Crossing 110th Street: The Journey of Jackie Brown

The camera tracks protagonist, Jackie Brown, as she glides down the moving sidewalk in the LAX. Brown is a woman in her mid-forties whose criminal record inhibits her from maintaining a stable job in a prestigious airline. Brown now works for a small, hispanic airline while smuggling money for her friend, Ordell Robbie, on the side. From the outside, Brown appears well put together and professional; however, her past forces her to live paycheck to paycheck as she continues to do the work that sent her life in a downward spiral.

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The moment that Jackie Brown’s body comes fully onto the screen, Bobby Womack’s lyrics to “Across 110th Street” cut into the instrumental music that had begun as the first shot faded in. The lyrics paint a picture of a man who was raised off of 110th street in the ghettos of Harlem. He struggled to survive each day and fought for a way to get out and break free of the future that his heritage had in place for him. He dreamed of one day crossing over this street to experience the beauty of Central Park for himself. These lyrics overlapping the visual of Jackie Brown foreshadow her similar struggle she must combat within herself.

This first scene allows the viewer to see into Brown’s background and in a way set the baseline from which her story begins. Her outward appearance seems to be that of someone who is in control and has everything together; her hair is perfectly in place and her makeup appears fresh and clean. The badge around her neck and patch on her arm imply that she is in a position of authority, no matter how small. She walks through the airport with the poise and confidence of a woman who is in control and demands respect. This portrayal of Brown allows the viewer to identify her as the movie’s “good guy” who is likely to face an altercation in the film.

The lyrics of “Across 110th Street”, however, contradict the strong facade that Brown has put on. The words imply that Brown may be facing an obstacle equivalent to escaping the bonds of the ghetto. Following an extended cut away, the viewer learns that Brown was caught smuggling money across the border for her employer, Ordell Robbie. Not only has one of Robbie’s other employees blown her cover, the client who gave her the smuggled money slipped in a bag of cocaine. The police arrested Brown for possession of narcotics with the intention of sales. By revealing this information, Tarantino is able to reveal the truth behind Brown’s confident exterior and identify how Brown is in a sort of ghetto that Bobby Womack’s song references.

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Jackie Brown has now become a refection of the first line of the opening song’s lyrics- “Across 110th Street, pimps trying to catch a woman that’s weak” (Womack). The protagonist’s strength has now diminished as she was manipulated by the man who was in control of her. She is now faced with a decision to remain faithful to Robbie’s orders or rebel and expose him as the instigator. This decision marks the moment Brown must decide whether she want to make one last attempt to “cross 110th Street” and escape the boundaries that Robbie has put into place.

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Brown’s actions reflect a mindset similar to the one that the lyrics above reflect. While on bail, Robbie comes to Brown’s house to kill her before she has an opportunity to rat him out. The tension builds as the lights cut out and a shot of the two character’s silhouette forces the viewer to rely strongly on the sound effects.

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Brown exhibits a new strength similar to the subject of “110th Street” as she takes control over her oppressor and presses her stolen gun to his genitals. She strategically places her gun as a response to the way that Robbie abused her honor as a woman; in return, Brown places her gun against Robbie’s penis to demonstrate her new dominance over him through her rebellion. This step was the first of many that Brown took to overcome the bonds of Robbie.

Jackie Brown continues this streak of rebellion throughout the remainder of the movie as she tricks both the police and Robbie, leaving her free to walk away with the money. Towards the end of the movie, Brown sets up in the Bail Bonds office waiting for Robbie to come and find his money. As soon as he shows up, she alerts the police that he has a gun and they shoot him down.

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The final shot of this scene is taken from Robbie’s perspective. This low angle is often used to emphasize power or authority. Now that Robbie has been killed, this shot reveals a final confirmation that Brown has successfully triumphed over her oppressor.

Tarantino sums up Jackie Brown’s journey in the final scene by utilizing the same song that played during the opening. “Across 110th Street” begins to fade in as nondiagetic music while Brown is leaving the Bail Bond’s office. The camera snaps to Brown’s face the instant the lyrics cut in, identical to way it did in the opening; however, this shot is now a close up instead of a profile. This cut allows the viewer to focus solely on Brown’s face as she begins her new journey.

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Her face reflects one of satisfaction as she has now fully conquered the theoretical ghetto that she found herself in. Her eyes droop of exhaustion, yet glimmer with hope of things yet to come. The majority of Brown’s lipstick is missing, having been left stained on Max’s lips. This differs greatly from the opening, where her lips were perfectly lined and filled in. Tarantino may have chosen to leave her lips incomplete to reflect the idea that she left a piece of her past behind in California and was on the path to new beginnings.

Another reference to her authority can be found in the car she is driving. Brown shared with Max that after the police confiscated all of Robbie’s belongings, his car was left with the keys and registration inside. She seized this opportunity to exercise her new power over Robbie one final time. She took the final thing on the earth that Robbie had to his name and claimed it as hers. The car also provides the perfect vessel for her to leave behind what she knew in California and drive off to a new start en route to Spain.

As Brown drives away, “Across 110th Street” continues to play nondiagetically over the scene. As the chorus of the song begins to play, Brown begins to mouth the words, implying that the sound is now diegetic. This change in sound creates a seamless fusion between the two parts of the scene and allows the viewer to see Brown’s personal connection with the song. As the chorus continues, she begins to purse her lips and shake her head as if the song is provoking deep emotion within her.

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Brown takes one final, deep breath before the last line of the chorus and exhales in what appears to be a sign of relief. Her shoulders relax and her head stills as the song continues to play. The deep emotion that the song provokes in her may be due to how she affiliates herself with the subject of the song. Now that her pimp has been defeated, she may be breathing a sign of relief that she finally has the opportunity to cross her 110th Street and start a new life free of oppression.

Works Cited

Jackie Brown. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, and Robert Forster. Miramax Films, 1997.

Womack, Bobby, and JJ Johnson, perfs. “Across 110th Street.” Rec. 1972. United Artists, 1972. Vinyl recording.

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