Success still a surprise for '70s film queen
By William Douglas
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
WASHINGTON—Pam Grier let out a hearty chuckle when asked to assess her impact on the 1970s, action-packed, "they-have-a-plan-to-stick-it-to-The-Man" film genre known as blaxploitation.
"There were quite a few formulaic films before mine with male leads from Jim Brown to Fred Williamson and Issac Hayes with the same formula of fighting crime, thugs and pimps," she said. "As soon as a woman does it, it's blaxploitation, but it wasn't blaxploitation when men were doing it."
Such is the straight talk Grier delivers in conversation and in her new memoir, "Foxy: My Life in Three Acts," a recount of her rise to fame as the queen of B-movies that were geared toward black audiences, the setbacks in her romantic life, and her career resurrection through director Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown," a 1997 blaxploitation homage he wrote specifically for her.
In addition to her book, she has a role in Queen Latifah's new romantic comedy "Just Wright" and is shooting another movie with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.
She played straight club owner Kit Porter on Showtime's lesbian-themed series "The L Word" and was a cast member in the CW's Superman series "Smallville."
All of this from a shy girl from Colorado, who didn't set out to be an actress, let alone a pinup queen, and marvels at the staying power of her popularity today.
"Every day I go: 'What, really?' I was surprised, I was amazed, I was taken aback by so much interest in what I did," Grier said during a telephone interview from her Colorado ranch. "Too bad it wasn't any rich or historical work ... "
Still, blaxploitation films were revered by audiences who were hungry to see black actors in leading roles taking on wrong-doing blacks and evil whites.
The genre was reviled by some in the black community as overly simplistic tales from the 'hood that played into stereotypes of blacks as violent pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers.
On screen, Grier was a two-fisted woman in a man's world. In films like "Coffy," "Foxy Brown" and "Sheba Baby," she was the buxom, butt-kicking action hero who could karate-chop, jump out of airplanes and into the sack as good as the guys. Oh, and the nude scenes didn't hurt, either.
"She was the reigning black female sex symbol of the 1970s," said Mark Anthony Neal, a Duke University African and African-American studies professor who specializes in black popular culture. "Had she been able to have film opportunities in the white mainstream in the 1970s, her contemporaries would have been Raquel Welch and Farah Fawcett."
Stephane Dunn, an English professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta, said Grier was the right package that arrived in Hollywood at the right time culturally.
"She came out in the time black power, feminist era," said Dunn, author of "Baad Bitches" and "Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films." "She had the first opportunity among black (actresses) to have the kick-butt leading role."
As the '70s morphed into the 1980s and the blaxploitation era faded, jobs for Grier faded from marquee roles to guest-star appearances in films and television. Her lucked changed when she was stuck in a Los Angeles traffic jam and found herself next to Tarantino, a blaxploitation films fan.
The director of "Pulp Fiction" and "Inglorious Basterds" told her "I'm writing a movie for you" based on Elmore Leonard's "Rum Punch" book.
She shrugged his comments off as idle Hollywood small talk until she received a postage-due package six months later with Tarantino's name on it. In it was the script for "Jackie Brown," a vehicle that introduced Grier to a wider audience.
"He said 'I wanted to write my 'Foxy Brown' for you,' " Grier said. "I owe him at least one child."
Grier has been working steady ever since.
When she's not working, Grier spends most of her time on her Colorado ranch enjoying nature with her horses and dogs.
"This is a healing place," said Grier, a cervical cancer survivor for more than 20 years. "I believe in wellness, not being in stressful situations, and sleeping with dogs. Just throw another dog on the bed to stay warm."