By Andrea Plaid
What can you say about an actor whose blessed several generations of pop-culture afficianados–especially young Black girls–with indelible images of Black female badassery? Well, you know we at the R can wax rhapsodic and ecstatic about the folks we love…and this is Pam frickin’ Grier, so we’re gonna wax thankful–along with rhapsodic and ecstatic–for her life and legacy.
Grier, of course, is dubbed The Queen Of Blaxploitation, that genre of 70s action flicks full of low-budget aesthetics and love for Black communities dealing with the harsh realities of drugs, crime, urban disintegration (no thanks to “white flight”), and exploding racial tensions. Grier starred in twenty of them. In a 2011 Guardian interview she says this about that time in cinema:
People had only seen African-American women depicted a certain way in film and it was about time that changed…You know, I had to bump heads with a lot of men in the industry. They were not comfortable with showing a progressive black female in an action role. As a strong woman, I was seen as a threat. There was a fear that women would mimic me in real life. I remember certain people saying: ‘Oh, she’s taking our jobs, she’s castrating men’–as far as I was concerned, I thought: ‘We don’t need to walk behind you, we should walk beside you.
That “certain way” were spins on the usual stereotypes of Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire. The Blaxploitation protagonists are Black people fighting The System and its agents who wreck destruction on their fam and pals as well as the larger urban communities where they live; sometimes the family and friends serve as a proxy for the communities. As Lisa Jones Chapman says in her own ain’t-gonna-lie ode to what Grier reigns over in her 1994 Generation X classic, Bulletproof Diva:
Of course these films are “negative image” superfests. All we do in these movies, and by inference life, is sell drugs, sell our bodies, and shoot each other. For home-video releases, they should come with labels. “Warning: This film contains oppressive images of blacks that may be unsuitable, unpleasant, and downright unfit for some viewers.”
In their own contorted way, roles like Cleopatra Jones and Foxy Brown raised Hollywood’s threshold of black female visibility. Whatever you say about Cleo and Foxy, they are not shuffling mammies, teary-eyed mulattoes, or boozy blues singers. They talk back. They are political in that they are ridding “the community” of drug slavery and corruption. They take the law into their own hands (vigilantes Foxy and Coffy) or they are the law (special narcotics agent Cleo). Get Christie Love!, a supermama spin-off that ran for one season in 1974, starred Teresa Graves as television’s first black female cop.
Despite the confines of the genre–dim-witted plots and motivations, racial stereotypes, and slaphappy nudity–these actresses have moments of transcendence, of “attitudinous” rebellion; moments where they win the image war. (84-85)
And, as quiet as it’s kept, these same films also saved a Hollywood studio from bankruptcy.
When the genre’s popularity waned–and the newly cash-flush studios sought out their next big genre–Grier played smaller but quite memorable roles in TV (Miami Vice), theater (Fool For Love and Frankie And Johnny), and, yep, film (Fort Apache, The Bronx, Mars Attacks!, and that Mario Van Peebles homage to Blaxploitation heroes set in the Wild West, Posse). My personal favorite from this time in Grier’s career is The Dust Witch, who is described as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” in Something Wicked This Way Comes. (I may be remembering this fuzzily, but the Ray Bradbury novel, on which the movie is based, doesn’t give the character’s physical description beyond this; so, usually, these roles tend to go to white women. So, dig if you will, this role being given to Grier…back in 1983, during the third year of then-president Ronald Reagan’s term and seven years after he uttered that tarring term “welfare queen,” a codified phrase for Black women.)
Also around this time–in 1988–doctors diagnosed Grier with Stage IV cervical cancer. At first, the medical professionals said she would be fine after the cancerous cells were removed; then they told her that she had only 18 months to live. On reflection, Grier credits her combining chemotherapy and yoga with tinctures, hot teas, and herbs from a recommended Chinese herbalist for her cancer being in remission. The experience also led to her supporting environmental efforts–like community gardens–because she believes her recovery was so naturally based; to this day she maintains a farm, which is also a rescue shelter for horses, in her home state of Colorado. She also credits her grandfather as the first feminist she knows because “[h]e taught me to fish and inspired me to get an education.” (She was a pre-med major.)
[I]n 1995, Tarantino offered her Jackie Brown, a homage to her earlier 70s action roles. “I had no interest in film until Quentin asked me,” she says. How did it feel to be making a comeback? Grier sounds exasperated: “I never left! I just hadn’t been offered roles of that calibre forever. Spike Lee wasn’t writing roles for me, John Singleton and other black directors weren’t writing roles with me in mind–I was just doing other things until Quentin asked me.” Made on a relatively small budget of $12m, Jackie Brown was a hit, grossing nearly $73m at the box office in 1997, getting Grier back on to the Hollywood radar and earning her a much-deserved Golden Globe nomination. “What I know is that all my work before Jackie Brown prepared me for that part,” she says.
Yes, Tarantino gives the flick its throwback Blaxploitation sheen, from the opening-sequence font to the semi-desaturated color and its cast of grimy supporting characters (most memorably, Samuel L. Jackson’s gun-dealing Ordell Robbie) but without the fight-the-power message. But Tarantino doesn’t so much directs whatever shot Grier appears in so much as he follows her with the camera like his hopelessly smitten male protagonist Max Cherry (Robert Forster) as she calculates how to escape from Ordell and the Feds to a better life . Every frame with Grier is a loving study of steely eyes and swerve, even when she’s a gunshot or a choke away from death. Badassery redux, and she received several nominations (said Golden Globe, NAACP , Screen Actors Guild) and an award (San Diego Film Critics Society) for it.
Grier has been moving and grooving since, doing critically acclaimed roles on Linc’s, Law and Order: SVU, The L Word, and Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child. And several of us are waiting with rubbing hands and bated breath for RZA’s The Man With The Iron Fist, in which she co-stars. (Oh! She’s also on Twitter, y’all.)
She says of her career and her own self-identification:
“People see me as a strong black figure, and I’m proud of that,” says Grier, 60. “But I’m a mix of several races: Hispanic, Chinese, Filipino. My dad was black, and my mom was Cheyenne Indian.
“So you look at things beyond just race,” she adds. “Or even religion: I was raised Catholic, baptized a Methodist, and almost married a Muslim.”
In 2010, she co-wrote her autobiography, Foxy: My Life In Three Acts. In it she describes the life-altering experience of two boys raping her when she was six when Grier’s aunt left her unsupervised. It traumatized her–she said whenever she spoke she stuttered–and her family due to the “guilt and anger.” She also wrote about her needing to downplay her pulchritude due to a date rape when she was a young woman. She said she wrote her story, including these events, because
“I’ve had mentors who know of my legacy and family history, along with my career in surviving and falling, crawling and learning, and being very, very open and curious,” she explained. “I said, ‘If I do it, I want it to be a work of lessons learned that I can share with others.’ You seek help. You seek friendship.”
In my eyes–from her writing about the sexual violence done to her to her green lifestyle and activism to her iconic by-your-own-hands roles–Grier is definitely what I’d term a “self-care feminist,” a person who believes that part of creating a just world for women and people who support us is to take care of our selves, including our self-definitions, so we’re able to carry on with that struggle. Reflecting on her past relationships, Grier says:
“At some point you have to realize you will be walking away from someone you do love…[b]ut out of love for yourself, O.K.?”