This weekend, TriStar Films is gearing up for its latest summer action flick, Colombiana. Just like other blockbusters, this film promises wall-to-wall action: fast cars, gratuitous fights scenes, obligatory mid-day shoot-outs, and a revenge narrative that promises, “Vengeance is beautiful.”
Although this film feels very familiar (Think Kill Bill meets Traffic), there is one glairing difference: the film’s star is a Black woman.
In Colombiana, Afro-Latina actress Zoe Saldana plays a young woman with a penchant for revenge. After witnessing her parents’ murder when she was just nine-years-old, Cataleya Restrepo (Saldana) grows up to be a ruthless, trained assassin who engages in vigilante-style murders, hoping they will eventually lead to the man who murdered her parents.
From the moment I saw the trailer, I knew I wanted to see the film. Not only because the story looked fairly entertaining, but also because there was something about seeing Saldana—a Black woman—kicking, punching, and shooting her way through the barrios of Bogotá that just felt so badass.
Watching TriStar kick the marketing campaign for Colombiana into overdrive made me wonder where all of the Black female action heroes have gone.
With the exception of Halle Berry’s lackluster performance in Catwoman, and Angela Bassett’s strong showing in Strange Days, I was unable to name a single Black woman who carried a major action film since Pam Grier became the Godmother of all female action heroes in the ‘70s.
Back in the day, during the height of the Blaxploitation film era, you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a badass Black female action star.
Teresa Graves, Tamara Dobson, Jeannie Bell and Pam Grier all karate-chopped their way through the decade playing strong, self-possessed, take-no-shorts women who wouldn’t hesitate to lay you out if you looked at them or their families the wrong way.
Contrary to Stokely Carmichael’s famously sexist “joke” that the only position for women in the civil rights organization SNCC was “prone,” or rather on their backs servicing the men of the movement, female heroines of the Blaxploitation era welded guns, fought “the man,” and looked out for their communities.
Were they sexy? Definitely. But they wielded (or protected) their sexuality as a weapon to get exactly what they wanted.
I remember the first time I saw Tamara Dobson as Cleopatra Jones. I watched intently as she—impeccably dressed, wearing a fly red head wrap, mink scarf, black suit and platform heels—surprised the goons sent to take her out and delivered a very stylish beat down. Jones, a secret agent whose main nemesis was a crazed drug lord, rooted out bad cops, destroyed Turkish poppy fields, and stood up for her friends in the neighborhood. She was gorgeous, fierce, and socially conscious. All things many Black are in real life (sans black belt), but are rarely portrayed on screen.
Role’s like Dobson’s Cleopatra Jones and Pam Grier’s iconic characters, Foxy Brown and Coffy, have been conspicuously absent from films since the Blaxploitation era came to an end.
Certainly actresses like Angela Bassett, Taraji P. Henson, True Blood’s Rutina Wesley, Regina King, Sophie Okonedo, Kerry Washington, Lauren Valez, or Annie Ilonzeh could easily pull off such a role, and yet they haven’t had the chance. The audience for such a film is certainly there. And any film that is expertly shot, acted and marketed can be a hit. But Black women just need another shot at cinematic action glory.
Which brings me back to Colombiana.
Although Saldana is playing a Latina, she is clearly Black. Despite this (or perhaps because she can attract both audiences?) the studio has poured in millions of marketing dollars, appealing to not just Black and Latino audiences, but everyone who loves action films.
This gives me hope. If Colombiana does well at the box office, it could potentially open the door for more action films featuring badass Black women. Because as I gear up to watch Saldana avenge her parents’ death, one thing is painfully clear: it’s been far too long since Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson kicked butt and took names.