Black ‘Coffy’ No Sugar, No Cream: Pam Grier’s ‘Foxy’

[14 December 2011]

By R. N. Bradley

My husband frequently confesses he cheats on me with Pam Grier in his head. Sexy, stiletto boot wearin’, gun totin’, take no shit Pam Grier. I can’t be mad at him. I’d cheat, too.

Grier, a prominent fixture of the blaxploitation film era of the ‘70s, is more than a pretty face. She’s an icon with country girl roots who currently resides on a farm in Colorado. She’s also a cancer survivor. And she is unforgettable. Her memoir Foxy reflects Grier’s multidimensionality, developing into a charmingly accessible black womanist manifesto of open-faced transgressions, perseverance, and sex.

When I opened the book, crooner Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” played in my mental jukebox. Grier’s conversive style painted a mental picture of us sitting down in a café or club from one of her movies with soulful tunes as the backdrop to our conversation. My imposed Womack introduction would later seem fitting, learning that Grier sang back up for Womack as one of her first gigs after moving to Los Angeles.

She sets the reader up for her life story in three sections or ‘acts’, a nod towards not only her acting career but the many performances of womanhood she grapples throughout her life. While she’s hardly restricted to her blaxploitation performances as Foxy Brown, Coffy, or Friday Foster, it’s clear that the two are heavily interconnected and Grier bears no shame in her contributions. 

Perhaps most alluring about Grier’s outlooks on her life is the subtly resistant presence of feminist thought in the framing of her experiences. Grier writes:

“My characters pulled out shotguns and blew away armies of abusive pimps, aggravating johns, corrupt politicians, pushy whores, and anybody else that got in my way… my movies featured women claiming the right to fight back, which had previously been out the question. My roles were written as vanguard personalities who were the first to define themselves against violence and prejudice. At the same time, these women were determined to bring peace to a situation rather than engage in the draconian ways of war in the lower income communities.” 

Her feminist critique of blaxploitation as a space for women’s resistance and expression is cunning and innovative:

“What really stood out in the genre was women of color acting like heroes rather than depicting nannies or maids. We were redefining heroes as schoolteachers, nurses, mothers, and street-smart women who were proud of who they were. They were far more aggressive and progressive than the Hollywood stereotypes.”

Brazenly aware of the limiting and minimalized roles for black women in popular culture and film, Grier embraced blaxploitation as a medium of innovation and change for black female actresses. Simultaneously residual of the Black Power Movement’s Nationalist Agenda and a critique of the urban decay increasingly prevalent in inner city narratives, Grier reinterprets blaxploitation from a much needed and overlooked perspective of black women. While she admits that she didn’t see herself as a black feminist like her contemporaries Angela Davis, Gloria Steinem, or Toni Cade Bambara, Grier acknowledges a need for black women to recover their own voices and play a part in piecing together their experiences. She credits this pro-woman outlook to her mother:

“Mom never complained…accepting things as they were, rejecting the idea that if the man of the house didn’t bring home the bacon, the whole family would starve. Rather, she embraced a new school of thought, the women’s movement, where you earned the bacon yourself if need be, you protected your family, covered for your husband anyway you could, and you did your best never to flaunt that in his face.”

Most entertaining and complex about Grier’s memoir is her relationship and struggles with sex and attraction. Inverted by two horrific rapes in her childhood, Grier candidly reflects on the damage these assaults had on her outlook about men and her own self worth. Her obsessive desire to be “unpretty” resulted in her withdrawal from peers and a shy demeanor: “pretty girls got all the attention, which made them targets. At the tender age of six [her first rape], I’d had enough of being victimized because I was pretty and naïve…I retreated more and more, becoming a scared, withdrawn, stuttering little girl.”

After being teased out of her shell with beauty pageants promising money that could go towards her college expenses, Grier slowly begins to embrace her sexuality. She’s cautious, however, not to let her looks and desires (or lack thereof) consume her. This transition is evident in Foxy through her initial negative and distant discussion of rape as her only gauge of sex to tender and romantic encounters with her first love, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and future lovers. As if an aside from story of Abdul-Jabbar, Grier resorts back to her present voice, giving stern advice about young girls having sex too early:

“I want to be clear hear that I appreciate good sex as much as the next person. But in my opinion, women are not valuing or appreciating sex enough. When girls start having lots of sex at young ages, they wear their vaginas out. Literally. What do you expect if you have intercourse four or five times a week with different partners starting when you’re fifteen years old? By the time you grow up and meet a great guy, you’re all stretched out.”

Grier’s ‘fussing’ here made me laugh out loud. Grier’s vantage point comes across like that of a hip older aunt having sex talk at a kitchen table. Straight, no chaser and awkwardly jolting to make her reader pay attention – “what the hell?! Did she really just say that?!”  Grier’s candid humor resounds throughout the book, but her discussion of having sex when one is too young is my favorite. It’s easy to get swept up in Grier’s romances – notably Freddie Prinze, Sr. and Richard Pryor – and needing to catch a breath.  It’s evident Grier loves and falls for possibilities of love hard. She’s open and engaging about her different intersections of love, her life, and career, inviting the reader into her pitfalls and triumphs with a juicy openness often restricted to fiction. My one slight hang-up with Foxy is Grier’s discussions of colorism and race. At times painfully innocent – which, possibly could be her remembering her thoughts at the time – these exchanges with the readers disappointingly scratch the surface compared to her other, more in depth observations about life. This passage and similar discussions about her interactions with her good friend Tamara Dobson (of Cleopatra Jones fame)  are sweetly enduring yet fall flat in reflective observations that Grier couples with the rest of her stories. From a more critical perspective, Grier’s first person account adds to the much needed insight and conversation started by scholars like Stephane Dunn in her study Baad Bitches and Sassy Supermamas (2008), about the women who participated in blaxploitation and how cultural expressions like these films carved niches for future performances of pro-sex women in a post-Civil Rights era. Grier’s story presents a sticky, complex form of black feminism that could be seen as a precursor for the gray spaces of black feminism Joan Morgan encourages in her hip hop manifesto When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost (1999). Ultimately, Pam Grier’s Foxy is a page turning delight. Her openness and downplay of her celebrity is refreshing and adds to the allure of her story. And my husband would probably still drink her bathwater.

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