There’s a lot of talk about female empowerment in cinema today. There aren’t many actresses today who can compare to one actress who’s been kicking butt since the 1970s.
Pam Grier is the undisputed Queen of blaxploitation cinema – but she’s also an icon for women in cinema. She’s one of the greatest American actresses, and now in her 70s, she’s showing no signs of slowing down. She was stunning in the 70s, and she’s still stunning today.
You’ll likely know her from films such as Coffy, Foxy Brown, Bucktown, Friday Foster, Sheba Baby, and Jackie Brown.
But what’s the story behind Pam Grier’s incredible success. What are the struggles she needs to endure to achieve greatness?
Let’s look into the life and career of Pam Grier…
Pamela Suzette Grier was born on May 26, 1949, in North Carolina. Her mother, Gwendolyn, was a homemaker and nurse. Her father, Clarence, was a mechanic and a technical sergeant in the US Air Force.
Pam Grier is like an icon of blaxploitation cinema – but she’s actually from a mixed background that includes Black American, Hispanic, Chinese, Filipino, and Cheyenne heritage!
As her father involves with the US military, she lived in different places including spending some time in England and later in Denver. As a high school student, she appeared in stage plays and participated in beauty contests.
When she was 18, in 1967, she moved to Los Angeles, where she got a job working the switchboard for American International Pictures. AIP was a wing of MGM and focused, at the time, on producing low-budget B-grade movies as well as the new genre of exploitation films.
She probably didn’t know it, but as the 70s came along, opportunities to appear in these exploitation films would come. Her life would change in the 70s, and it all started when she met a film director named Jack Hill….
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FROM JAILBIRD TO FOXY BROWN
Jack Hill made a slew of “women in prison” films in the 1970s. Pam Grier was part of an ensemble of actresses who would attempt to break out of prison and fight against brutal guards.
These films included The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage, and Black Mama White Mama.
But her big break came with Coffy. This is an action-packed film where Pam’s character, Coffy, wants to take revenge on the drug pushers who gets her younger sister-addict to heroin. The film echoed many of the drug issues facing the United States at the time but also managed to mix in action, humor, and style. It had a brilliant original score composed by Roy Ayers, and Pam’s sex appeal was now in full force.
This film was one of the early examples of the blaxploitation genre, which was one of the unique genres that added to the richness of American cinema in the 1970s – arguably the best decade for American cinema.
Coffy follows up with Foxy Brown. In this film, Pam played the eponymous Foxy Brown who decides to take revenge on the gangsters who murdered her boyfriend. This film became one of the most influential films in the blaxploitation genre. It solidified Pam Grier as a symbol for both female empowerment and Black power!
Rapper Foxy Brown got her moniker from this film. The film is one of director Quentin Tarantino’s favorite movies. Years later, Quentin Tarantino cast Pam Grier in his film Jackie Brown. The film is based on Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch and in the novel, the lead character was named “Jackie Burke.” No doubt “Jackie Brown” is an homage to “Foxy Brown.”
In fact, Jack Hill specifically wrote the character of Foxy Brown for Pam Grier. She was now the undisputed Queen of blaxploitation cinema – and no other actress ever took her place.
Her other notable roles in blaxploitation films included Bucktown, Sheba Baby, Friday Foster, and Scream Blacula Scream.
Toward the end of the 1970s, she appears in an Italian film La note dell’alta marea – though the film was made in English. She also played “Francey” in one episode of Roots: The Next Generations and “Mary” in the Wendell Scott biopic Greased Lightning. In this film, she co-starred with Richard Pryor whom she later dated.
THE 80s and 90s
The blaxploitation genre came to a close at the end of the 1970s. There are still many films that inspired by this genre and Pam’s acting, such as Undercover Brother, Austin Powers in Goldmember – where Beyonce’s character is “Foxy Cleopatra” inspired by Foxy Brown – Black Dynamite, and, of course, Jackie Brown.
However, Pam’s career continued well into the 1980s. She began appearing in television more prominently – appearing in two episodes of The Love Boat in 1980. Also, she appears in the TV movie Badge of the Assassin and in episodes of Night Court and The Cosby Show. She also played Suzanne Terry on Crime Story and Valerie Gordon in 3 episodes of Miami Vice.
Her notable film work in the 80s included roles in Fort Apache The Bronx, Tough Enough, On the Edge, The Vindicator, and Above The Law.
Her notable film work in the 90s included her role in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, in which she played Ms. Conners. In 1993, she plays “Phoebe” in the film Posse – which can easily as a nod to blaxploitation films. The film directs by Mario Van Peebles, whose father Melvin, direct thinks of as the first blaxploitation film ever made – Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song!
Her popularity also led her to a cameo appearance in many productions focused on Black American characters. She appeared in one skit in the popular sketch comedy series In Living Color in 1994. She later appeared in one episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, an episode of The Wayans Brothers, and she played “Foxxxy Brown” in Snoop Doggy Dogg’s music video “Doggy Dogg World.”
In 1996, she played “Laurie Thompson” in the film Original Gangstas – which brought together many of the legends of blaxploitation cinema to introduce them to a new generation. She reunited with Bucktown co-star Fred Williamson. The film also starred Jim Brown, Ron O’Neal, and Richard Roundtree.
She also had lead roles in Mars Attacks! and Strip Search. But her most famous role in the 90s was, of course, Jackie Brown. This is not the first time she wants to work with Quentin Tarantino. She initially wanted to play the role of “Jody” in Pulp Fiction. However, Tarantino can’t imagine Pam Grier pushes around by a man, as was the case in the film. It was clear that her tough on-screen persona hadn’t withered away!
Of course, a brief mention must create Pam’s struggles throughout her life and career. Palm hasn’t married, but she had relationships with many A-list stars that didn’t work out. She dated her Grease Lightning co-star Richard Pryor and tried – albeit unsuccessfully -to get him to kick his drug habit.
Also, left basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when he insisted that she convert to Islam. She also broke up with comic performer Freddie Prinze and was one of the last people to speak to him before he tragically committed suicide.
Pam’s childhood wasn’t always easy. She was raped twice as a child, and these horrific events would haunt her throughout the years. No doubt this partially shaped her tough on-screen persona and helped her play roles in films such as Coffy and Foxy Brown.
Pam was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1988 and was told she’d have less than two years to live. But she took action to live a healthy lifestyle, and thankfully her cancer has been in remission ever since.
Despite these challenges, she never slowed down, and she isn’t showing any signs of slowing down anytime soon…
Pam Grier continues to act today. Her latest roles are in the TV show Bless This Mess as Constance Terry. She also appeared in the 2019 TV movie A Christmas Wish and the feature film Poms. She’s set to appear in an upcoming project based on Stephen King’s novel Pet Sematary.
Her notable film work in the 2000s and 2010s include The Adventures in Pluto Nash, Back in the Day, Just Wright, Larry Crowne, The Man with the Iron Fists, Mafia, and Bad Grandmas.
Her most notable television role in the 2000s was as Kit Porter in the drama series The L Word.
Pam Grier continues to act in film and television and proves her versatility with both dramatic and comic roles. But for many fans, she’ll always be remembered as one of the great action stars, thanks to Coffy and Foxy Brown. She’s been featured in many documentaries about blaxploitation cinema and the grindhouse films of the 1970s.
Grier is an icon for female empowerment and black empowerment in American cinema and she’ll always be remembered as such…
In fact, if you’re a fan of Pam Grier’s work in blaxploitation cinema…look out for her upcoming release Old School Gangstas directed by Fred Williamson. She’s slated lto once again join an ensemble of blaxploitation stars such as Fred Williamson, Richard Roundtree, Jim Brown, Bernie Casey, Glorida Hendry, Antonio Fargas, and the late Robert Forster – with whom she co-starred in Original Gangstas and Jackie Brown. That’s all we can say for now…
Are you a fan of Pam Grier?
Do you think she’s gotten her due as one of the most prominent female icons of American cinema? Or do you think that newer generations need to learn about the impact she’s had and how she’s paved the way for actresses today?
Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments.
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