmography, Jackie Brown usually finds itself overlooked and lost in the shuffle. Despite being one of his more mature films, it relies less on the violent action he’s come to be known for. However, the performances are as juicy as his dialogue, even showing off new sides to actors we’ve known for years; for instance, De Niro plays the pot-loving partner-in-crime that plays a more subtle role than we’ve seen from him. Anchored by these performances and an endearing love story, Jackie Brown stands out from his filmography and is worthy of appreciation.

Grade: B+

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