What kind of action star was Pam Grier? She karate-chopped people. She shot people. She cursed people out. She dunked their heads in barrels of powdered pool chlorine. She seduced for sport, for information, because it made bad men blissfully unaware that she was about to murder them. She was the action hero who got a lot of action. She took out rapists, pimps, imperialists, chauvinists, bigots, and Blacula. Murder her boyfriend, sell deadly dope to her sister, try to steal her daddy’s business, and she’d get you with her sexual Trojan horse routine. Her action had principle — the kind Clint Eastwood’s, Charles Bronson’s, and Chuck Norris’s only claimed to have. Pam Grier granted the original 1970s death wish. Harry Callahan might have been dirty, but some of the vengeful women Grier played were filthy.
Her persona ascended the ladder of opportunity, from nasty ladies’ prison guard (Women in Cages) to guerrilla liberationist (The Big Bird Cage) to vigilante-nurse (Coffy) to vigilante-vigilante (Foxy Brown) to vigilante-photojournalist (Friday Foster). Grier became a star during the age of the so-called exploitation film. But her legacy is greater than any one work of sexploitation or blaxploitation. To see her aim a shotgun at a drug dealer and blow off his Afro is to feel her power. The Pam Grier era lasted only about five years, from 1971 to about 1976. But they were five years that mattered enough to frame our perception of her subsequent work — from the housewife she played opposite Richard Pryor in Greased Lightning and her cop-killing junkie-whore in Fort Apache the Bronx to playing Steven Seagal’s partner in Above the Law and a transsexual gangsta in Escape From L.A. to being resurrected by Quentin Tarantino as Jackie Brown. They were also five years that have never been replicated by any black American woman and few black men.
This weekend the Film Society of Lincoln Center, in New York, has planned a mouthwatering retrospective that both gives Grier her due as a pioneer and encourages appreciation of her as this once-in-a-lifetime event. The conflation of a woman’s sexuality with power is almost as old as the movies. And to a large extent the conflation was cautionary. Louise Brooks, Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor — they played carnal women who were made to suffer, either by death, humiliation, or social demotion. Jane Fonda was almost a generation younger than Taylor, and if she wasn’t embarrassed by the power of Taylor’s body in movies, she didn’t feel comfortable using her own body to empower herself. Fonda was a beauty who agreed to star in the soft-core space-tease Barbarella, then spent the height of her fame running from that beauty. Fonda’s ideas of politics and feminism became too high-minded. She intellectualized sexuality so that it seemed too important to be fun. Grier represented a radical alternative. She understood the power her body had over men (and women). She used that power to make direct personal and political assaults. That was the thing about so-called exploitation movies. They didn’t have the time or talent or money for subtlety. Refinement was a luxury. Crudeness was their currency. If infiltrating a drug ring meant posing as a call girl whose assignment involved seducing a judge, so be it. When Fonda played the call girl Bree Daniels in Klute, Bree needed therapy.
Grier represented a new kind of blunt instrument. After the killing of both her backstabbing junkie brother and her detective lover with the brand-new facial reconstruction, Foxy Brown turns for help to the black power brothers in the community. Seated around a long table, they’re skeptical. But she stands before them and makes her case: “It could be your brother, too. Or your sister or your children. I want justice for all of ‘em. And I want justice for all the other people whose lives are bought and sold so that a few big shots can climb up on their backs and laugh at the law and laugh at human decency!” But that wasn’t the reason Grier connected with audiences. Part of the reason Grier connected with audiences was what she said after that. After her monologue, the head black power brother says that what she’s asking for sounds an awful lot like revenge. She turns even steelier and says, “You just handle the justice, and I’ll handle the revenge myself.”
She was one of the only women of that era handling the revenge herself. There were the “last girls” of horror movies — those women who survived being macheted or chainsawed but who were ultimately surviving victims. And, yes, there was Grier’s friend Tamara Dobson, who turned Cleopatra Jones into an icon. But Cleopatra Jones worked within the system as a government agent who did fashion modeling as a front. Grier’s collection of eponymous crime fighters — Nurse “Coffy” Coffin, Foxy Brown, Sheba Shayne in 1975′s ‘Sheba, Baby’, Friday Foster — did so largely outside the system. They did so from the streets. The sexploitation movies and the entire women’s prison subcategory had a sophistication missing from a lot of the blaxploitation films, though both inherently understood the way that money corrupted all kinds of allegiances. But there’s something amazing about movies that managed to be guilty of perpetuating the problem they’re trying to address. The average women’s prison movie succeeds in every scene as both a work of sexism and feminism, particularly the ones made by American International Pictures, where Roger Corman produced his movies and Jack Hill directed them.
It was clear, for one thing, how evil worked. It was ugly, and so were almost all of the men. The prominence in these movies of Sid Haig, a lanky, jivey white baritone, and of so many other ugly men points to the cosmetic injustice of the era. You can see the power of beauty and the moral rottenness of having none. Sex isn’t the source of corruption. It’s that these guys don’t look good enough to get it honestly. Also they’re men and, in the AIP world, taking sex is what men do. Of course, in the best of these films, the women don’t simply resist. They fight back, in short-shorts and shirts that fail to prevent breasts from jiggling below the hem.
AIP was obsessed with racks and flat tummies and derrieres that could surmount the scraps of fabric commonly referred to as clothes. But the enduring force of these movies and of Grier in them resides in how the sex and sexuality and the scanty costumes were arousing — to certain women and chauvinists. And this, again, is the loopy brilliance of successful exploitation: We knew, and they knew. They knew what the perverts would do and what the feminists would say, even while the prisoners were murdering perverts in the spirit of feminist solidarity. It’s hilarious how smart these movies were, not simply at being what they were indicting but for anticipating social criticism by incorporating social criticism of their own. Black Mama, White Mama handcuffs Grier, the black hooker, to Margaret Markov, the rich white revolutionary. After guerrillas shoot up their prison van, they become fugitives who enjoy a hearty slap-fight with each other in an open jungle field and later joshingly shove rice into their mouths while two people do some wild humping in an adjacent cabin. They were meant to be titillating on the one hand, but they were a semi-ideological Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones on the other.
Grier actually didn’t want to be an actor. It’s hard to believe this watching her work, but she was shy and not terribly self-confident, despite being a former beauty contestant from Colorado. In her memoir, Foxy: My Life in Three Acts, she writes that she’d been raped as a girl, then as a young woman, and that she had to live with the secret of the assaults and the shame that came with them. It’s unclear what brought her to the sex and violence that defined her acting. But it’s not irony she saw in her career choice. It was the opportunity for independence, adventure, and good money. She actually had to be talked into auditioning for Corman. He was looking for actresses for his latest round of productions in the Philippines, where she wound up shooting Women in Cages and The Big Doll House and found a camaraderie with the other women on the set and with Filipino culture.
During this period of self-discovery Grier also seriously dated Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had gone from being a UCLA star to an auspicious Milwaukee Buck. Kareem converted to Islam during the relationship and wanted her to convert, too. It was the only way he could marry her. She spent time reading the Koran at his request and was disturbed by what she perceived as a subservient role for women. Grier loved Kareem (she writes in astonishing detail about the joys of sex with him and other athletes and of the importance of women keeping their sex organs in shape), but she loved herself more. She was a feminist who wanted a career; and the political narrowing of the relationship seemed to focus her on her work, even if that work was the opposite of what any book of God would prescribe for a woman. Much of what Grier was up against in the movies, what she was defending or avenging, bore echoes of her personal traumas.
Constantin Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares was her bible, and it appears to have emboldened her. Yet she wasn’t a personal-trauma kind of performer. There’s nothing Method actor-y or melodramatic about her, nothing classical, either. She had two modes: sweet and raw. There was nothing in between, a universe of feelings she never needed to play. She could be ferocious where a lot of the women of the era — excusing, say, Ellen Burstyn and Faye Dunaway — were cool, pensive, watchful. But you didn’t hire Pam Grier to do what Vanessa Redgrave or Glenda Jackson did. You hired her to do what all that training and mannerism get in the way of. You hired Pam Grier to get to the fucking point.
By 1975, she might have gotten to the point so often, so effectively, that there was really nowhere new to go — or the movies had nowhere new to take her. When she ended her relationship with AIP, she took on a gallery of stock characters that represented the fresh challenge of relative normalcy. Greased Lightning put her in an apron and asked her to cheer and dote on Richard Pryor’s version of the race car champion Wendell Scott. It’s a thin, respectable piece of feel-good movie biography, and Grier was fine in it. Her attraction to the part was understandable. She’d begun dating Pryor, and there’s a life-size happiness about her throughout the movie. But she feels off in it. It’s like turning a cannon into a vase.
She writes in her book of how hard she fought to play that strung-out hooker in 1981′s Fort Apache. She was in her early 30s and wanted to work with Paul Newman. It was an acting challenge for her, but in a diminished way. This was the sort of character whose life Nurse Coffy or Foxy Brown would have tried to save. The thing about the middle part of her career was that no one had come to save her — not John Carpenter or Steven Seagal or Tim Burton. Not quite, even though all you think about seeing her, say, drive a bus in Mars Attacks! is how Burton knows that we know who this mighty woman in this smallish role used to be. It’s as if Tarantino had surveyed her entire career up to that point — the television appearances and sidekick parts — and had had enough. He turned Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch into Jackie Brown for her, and it was both a willful resurrection and a tribute to what Grier had come to mean to Tarantino’s entire idea of movies. (Grier got the script and thought — flattered — that Tarantino wanted her to be Melanie, the randy stoner that Bridget Fonda plays.)
The opening shot of Brown, in profile, standing on a moving sidewalk, just makes you cry for all the love it conveys. It’s a simple sequence: her on the walkway while Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” plays (years ago, Grier sang backup for Womack). But it’s so loaded — the whole movie is — as it regards this still bodacious woman, working as a flight attendant and drug mule on a nothing airline. The movie is the most adult thing Tarantino’s ever attempted. He must find a dozen different ways of showcasing the sad, the lonesome, the dull without succumbing to any of it. He rediscovers not only Grier, but Robert Forster and even Robert De Niro, in the most enjoyably egoless piece of acting he’s ever done.
Grier actually says remarkably little in Jackie Brown. Tarantino locates a wisdom that hadn’t been there in 1974 (she was 48 when the film was released in 1997). The exasperation and fatigue on that unconventionally beautiful face says everything. The movie’s infused with these exploitation elements (Grier; briefly being in prison; Haig as the judge who locks her up; every shabby bar and office from seemingly every blaxploitation movie ever). It’s in no way an exploitation movie. But it’s also as if straight-ahead exploitation were momentarily not good enough for Tarantino or his star. He wanted to grow up, to make himself worthy enough to live up to the occasion of her, not to laugh at or wink at her legacy, but to raise her up, to redeem her. He did.
But in some sense it’s a legacy that’s still only partially fulfilled. It’s true that blaxploitation’s bravado came to mean almost as much to hip-hop as James Brown’s rhythm section. And, yes, Foxy Brown gave Inga Marchand her nom de rap. But who, really, is doing the street-cleaning, fist-first feminizing, and racial equalizing that she did? The story of Pam Grier is also a story about progress, and one sign of progress is whether what seemed progressive is currently pedestrian or maybe even passé. Grier was at the vanguard of a particular kind of strength. On the one hand she helped make female action-heroism conceivable: Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, Buffy Summers, the Charlie’s Angels that McG delivered to us, the assortment of daredevils played by Angelina Jolie.
On the other hand, the politics Grier represented have been gentrified. Jolie does a lot of fighting, but what, again, is she fighting for? Thirty-nine years after its release, Foxy Brown has lost none of its ridiculousness. Nor has it lost its potency. Women are still being raped and murdered, paid less, told they’re not as ambitious as men, encouraged — still — to speak up and embrace their success, to “lean in.” These are debates women are having among themselves, about why, say, there are so few of them running companies and directing movies. The fantastical, cathartic joy of Pam Grier — the urgency of her — was that there was no debate, only a barstool to smash over somebody’s head.