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Pam Grier: From 'Foxy Brown' And 'Coffy' To 'Jackie Brown'

Icons | March 1, 2019

Actress Pam Grier poses for a photo circa 1972 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

Pam Grier has gone by a lot of names other than Pam Grier: Foxy Brown, Coffy, Friday Foster, Sheba, Jackie Brown. When Pam Grier stars in a movie, the tough yet beautiful protagonist tends to be a lot like Pam Grier, the person, and Grier's forceful presence lingers in the mind more than any details of the plot. Quentin Tarantino, Jackie Brown's director and an obsessive student of film, declared her the first female action hero in cinema history, and the tag-line for one of her seventies called her “the baddest one-chick hit-squad”. Pam Grier was Foxy Brown -- but Foxy Brown was really just Pam Grier.

The smoking hot, tough-as-nails, undisputed queen of the blaxploitation movie genre that was popular in the early to mid-1970s, young Pam Grier was known for her beauty, curvy physique, prominent Afro hairdo, and big, bold characters. As an actress, Grier was able to evolve as Hollywood evolved. She’s come a long way, baby! From Foxy Brown to her award-winning role on The L Word to her cameo in the acclaimed TV series This Is Us, Pam Grier has shown that she is still a force to be reckoned with. 

Young Pam Grier Had To Be Tough

Pam Grier in 1971

The daughter of an Air Force father, Grier’s family moved around a lot when she was young -- as military brats will tell you, constantly being the new kids and trying to make friends as an outsider can be a lonely existence. She spent her high school years, following her father's retirement, in Denver, Colorado. Grier was a self-sufficient young woman, comfortable with outdoors pursuits like camping and fishing. Denver wasn't an easy town for Grier, her experience perhaps later informing her on-screen portrayals of no-nonsense heroines.

Denver was tough. That was where I learned you had to fight all the time. I mean fight for your lunch money or act like you didn't have any. I used to keep mine in my sock. It was pretty rough for a kid who had been sheltered on Air Force bases, but I am a quick study--Pam Grier

It wasn't all fights, though. She played organ and piano in a gospel choir, backing up vocalists Philip Bailey, Larry Dun, and Andrew Woolfolk -- a trio later known as Earth, Wind & Fire. 

A Future Movie Star In A Conservative Household

Left: Pam Grier in 1973. Right: Pam Grier in an undated '70s photo. Source: Reddit; Reddit

Grier grew up in a conservative household,  "a family where we weren't allowed to talk about beauty or to put any emphasis on physical appearance."

Though she ended up playing memorable movie vixens, Grier has always downplayed her physical appearance in interviews. "Me sexy?" she is reported to have said, "I'm just plain old beans and rice."

Nonetheless, Grier had some inkling that she was attractive. She participated in the Miss Colorado pageant in 1967, finishing as second runner-up.

Grier's First Roles Were In Women-In-Prison Flicks

Pam Grier in 'The Big Doll House' (1971). Source: (twitter.com)

 In 1967, she moved on her own to Los Angeles to try to break into show business. She took a receptionist job at American International Pictures but was soon discovered by Jack Hill, the director who cast Grier in her first two movies, both of which were in the "women in prison" subgenre of grindhouse movies. The Big Doll House and Women In Cages both debuted in 1971, and The Big Bird Cage was released in 1972. 

Brazen and Buxom Grier Was A Sought-After Blaxploitation Star

Grier in the seventies. Source: (reddit.com)

Pam Grier earned a reputation for playing assertive, angry, and sexy black women in the emerging "blaxploitation" genre, and starred in many of the biggest hits. In fact, she broke ground as the first female lead in successful blaxploitation flicks, proving every bit the draw that male actors like Richard Roundtree (Shaft, 1971), Bernie Casey (Hit Man, 1972), Ron O'Neal (Super Fly, 1972), Jim Brown (Slaughter, 1972), and Fred Williamson (Black Caesar, 1973). Beginning with Black Mama, White Mama (1972), her first movie in the genre, Grier showed that a woman can be both tough as well as hot. Her gutsy, brassy, bigger-than-life characters were powerful and independent -- just the heroines the African American community needed in the 1970s. 

Pam Grier's Breakout Role Was In 'Coffy'

Pam Grier starred in "Coffy." Source: (mondo-digital.com)

Jack Hill’s 1973 movie Coffy is credited with making Pam Grier an action star. In the title role, Grier is a hospital nurse by day and vigilante by night as she tries to rid her town of the drug dealers who got her sister hooked on heroin. To get close to the drug dealers, Grier’s character pretends to be a sexy prostitute, but her anger and violent ways turn her into a ruthless killer. Grier’s acting talent made her character believable and relatable and audiences found themselves rooting for her to kill another drug pusher. 

'Foxy Brown' Was A Lot Like 'Coffy,' Which Was Not A Problem

Grier as the title character in 'Foxy Brown,' 1974. Source: MGM via IMDB

The 1974 movie Foxy Brown, also directed by Hill, is in much the same vein as Coffy, and some even classify it as a "remake" of the earlier film. Grier’s character is an angry woman who seeks revenge, using sex and violence as her weapons. Although the movie was a box-office success and many people admired the determined and aggressive Foxy, others claimed that the film stereotyped the black culture in America as a drug-dealing, gun-toting, quick-to-anger group. By the late 1970s, the blaxploitation movie genre had run its course; by then, Grier had starred or co-starred in at least half a dozen blaxploitation movies (maybe more, depending how you define the genre). It was time for her to move on. 

Grier Always Felt Her Heroines Were Empowering

Pam Grier in 'Foxy Brown,' 1973, and 'Coffy,' 1974. Source: MGM via IMDB

Did Grier ever worry that her blaxploitation work was too heavy on the, well, exploitation part? In 2001 a GQ interviewer asked her point-blank whether she was proud of having played so many sexy heroes:

Very proud. It was the time of the women’s movement, and in order to sell women’s equality—not domination, we’re not trying to castrate anyone or take away a man’s job—just be recognized as equal. And that oppression has ended. We’re now driving and we can vote and our grandmothers and mothers didn’t get a fraction of the opportunities women have today. All we wanted to do was have fun and entertainment and ease that message in underneath like a prompt so it doesn’t hit men over the head and scare ’em, but to show that this is what’s coming! ... It has nothing to do with men. And the equation that women are being just as feisty and quirky and sexy as I was in Coffy. I was doing it then! People called it tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes I feel like I was ahead.

Grier Appeared On TV In The '80s and '90s -- Then Came 'Jackie Brown'

Grier in Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown." Source: (spoterncom)

Throughout the 1980s, Pam Grier continued to work, mostly in TV. She played recurring characters on Crime StoryNight Court, Miami Vice and Knots Landing, and also appeared on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. She returned to her blaxploitation roots in 1997 when she played the title role in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown. Her work on the film earned Grier several awards and accolades. 

You Can Read About Pam Grier

Grier in 'Coffy,' 1973. Source: IMDB

Pam Grier was profiled in the 2006 book, Women of Blaxploitation: How the Black Action Film Heroine Changed American Popular Culture, written by Yvonne D. Sims. In it, the author examines how the blaxploitation genre, while immersed in violence, sex, and nudity, helped African American actresses break stereotypes and lay a foundation for strong black characters in later films. In 2010, Grier published her memoir Foxy: My Life In Three Acts.

Pam Grier In The 2000s

Pam Grier appeared for five seasons on "The L Word." Source: (pride.com)

For five seasons in the 2000s, Pam Grier played Kit Porter on TV’s The L Word, which found her yet another group of fans in the LGBTQ community. She also appeared in This Is Us and Smallville, among other roles. She continues to earn acclaim for her acting work. 

Pam Grier's Love Life

Pam Grier with Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Source: (breitbart.com)

Although Pam Grier has not yet married, she was involved in a few high-profile romances. In the 1970s, she briefly dated Soul Train’s Don Cornelius and basketball star Wilt Chamberlin. She met actor Freddie Prinze in 1973 and the two were in a serious relationship but ended it due to Prinze’s drug addiction. In 1977, she dated comedian Richard Pryor, which also ended because of drug use. Her relationship with the basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, however, ended when she refused to convert to Islam for him. 

Pam Grier Helped Change The Film Industry

Pam Grier in 1976; in 'Coffy' (1974); in 'Scream Blacula Scream' (1973). Source: Pinterest; MGM via IMDB; MGM via IMDB.

Grier faced resistance from some men within the film industry, who felt threatened by her, and even worried that the sort of roles she was playing onscreen might give docile women bad ideas. She told The Guardian in 2011:

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 thought: 'We don't need to walk behind [men], we should walk beside you.'

Tags: 1970s Actors | Blaxploitation | Celebrities In The 1970s | Celebrities When They Were Young | Coffy | Foxy Brown | Movies In The 1970s | Pam Grier | Quentin Tarantino

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.