Pam Grier on 'Foxy Brown' and Black Feminism
More than 40 years after the films that launched her career, she is still the ultimate symbol of a strong, sexy Black woman. We talked with the screen siren about her legacy on and off the screen.
On occasion, Pam Grier, foxiest of women in film, meets someone who is unaware of her status as a movie legend—let's just call them "jive turkey."
With a roster of iconic personas spanning across film and TV genres, Grier, 64, says her recognition usually depends on your favorite channel. "Oh, I don't know. Whatever is on that week."
This month, the Redford Theatre will hold a film festival in Grier's honor to celebrate Black History Month and her symbolic portrayals of strong Black women in film. But how exactly did she cross over from B-movies to prominent international icon? It started with this seminal scene:
"It was easy for him, because he really didn't believe it was coming," Grier says as "Nurse Coffin," steadily aiming a sawed-off shotgun. "But it ain't gonna be easy for you, because you better believe it's coming!"
In the opening scenes of Coffy (1973), Grier had already bared her breasts and blew a man's head off. She was a star—followed by equally hard-hitting performances as a gun-toting vigilante in Foxy Brown (1974) and Sheba, Baby (1975). And soon, she was crowned "queen" of Blaxploitation.
"And you know why? (The films) resonated with the fact I attached a political voice to sexuality for women," Grier says.
Blaxploitation, by definition, was the exploiting of Black culture by stereotypes and gratuitous nudity. Women were usually depicted as scantily clad victims. That is, until Grier's portrayal of a woman out for blood turned the tables—and, sometimes, a few chairs. Her characters used self-aware sexuality to further their agendas. And it was making men nervous.
"'Oh no, you need to be working in the kitchen and do what I tell you.' You know, all this crazy stuff. The sexist gender oppression crap," Grier says, mocking the conservative views toward women in the early '70s. Her answer was simple: "In other words, that wasn't gonna happen."
Grier, applauded by notable feminist Gloria Steinem for her defiance of gender stereotypes, became another talking point in a then-rising second-wave feminist movement. After Steinem put her on the cover of Ms. Magazine with the headline "super-sass," her image shed light on Black feminism. Grier says Steinem had great influence on her career and made her a child of the feminist movement. But the first feminist in Grier's life was her grandfather, "Daddy Ray."
"He wanted all the girls to do everything the boys could do. And that made sense. It was equal," says Grier. "And what the (feminist) movement was saying was to be independent on your own. And I realized that is what I was going to have to do, no matter what trauma went on in my life. Women could still survive and they must have independence and not be co-dependent, which is what society was teaching women to be."
As for her take on the independent woman, she modeled many of her roles after the narratives of her family.
"My mom was 'Coffy.' My aunt was 'Foxy Brown,'" says Grier. "We were just developing an audience. And some women would be afraid. Some women would cheer. A lot of men were afraid I was telling women to castrate them and wear the pants and take over. And I wasn't."
Grier continues, "Some men thought that women were stepping into men's shoes. No, they weren't. A women can still wear her high heels and still fix the plumbing."
Strong roles for women
During the '80s and '90s, leading film roles were mostly given to the male action stars, such as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. So Grier focused on theater and bit TV parts, refusing to play the victimized roles that were being offered. Then she scored another hit in the title role in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown (1997).
"There wasn't strong roles written for women, because women went to see men in movies. They didn't go to see women. They went to fantasize about their heroes and who would come sweep them off their feet on a white stallion. And well, I said, with Jackie Brown, 'In case he doesn't show up, you better be able to do on your own.'"
Grier says she still has the same do-it-on-your-own attitude that has kept her "foxy" for years. But when she hears that term, she doesn't think of her movie persona.
She thinks: "Jimmy Hendrix!" Grier says, singing the song "Foxy Lady"—"You a heartbreaker!" And her fellow foxy women: "All the women who give me ideas. 'Hey I tried. I fell a few times, but I did it.' That's foxy, you know? Foxy is not being perfect, it's just being human."
Her 'foxiest' film moments
Before starting one of the most epic girl-on-girl throw downs in film history, Coffy gives herself a dangerous do by loading her coif with razor blades. After the brawl, the drug lord is love-struck and calls her a "wild animal."
'I Want You to Suffer'
Foxy Brown (1974)
Foxy shoots "Miss Katherine" in the arm, and the villainess begs Foxy to finish the job. To which she coldly responds, "I want you to suffer."
'Is That What I Think It Is?'
Jackie Brown (1997)
After turning out the lights to strangle Jackie, Ordell (played by Samuel L. Jackson) feels the cold metal of a gun between his legs. He says, "Is that what I think it is?"