Pam Grier: From Sex Symbol to Cult Figure

Pam Grier in 'Jackie Brown.' (IMDb Pro courtesy of Miramax Films)
Pam Grier in 'Jackie Brown.' (IMDb Pro courtesy of Miramax Films)

If you're old enough to remember when Pam Grier was blowing away dirtbags while struggling to remain fully clothed (she was successful sometimes and sometimes she wasn't), you'll remember she was the original bad mama who didn't take no mess. She was first—if not the only—black female action hero. Oh, and she was sexy as hell, too.

What you may not have known is that when blaxploitation movies ran out of gas, Grier didn't. She just moved on to television (Miami Vice, Law and Order: SVU, Linc's, The L Word and currently a recurring role on Smallville), plays (Fool for Love, The Piano Lesson). She continues to make films with decent parts including playing Queen Latifah's mother in Just Wright and a role in an upcoming Tom Hanks/Julia Roberts movie.

"My life is so much bigger than I could have put in a book. It could have been War and Peace," Grier says about her memoir, Foxy: My Life in Three Acts, co-written with Andrea Cagan.


Exploitation fare like Black Mama, White Mama; The Big Bird Cage, Coffy and Foxy Brown were not cinematic classics, but they weren't meant to be. They revolved around sex, skin and violence—the rocket fuel of a teenage boy's life. They are cult classics that launched Grier's career as an iconic actress

Mia Mask, author of Divas On Screen: Black Women in American Film, said of Grier on NPR, "Neither a racial role model nor simple stereotype, Pam Grier's '70s screen persona was multifaceted. Her characters fused feminist sensibilities, black nationalist radicalism, vigilante justice."

There may have better black actresses than Grier, but none of them combined the beauty, brains and swagger Grier embodied during her reign as the queen of blaxploitation. If there had never been a Foxy Brown, a former video store geek named Quentin Tarantino would have never written the script for Jackie Brown.

Fans looking for details about her films may feel a bit short-changed by Foxy. Her harrowing turn as a murderous prostitute in Fort Apache: The Bronx gets a detailed examination of how she got so immersed in the role she declined a lunch date with star Paul Newman because she didn't want to break character. Coffy and Foxy Brown made Grier a B-movie star, but apparently they aren't cherished memories. She disposes of Coffy on one page while Foxy Brown gets a paragraph.


Working with a red-hot Tarantino, fresh off of his Pulp Fiction success, on Jackie Brown, was perfect timing for Grier and provided her with a role that, if not exactly a comeback, was her return to top-billing. Grier was nominated for a Golden Globe as the savvy stewardess who ends up playing off drug dealers, cops and probably the audience in a series of double and triple crosses.

Grier recognized the director enjoyed shooting scenes out of sequence. Tarantino's quirky way of playing with time forced Grier to rely on her acting chops. "If you weren't thinking you could reveal something, the other character would have no way of knowing," Grier explained. "That's the way Quentin works. He loves puzzles."


"I didn't want Foxy to be a sequence of events," Grier says. "I wanted it to be constructed like a story and move the reader along."  Divvied up into three "acts," it's a brisk read that is never boring. But at times, the book seems a bit undernourished.

Grier has wowed and been wooed by plenty of famous actors, athletes and celebrities, but she doesn't overshare details about her romances with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Freddie Prinze or Richard Pryor.  She was in love with Abdul-Jabbar, but his conversion to Islam became a wedge between them when she refused to convert.


For a sex symbol, Grier doesn't give much to the reader who just wants the dirt. But there is an occasional eye-opener. There's a trip to the gynecologist that takes a bizarre turn when he discusses the results of her annual checkup. From the chapter on her relationship with Richard Pryor:

I sat opposite of him and he said, "Pam, I want to tell you about an epidemic that's prevalent in Beverly Hills right now. It's a buildup of cocaine residue around the cervix and in the vagina. You have it. Are you doing drugs?"


"No," I said, astonished.

"Well, it's really dangerous," he went on. "Is your partner putting cocaine on his penis to sustain his erection?"


When confronted by Grier, Pryor flatly denied using cocaine as a sexual stimulant, but he refused her request to start wearing a condom.

Grier devotes as many pages in Foxy to her love of horses and dogs as she does her ex-lovers. If anything, the four-legged mammals have proven to be more consistent and dependable than the two-legged ones.


Foxy is a lively engaging read which downplays the sexy image of Pam Grier to expose the more sensitive, accomplished woman many have watched but only a few really know.

Jeff Winbush is a freelance writer and the former editor of the Columbus Post.

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