By Charles Hallman
Initially her goal was to make movies, but instead Pam Grier became an icon by starring in them.
“I was very reticent about being an actor,” she explained, “because you act, then you are unemployed, then you act [again]. And it’s subjective: You’re hired by your looks and height. I’m 5’-8”. If a [male] actor is 5’-6”, I’m not going to get the job because I am going to tower over him.”
The legendary screen and television actress recently talked to the MSR before her appearance May 14 at an evening screening of one of Grier’s most notable films, Foxy Brown, sponsored by the Twin Cities Black Film Festival at the Radisson Plaza Hotel in downtown Minneapolis.
“I went into [films] to be a filmmaker, a director, a cinematographer,” recalled Grier, who prior to starting her film career in 1970 worked three jobs as a new transplant in California. “I was trying to become a film student, but it’s less costly [to go to college] when you are a [legal state] resident, and I wasn’t. I felt if I could just stay in California for at least two years and become a resident, I could study at UCLA.”
She began to “get her feet wet” by getting involved with film crews on the UCLA campus, Grier continued. “I wanted to give myself two years to experience that, to see if that is what I really wanted to do.”
Grier’s first film role was as the “fourth woman” in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970). Then famed cult director Roger Corman was searching for a female actress for a film about a women’s penitentiary.
Corman “liked my attitude, which was raw,” Grier remembered. “[He] said I had this raw ability [but] I said, ‘I didn’t want to be an actress, and I can’t leave my jobs to be an actor. I need to go to school.’”
Even after Corman assured her that she could also learn filmmaking while working for him, Grier told him, “I don’t want to be fired. I [have] to depend on me. I don’t depend on a male from the elite privileged [class].” She then traveled to the Philippines, where Corman shot his prison-themed movie that the actress claims she originally agreed to do only “for tuition.”
However, the budding film student quickly became a Black cinematic star as her assertive on-screen performance transformed The Big Doll House (1971) from “an ordinary, exploitatitive women-in-prison movie,” Grier proudly said.
“I elevated a ‘B’ movie that was with women in wet T-shirts to something with more substance and thought,” she said. “They hadn’t planned to put a Black woman in that role, so they didn’t have that perspective from where I was coming from. They could care less about dialogue, but I took the dialogue and did something different with it. Because of the sensitivity of being of a community who struggled with privilege, I had a different perspective, so I brought a different meaning to the words.
“At the time, it was Black Panthers, Black militancy, Black liberals and Black conservatives, and I was in the middle,” Grier continued. “We had all of that exploding because of the civil rights issues. Also parallel with that was the women’s movement: Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem and [Barbara] Jordan speaking for the feminist movement. We had a lot of that speaking — we were beginning to think, becoming a society of thinkers on who we wanted to be and [what we] enjoyed doing.”
More importantly, in that movie, and over the course of four decades, Greer became an unforgettable leading lady in such action films as Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974), Friday Foster and Sheba, Baby (both in 1975) — all during the era of 1970s Black films where mainly Black male leads were the ones going after “Da Man.”
Many call her films and similar Black movies released at that time “blaxploitation movies,” a term that Grier points out was first coined by a Black film executive.
“They didn’t say ‘Chinese or Asian exploitation’ for the Bruce Lee films [but] they said ’Black exploitation’ to identify to the distributor that it is a film for the Black community,” she pointed out. “It’s action, music, pop culture, and that was it was all about.
“When I became popular, the conservatives didn’t want me to be a female action heroine, and the liberals were from a totally different sphere.”
Grier’s legendary films have passed the test of time. Now being discovered by a new generation, and nostalgically rediscovered by others who remembered them, DVD box sets of Grier’s films are selling well both domestically and in such international markets as Japan and the Netherlands.
“Our films were showing a culture,” Grier boasted. “Coffy and Foxy Brown have played in Germany, Italy, France and London. The young filmmakers today are so inspired by seeing what we did in the ’70s.”
Next: Pam Grier talks about Jackie Brown, which Quentin Tarantino specifically wrote for her, the state of Black actors and actresses today, and the one role she unregretably turned down.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.