Heroes of Cult

Heroes of Cult: Pam Grier

Perhaps the foremost icon of the Blaxploitation era, Pamela Suzette “Pam” Grier began her film career in the early 1970s and quickly came to represent a new female cinematic archetype: sexy, strong, and perpetually willing to whoop some bad-guy ass.  She made her debut in Russ Meyer’s cult classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. While attending college and working at American International Pictures, Grier caught the eye of B-movie maven Roger Corman.

Corman was looking for an in-your-face, radical kind of natural actress who hadn’t been pampered and frosted with wigs and blue eye-shadow. He paired her with writer-director Jack Hill for a series of popular action movies, The Big Bird Cage (1972), Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974) and Sheba Baby (1975). Grier specialised in big, bold, assertive women, and was advertised in the trailer for Coffy as the “baddest one-chick hit-squad that ever hit town!”

UNITED STATES - CIRCA 1970:  Mid 1970s, California, Los Angeles, Pam Grier.  (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

UNITED STATES – CIRCA 1970: Mid 1970s, California, Los Angeles, Pam Grier. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

In his review of Coffy, critic Roger Ebert praised the film for its believable female lead. He noted that Grier was an actress of “beautiful face and astonishing form” and that she possessed a kind of “physical life” missing from many other attractive actresses. Filled with the sexual and violent elements typical of the genre, Coffy was a box-office hit. Grier was noted as the first African-American female to headline an action film, as protagonists of previous Blaxploitation films were males.

When the Blaxploitation boom ended, many of its key players were left scrambling for work, but Pam Grier worked regularly in theatre, television, and film, forming long-term work relationships with filmmakers like John Carpenter and Andrew Davis. She acquired progressively larger character roles in the 1980s, including a drug-taking prostitute in Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981), a witch in Something Wicked this Way Comes (1983), and Steven Seagal’s detective partner in Above the Law (1988). She had a recurring role on Miami Vice from 1985 to 1989 and made guest appearances on Martin, Night Court and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. She had a recurring role in the TV series Crime Story between 1986 and 1988. She appeared on Sinbad, Preston Chronicles, The Cosby Show, The Wayans Brothers Show, and Mad TV. In 1994, Grier memorably appeared in Snoop Dogg’s video for “Doggy Dogg World”.

More recently Pam is most easily identified with her lead role in Jackie Brown, Quentin Tarantino’s follow-up to Pulp Fiction. Grier won considerable accolades for the role, including Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations for Best Actress. Jackie Brown alludes to Grier’s career in many ways. The film’s poster resembles those of Grier’s films Coffy and Foxy Brown and includes quotes from both films. The typeface for the film’s opening titles was also used for those of Foxy Brown; some of the background music is lifted from these films.

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The film’s opening sequence is similar to that of The Graduate, in which Dustin Hoffman passes wearily through Los Angeles International Airport past white tiles to a somber “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel. In Jackie Brown, Grier glides by blue tiles in the same spot on a moving sidewalk in the same direction to a soaring soul music song, “Across 110th Street” by Bobby Womack, which is from the film of the same name that was a part of the same basic “Blaxploitation” genre as that of Foxy Brown and Coffy.

The screenplay to Jackie Brown was undoubtedly influenced by Grier’s previous work, but Jackie Brown is not a Blaxploitation film. In its essence Jackie Brown is about getting old. All of Jackie’s motivations spring from the fact that starting over will soon become impossible for her. That the options available to a middle-aged, lower income level, black woman in modern America are severely limited. Tarantino shows an amazing prowess for getting into the head of this woman. His sensitive direction coupled with Pam Grier’s top-notch performance combine to make Jackie Brown one of the most compelling and honest female characters to hit the movie screen.

In the late 1990s, Grier was a cast member of the Showtime series Linc’s. She appeared in 1996 in John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A that also partly paid homage to her ’70s Blaxploitation movies.  Since then, she’s appeared in films like Ghosts of Mars, 3 A.M., Holy Smoke, and Bones. Grier appeared on Showtime’s The L Word, in which she played Kit Porter. The series ran for six seasons and ended in March 2009. Grier occasionally guest-stars in such television series as Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (where she is a recurring character).

In 2010, Grier began appearing in a recurring role on the hit science fiction series Smallville as the villain Amanda Waller, also known as White Queen, head agent of Checkmate, a covert operations agency. She recently appeared as a friend and colleague to Julia Roberts’ college professor in Larry Crowne. She also received an Emmy Award nomination for her work in the animated program Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child.

In 2010, Grier wrote her memoir, Foxy: My Life in Three Acts, with Andrea Cagan and received her Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in 2011. That same year, she received an Honorary Doctorate of Science from Langston University.  She has also started the Pam Grier Community Garden and Education Centre which welcomes residents of all ages, cultures and backgrounds to learn gardening skills and become stewards of equitably distributed plots of land to grow organic vegetables, fruits and flowers.

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Pam Grier was influential in establishing that African American nudity, Afro hairstyles, and big sunglasses were stylish and attractive. At the time she was heavily critiqued for removing her clothes and supporting violence on screen but was unafraid to take artistic risks in her work. Touted as cinema’s first female action star, her influence can be seen in the agency and drive of female action heroes from Kill Bill’s The Bride to Imperator Furiosa of Mad Max: Fury Road. As one film producer put it, “She exists in the American imagination in a way that is permanent. She represents a self-reliant, dynamic female figure that doesn’t have to forgo femininity for potency, for militant power.” Grier has said that her philosophy is to pour her all into every character regardless of the size of the role or the overall tenor of the film—a lesson she learned by reading about the famed Russian theatre director Constantin Stanislavski. “He said there’s no such thing as a small role, there’s no such thing as a small heart,” she recalls. “He said I should approach any role as if it’s my life, and that’s what I did.”

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