Pam Grier is an icon many times over, and is known as equally for her spirited, strong protagonists in early 1970s Blaxploitation films such as Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974) as she is for the career-defining film for which she makes our list, Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997). Grier has played many women throughout an expansive forty year career in the film industry and though there has been considerable attention paid to her work, the focus of coverage on the actress has, of late, frequently shifted from her famous lovers (Freddie Prinze, Richard Pryor and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar among them) to her status as a feminist icon and pioneer to her role as a 20-plus year survivor of cancer and life-long survivor of rape and abuse.
Perhaps unfairly, her iconicity has occasionally eclipsed one of her most interesting traits: a singular dedication to learning and rigorously practicing her craft, no matter in what size, shape or form the part; continually challenging herself. She remains a defender for and powerful ally to all of those in need of a hand—animals and humans alike—landing a solid (verbal) right hook square to the noses, when necessary, at homophobes, transphobes, racists and other assorted haters with a delicious joi de vivre that is befitting of her legend, which at times has dictated she hide razor blades in her wig to stop unjust behavior. In her memoir Foxy: My Life in Three Acts, Grier upends all of these myths, presenting an alternately shocking, wistful and steely portrait of her own mythology that is compulsively readable.
Grier has become ingrained in the very language of cinema, cutting a dashing figure in the canon of the greatest female film images of all time, and among the most fascinating things about this woman is that she is almost completely the opposite of what one might expect from her body of work. More at home in jeans and working with her horses on a rural Colorado farm, Grier’s story, and her unique talentedness, immediately calls to mind some of the strongest women of the movie world who escape to country havens, keeping the industry on a very short lead, to be trained and walked at their convenience.
In the tradition of firebrand stars like Jessica Lange, Sissy Spacek and Barbara Stanwyck, Grier’s own fiercely personal commitment to her art, her activism, and herself has kept the public curious and continually coming back for more: she will play Julia Roberts’ confidante in Tom Hanks’ upcoming Larry Crowne, due next year. “I don’t think I’ve worked maybe twice in Los Angeles!” she exclaimed when I spoke to Ms. Grier early this summer about this surprising melding of personal and public personae that sets her apart from her contemporaries, of whom there are precious few.
Hello Pam, thanks so much for speaking with me today. This is such a delicious pleasure…
Delicious? You haven’t eaten yet! You’re just hungry…(laughing)
(laughing) I actually haven’t eaten yet, but let’s talk about your book Foxy: A Life in Three Acts, which I thought was so informative and so surprising. I have to admit, I did not know much about your personal life, and it was a delight that your on-the-farm/Colorado persona so often directly contradicts your glamorous film star image. Its so great to see misconceptions and preconceptions being shattered like that. What did you hope to achieve in writing your memoirs and opening up your private life?
I am psychic, by the way! (laughing) So many female historians and actresses have shared their history, their memoirs with me and opened doors, and with that sharing allowed me to navigate through my life. I had so many lessons learned, being a cancer survivor, learning about Islam at an early age, learning… As I was writing it, the impetus was that if I write things about my life, I don’t want this long, never-ending saga of details and data. What were the events that formed my character, good and bad? That I can share with others and help them not make the mistakes and allow them to be free enough as they make theirs?
I know that I am a part of this vibrational energy field that’s going on in the universe where we’re sharing information, we’re all surviving together. How do we heal a nation? How do we heal ourselves? How do we look for solutions? How do we do better? How do we entertain better? How do we get the messages across? How do we be sensitive and not narcissitic? (laughing) With my memoirs, I have a lot to share! I don’t want to bore anyone. If I sell two books, it’ll be a miracle! (laughing) But I know I have a lot of lessons…
When I read Stormy Monday by Lena Horne, she went through fire, going through a back door, just to be able to have dinner and to be able to rest her head. She went through so much. And so did Hattie McDaniel, and Bessie Smith, and so many women. I just thought ‘I have enough…’ There is more, but I think this is what the audience wants—and by the way, without an audience there is no actor. I felt that they would respond in a way, knowing that “she” was amazing, a character, a placard, an image that no one knew. I’ve been an enigma for so long no one really knows… They all assume I live in Los Angeles or New York but I’m living in Colorado. I come home and take care of my family and I rescue horses. This is my healing place, where everyone comes to not brush their hair for three or four days and just read and not try to be like the Joneses.
My Colorado upbringing of being self-sustaining and turning my little old country house into a sustainable green house, and commuting to work has just been very healing for me. I think because of my upbringing I’ve been able to navigate being here in Colorado and work all over the world. My last picture I worked on was in Los Angeles for Tom Hanks, I just finished Thursday, on his film Larry Crowne playing Julia Roberts’ best friend.
One of the connections I had not made until reading your book was the fact that as a child grew up in the prime civil rights era years where segregation and racism were rampant—and then as an adult you got to kick the butts, so to speak of the haters. Its a beautifully cinematic denouement. How did you channel these frequently racist experiences growing up into your characters?
At some point, I was able to bring the reality of watching my mother, who couldn’t fight back, who had to take it on the chin, the indignity of not being able to go into a restroom or theater or a market, or on the bus. To see when people were very hurtful to her and how she kept her pride and her head straight, and her posture. She looked very dignified and was very graceful and she took it and turned that negative energy into something. ‘Ok, you say that now, but one day we’ll be friends.’ And they could see that in her eyes. I thought if I did anything, I would be fighting for millions, not just my mom or African Americans, but a community; for everyone. People who loved each other, of all races.
I define myself by my energy, not my age, so [I take] the fact that people will think that I will look like I did in the 1970s—you know, with an afro, with a jumpsuit, in platform shoes and blue eye shadow—(laughing), with the same diction and the dialogue from those films, and that I will come in to kick ass, graciously. I’m grateful. You ask ‘how did I do it?’, how did I use that information? I was able to transfer it in a sense for all of the civil rights. I was doing it for that, for the people who fought for me, who were hosed down by firehoses, who didn’t get to go to high school or have books and things. So, I was able to use that energy and I thought I would use it in a way not for revenge or to get back but to show an example that when you humanize someone and you see that person being brutalized, and hurt, dishonored and disenfranchised, there would be empathy and that’s what I was hoping I would gain.
That’s so lovely! Life-long learning is such a prevalent theme throughout your memoir. I’m both a film and gender studies scholar and recently I took a class called “Gender and Resistance in African American Women’s History”.
Wow! Great class!
It was pretty awesome. When we got to the topic of the blaxploitation genre the gears shifted to a talk about nudity in film in general , where perhaps unsurprisingly the discussion turned heated. In the class we learned about the way black women have been historically, negatively stereotyped as sexually promiscuous and animalistic, so there was a lot of tension and apprehension when it came to this topic.
I wish I had been there!
(laughing) Me too! How have you dealt with such divergent, passionate responses to your own occasional onscreen nudity in the ‘70s?
Well, in the 1970s we also had a parallel issue that was forming and that was the Women’s Liberation Movement. Loving your body. Burning you bra. Empowerment. Equinimity in a relationship, equality in the work force and in education. And as I was doing, starting those films—female action films—there were quite a few black films that were before mine, done by males, a gender issue, with football players, karate experts that had the same formula. Pimps and hoes. Good versus evil. Corrupt politicians. It was the same formula until I stepped into those shoes. And when a woman steps into those shoes…
Now I was posturing like a man, a man who talked about women’s boobs or breasts or ass or legs or whatever. Here’s a woman talking about a male and his anatomy. It was a role reversal. That’s when it really caused a stir. In a way, I felt, and I can’t theorize it, it’s not the gospel according to Pam, but I believe I made a lot of men jealous because I was stepping into their world, their roles. Women were supposed to be taken care of and walking behind and barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, the little woman, the little wife. Well, now here’s this independent woman who can hunt and fish and shoot, from Colorado, has a miltary, urban and rural background who is posturing like a man and standing up for women and talking to black vigilantes and telling them what they need to do to enforce parity.
What [the characters] were doing, and women are also much more nurturing, [were saying was] let’s stop sweeping the issues under the rug and let’s address them to correct them. These were women with different perceptions about how we should handle crime. Any situation where there’s going to be aggression, a woman’s going to have her clothing torn off and there’s going to be an element of luring men because of being sexually provocative. There’s a DNA that’s going to work. Roger Corman had the formula down pat of why people go to the cinema. Why is there sexuality? When you have sexuality and action and violence , those are the three main points that make people go to the movies. Without them, it’s not a movie, it’s a documentary and very few people are going to pay to see that. The film industry is a business. I would have loved to have seen women making those movies, what would have been the issue then?