Beyond badass: The female action heroes being celebrated at TIFF Bell Lightbox this month

female action heroes
Photography courtesy of Warner Bros.

This past summer, theatre-goers came in droves to see Charlize Theron – shaved head, engine oil eyeliner, amputee arm and all – as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road. Her iconic portrayal of a sex slave-turned-resistance fighter illustrated that audiences are finally ready to see women go to war, with Tom Hardy’s near-silent partner in tow. But Furiosa is merely one in long line of mad-as-hell action heroines with a serious axe to grind.

This fall starting October 1st, the TIFF Bell Lightbox is programming a series called Beyond Badass: Female Action Heroes, which traces the long legacy of kickass feminist heroes in film. From Pam Grier’s Foxy Brown to Uma Thurman’s Bride to the hottie trifecta in Charlie’s Angels, these screenings by emerging Toronto film curator Kiva Reardon (a serious badass herself), aims to “let us revel in the power of female physicality and the spectacle of women taking charge.”

On October 1st, Grier will introduce Jackie Brown herself, Quentin Tarantino’s incredible homage to the 70’s blacksploitation icon. This loose adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch was an incredible comeback for the actress who plays a stewardess hoping to make off with a big score stolen from her gunrunner boss (played by Samuel L. Jackson.) Everything about Grier’s performance is eternally cool, confident and heartbreaking, especially her surprising relationship with her bail bondsman, played by then-70’s character actor Robert Foster, in what might be one of the best romances of all time. From the backwards Kangol hats to her simple black pantsuit to that cerulean flight attendant uniform, the film is full of incredible fashion styling that makes the most of Grier’s mature beauty.

Grier will also be in attendance on October 2nd for screenings of her 70’s Blaxploitation films Coffey and Foxy Brown, which paved the way for audiences to see women of colour as more than just disposable eye candy. Without Pam Grier, there would be no video for Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” or Beyoncé’s winning turn as Foxy Cleopatra in Austin Powers 3: Goldmember. Her incredible wardrobe – giant hoop earrings, western button-downs tied at the waist, relaxed hair styled proudly in an afro – also signified that African American women could own their sexuality and take down their oppressors, all while being powerful and cool as hell.

In the ’80s, the female action heroine shifted towards muscular hard bodies, estrogen-laden Arnolds with complicated psychologies to match. Sigourney Weaver’s turn as Ripley in Ridley Scott’s Alien (which plays October 4th) showed that the most powerful motivation for interstellar slaughter is protecting your monstrous progeny. Meanwhile, Linda Hamilton’s bulging biceps pack a semi- automatic in James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (October 23rd), all the better for protecting your yet-unborn child from the T-1000 set out to murder him.

Hamilton has never looked cooler than when wearing flip-up shades and a skin-tight tank top, wisps of bangs dampening her flushed cheeks. And while Weaver spends the duration of Alien in a flight suit (she is after all in space where no one can hear you scream), her turn was powerful enough to get her own action figure, toting a machine gun, no less. (Sorry, Princess Leia.) Those looking for an artier action fix can enjoy Luc Besson’s stylish action film, Nikita (which plays October 9th), starring the waifish French actress Anne Parillaud. (This film says you should always point and shoot in a minimalist LBD and matching stilettos.) There’s also Sharon Stone’s icy performance in Sam Raimi’s remake of iconic western The Quick and The Dead (October 29th), revised to have a female gunslinger at the helm simply called “The Lady.”

The final leg of Reardon’s programming focuses on the post-modern action heroine where things got a little wrier. Tarantino’s obsessive love for his muse Uma Thurman created the two-part Kill Bill series (airing in succession October 7th), which must be seen on a big screen to be truly appreciated. This brutally realized spectacle (which is brimming with awesome Halloween costume ideas) is part spaghetti western, part eye-popping anime, and an existential rom-com that can only end in bloodshed. Thurman’s compelling turn in that neon yellow tracksuit created its own gold standard where her sense of combative heartbreak is the ultimate superpower.

From there, you can take in Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (airing November 17th, that braid was her signature way before Katniss Everdeen), Milla Jovovich’s powerful zombie slayer in Resident Evil (November 20th), Zhang Ziyi’s lyrical swordplay in The House of Flying Daggers (November 6th) and former MMA fighter Gina Carano in Stephen Soderburgh’s super underrated espionage thriller Haywire (November 13th). There’s also Lucy Liu, Cameron D and Destiny—sorry, Drew Barrymore—shaking their asses but watching out for Bosley, in the first Charlie’s Angels movie (playing November 3rd), directed by none other than McG. This gleeful action comedy gets points for 2000-era nostalgia but denigrates their heroines as boy-crazy femmes who barely pass the Bechtel test. However, their karate skills are amazing.

The series culminates with Charlize Theron’s Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road on December 3rd, bringing us to our current feminist moment. As action heroines have moved from marginalized black women to video game avatars (and technology and CGI have caught up to join them), the definition of what it means for women to take charge onscreen is changing, too. In an interview with The Guardian, Theron remarked: “Women thrive in being many things. We can be just as dark and light as men. We’re more than just nurturers, more than just breeders, we’re just as conflicted.” See the full spectrum of the female badass this fall at TIFF – and bring your own Kangol hat.