Foxy News

03.13.13

Left: Jack Hill, Coffy, 1973, 35 mm, color, sound, 91 minutes. Coffy and King George (Pam Grier and Robert DoQui). Right: Quentin Tarantino, Jackie Brown, 1997, 35 mm, color, sound, 154 minutes. Jackie Brown (Pam Grier).


IN THE AUGUST 1975 issue of Ms., Pam Grier, who graced the cover—the first African American to do so—was hailed in the headline as “The Mocha Mogul of Hollywood.” (Jamaica Kincaid wrote the story.) Roughly twenty years later, Quentin Tarantino, in an interview with Vibe, called the actress “the Queen of Women.” The exalted monikers are almost indistinguishable from her ID on the poster for Coffy (1973), her first blaxploitation triumph: “the baddest One-Chick Hit-Squad that ever hit town!”

But before these lofty nicknames were bestowed on her, Grier had to break out of prison—repeatedly—in the Philippines. Born in 1949, Grier, who left Denver for Hollywood in the late 1960s, was encouraged to read for B-movie maestro Roger Corman. He immediately offered her a role in the Jack Hill–directed The Big Doll House (1971), her first in a string of women-behind-bars movies set in the Southeast Asian nation. In her last, Eddie Romero’s Black Mama, White Mama (1973), Grier plays a prostitute and part-time smack dealer shackled to a blue-blooded insurrectionist. As the actress recounts in her autobiography, Foxy: My Life in Three Acts (2010), “I had no concept of categories like A, B, or C movies. A movie was a movie, and I intended to deliver an A performance, no matter what anybody else did.” She carried a copy of Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares with her everywhere. But not even a performer with decades of Method training could match Grier’s panache when delivering lines like, “Some jive-ass revolution don’t mean shit to me!”

Many of the leitmotifs in Black Mama, White Mama would appear in Grier’s blaxploitation pictures: breasts bared within minutes, catfights, evil honkies, villainous lesbians (often the last two categories are one and the same). As the title character in Foxy Brown (1974), which, like Coffy, reteamed the actress with director Hill, Grier seeks to avenge the murder of her undercover narcotics agent boyfriend. She infiltrates a high-end prostitution ring; frees herself, using her tongue and a razor blade, from the two peckerwoods holding her captive in the woods; teams up with a black vigilante group called the Anti-Slavery Committee; and, most perilously, triumphs over a score of short-fused butches in a dyke bar. (An actor prepares: Grier, as Kit Porter, would later run a trendy sapphic eatery/boîte on Showtime’s The L Word.)

Though typically effusive, Tarantino’s evaluation of Grier in these outrageous, wildly entertaining revenge movies isn’t too far off the mark; to pay his respects to his sovereign, he wrote Jackie Brown (1997), an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, for her. In her first lead role since Friday Foster (1975), Grier gives the best performance of her career. Playing a forty-four-year-old stewardess for a third-rate airline who supplements her $16,000 yearly salary by smuggling wads of cash in and out of Mexico for a gunrunner, Grier has never appeared more dignified than she does in the opening-credits sequence of Jackie Brown. Filmed in profile, she stands perfectly still on an LAX moving walkway—her hauteur, undimmed by decades in the service industry, transforming her blue polyester Cabo Airlines uniform into regal raiment.

Melissa Anderson

“Foxy: The Complete Pam Grier” runs March 15–17 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. Grier will appear at several screenings over the weekend. For more details, visit FSLC.