To say that the news of Robert Forster’s death saddened me today would really understate things. He’s held a special place in my heart since I saw Jackie Brown as a particularly earnest ninth-grader who couldn’t wait to see the newest Quentin Tarantino movie, but despite his lengthy resume, I haven’t actually watched all that many of the movies or TV episodes he’d been in. As a result, the sensitive bail bondsman with a normie dad aspect is how he’s been preserved in my mind for more than twenty years now. I had been meaning to watch Jackie Brown again for a stupidly long time. Earlier this summer, I bought and read Rum Punch, the Elmore Leonard novel that it’s based on, and was struck by how thin the longer treatment of the characters felt compared to how I remembered the movie. (And I’m an Elmore Leonard fan too, for what that’s worth.) Then it was back to planning to watch Jackie Brown… until the news today.
Watching it confirmed my memories that this is one of my favorite movies of all time — the camera work, the pacing, and the acting are all amazing. As a portrait of nuanced characters, it is phenomenal — each character is part of a system, no character is all good or bad, and the movie manages to avoid a wishy-washy moral relativism that lesser films might fall into. Tarantino telegraphs the sexism of the law enforcement agents in two sentences, and echoes themes about the structural racism of law enforcement from Spike Lee and John Singleton’s work earlier in the 90s in a way that resonates today. Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Ordell Robbie, is an arms dealer, so there’s an added topicality to his discussions about demand for the different types of guns he is able to sell; while Ordell relays this information, Tarantino’s ‘Chicks with Guns’ movie, a feature in a feature that logically enough features women in bikinis shooting pistols and other semi-automatics in what looks like Nevada, plays on a small-by-2019-standards TV in the background.
And the other period details are lovely. A key plot piece takes place at a mall, where Forster’s character Max Cherry seems to routinely watch movies during his lunch break, Sears is one of the anchor stores, and the prices recited sound … really low. The amazing suit Pam Grier’s Jackie buys — which set in my 14 year old mind what I hoped I would one day dress like — is only $267? Fridges are small, cigarettes are everywhere, and key-less entry puzzles the newly released from prison character played by Robert Deniro. CDs and cassette tapes! The music in the movie is incredible, and the motif of Max listening to the Delfonics as his relationship with Jackie (and crush on her) deepens is chef’s kiss perfect. And oh, the Kangol hats. Yet despite the setting clearly being the mid-90s, the movie doesn’t feel dated, and I don’t think that’s just because norm-core brought Teva sandals with socks back into vogue.
Pam Grier and Robert Forster are magnetic; my crush on both from this movie is apparently undimmed, decades later. What passed me by as a high-school student was the vulnerability both evince in their discussions about age and the passage of time. This elegiac quality is present in the novel, but all of the characters seemed to be cliches: the Max of the novel is quiet, but tough and paternalistic; Jackie is effervescent, deftly manipulative, and very, very capable; Ordell is funny, but mercenary and cruel. Tarantino allows the actors to telegraph their insecurity and uncertainty in ways that heighten the poignancy of the story and increase the impact of the last few scenes. (And Jackson should have won an Oscar for this role. I’m just saying.)
Tarantino improves upon the book in other ways, too. Foremost is his decision to make Jackie Brown black. The stakes rise for Jackie in the movie, thanks to the institutional racism of the labor market and the justice system: her precarity in the opening scenes of the movie in which she is entrapped by the agents tracking Robbie thanks to a surprise inclusion of cocaine in the package of cash she is smuggling, the plausible charge of ‘intent to distribute’ from what looks like a really small sample (I’ll take Robbie’s word for it), and the challenge of finding a good job as a middle-aged black woman with a criminal record highlight the persistent and intersectional vulnerabilities that define many American experiences.
Though seemingly small, his decision for Jackie to buy a black pantsuit is also an improvement over the Leonard’s decision for her to buy some sort of mermaid skirt combo. A skirt suit is hard to run in — Tarantino shows us that in the opening scene of the film where Jackie rushes to make her gate on time — and undercuts the idea that she’s handy and practical. Tarantino’s wardrobe change also echoes the suits his male principals — Travolta, Jackson, and Keitel in Pulp Fiction, all the Mr.’s in Reservoir Dogs — wore as they went about their work. Jackie works non-stop through this movie; her ‘badass in the boardroom’ suit (a line I have loved since the first time I watched this) gives her the sartorial respect she deserves. (For a lovely exegesis on this particular suit, you ought to read this by Manuela Lazic. It delighted me, and I hope you feel the same way.)
Finally, Jackie and Max do not consummate their relationship in the movie! I can’t overstate this. Forster telegraphs Max’s longing in ways that will make you feel feelings; as we observe Jackie’s affection for him grow, the tension builds until the second to last scene, when they meet one last time. Jackie has the $500,000 that fueled the suspense of most of the movie and she’s about to leave town; Max took only the 10% cut owed a bail bondsman, and he still feels guilty about it. Jackie walks slowly toward Max, takes his hands, and they kiss four times. It’s unbearably chaste, and it broke my heart. His phone rings, and while he’s trying to calm a frantic parent down to learn the details, Jackie slips out the door. His gentle request to call the customer back in 30 minutes, the red lipstick on his mouth as he gazes at Jackie’s departing car, and his slow walk into his backroom are devastating, and I challenge you not to tear up as Jackie turns up Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th St” on her way to the airport.
For the time being, I’m content to sit with this as my lasting impression of Robert Forster. And I don’t think I’ll wait such a long time to watch Jackie Brown again. It’s a really good movie.