Pam Grier: The B word (as in badass)


I miss Kit. Wait, not Kit: Pam Grier. Especially the Pam Grier of the ’70s, in those great blaxploitation flicks like The Big Bird Cage; Coffy; Black Mama, White Mama; and Foxy Brown.

Grier is riveting in those crazy films. From her startling afros to her stunning body to her shooting sprees, she was perfect for the genre — no, she pretty much defined the genre.

“I was one of the actresss who brought it to the screen,” she says, referring to the strong females she played. “I exemplified what was going on all across America.”

And she paid for her art: Some of the movies were filmed in the Philippines, where Grier contracted a tropical disease, lost her hair, lost her sight for a month and very nearly died. The L Word must feel like a cakewalk to her, no matter how tense things get on the set.

If you’re not familiar with blaxpolitation, you’re missing a fascinating world. As Axiom explains,

[Blaxploitation films] were, for the most part, produced by black filmmakers, with black casts and crews, for a black audience, much like early “race” films of the teens and twenties that have become required viewing in film history classes. As such, they present a view of 1970s America from a black, urban perspective, something missing from even the best intentioned In the Heat of the Night or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner or other racially tinged, socially conscious films of the previous decade. It was almost a comically distorted view to be sure, a world of pimps in velvet suits and king-fu fighting call girls, but it addressed issues like social and economic injustice from both within and without the community.

And in Grier’s hands, justice was swift:

Pam Grier was the great female star of the genre, and her first two AIP collaborations with director Jack Hill are among the best blaxploitation films. Unlike Tamara Dobson, Grier doesn’t need kung-fu. She just pulls out a shotgun and blows away an army of abusive pimps, aggravating johns, corrupt politicians, pushy whores, and anybody else who gets in her way. (Bright Lights Film Journal)

Blaxploitation films sometimes run on IFC and the Sundance Channel, and Netflix has a whole slew of them. I recommend starting with Black Mama, White Mama (a twisted remake of The Defiant Ones), or maybe Foxy Brown so you can see that gun-in-the-afro move. (Don’t confuse Foxy Brown with Jackie Brown; they are separated by a couple of decades and a whole lotta Tarantino ego!)

And lest you think Grier is a bit fond of herself (with that earlier quote about “bringing it”), here’s her more recent assessment of her career:

“I can’t talk about myself. I just can’t. I know I’ve influenced people, and I’m proud of that. But as I see it, I really haven’t done anything. I haven’t saved anybody from a burning building. Foxy Brown actually approached me at the start of her career to ask if she could use the name. I told her, ‘You didn’t need to ask.’ If you’re an independent woman, every woman is Foxy Brown.”

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