Vigilante queen: Film Society of Lincoln Center salutes '70s icon Pam Grier
At a mini-festival in her honor at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center March 15-17, Pam Grier greets a fan with “Namaste,” the Hindu recognition of the divine within, and holds her hands in the prayer pose. Yet she identifies being raped (twice, nearly three times) as the source of her effective portrayal of anger and vengeance in many of her screen roles, particularly citing her films Foxy Brown and Coffy.
So it is with Grier, the “Ur,” archetypical black superwoman who liberated so many African-American, and Caucasian, women in the early days of female empowerment. Personally easygoing and charming, the now 63-year-old is a marvelous, magnetic study in contradictions: jeans jacket thrown over a couple of different silver and gold metallic tops switched around throughout the weekend, hair streaked with highlights as is the current fashion, but sometimes hidden under a hat. She simply seemed omnipresent at “Foxy: The Complete Pam Grier.”
Perhaps it takes an outside-the-box thinker to be iconoclastic enough to break through and be breakaway. Criticized for being a “victim” in parts which showed her as beaten up, or in chains, and very much in the fabric of the drug-infested black community of decades ago, she was taken to task by feminist critics for not presenting positive role models, and even castigated by the elite of the black community for taking part in films depicting violence and drugs. Yet she was also once featured on the cover of Ms. magazine as a symbol of empowerment. As the decades since the 1970s have winnowed and changed values, Pam Grier is now seen as an actor who showed it as it was, and portrayed African-American females who gave back as good as they got and then some. The early films especially, once thought of as crass, violent and financed by white executives to exploit the fears of black America, are now admired for presenting images of blacks, especially black women, who stood up to corruption and the degradation of some of white society.
Even today, with on-their-feet audiences greeting her entrances at films and Q&As, when it would be easy to kick back and enjoy the laudatory appreciation, Grier busts out of easy categorization. “I brought funk to Lincoln Center” is her crack when the festival programmer, Josh Strauss, proudly announces that Grier is the first African-American actress to be so honored by the Lincoln Center Film Society. One of the first films screened, on opening day, was The Big Bird Cage (1972), showcasing Grier’s powerful and sexual body, her energetic sprit, and her ability to motivate enslaved women to try to escape. Strauss told the audience we were seeing the only existing print of the film, on loan from the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences (though still owned by its director, the now 80-year-old Jack Hill). Maybe someone will remaster it soon, for if nothing else it is a racy, raunchy and hiply ironic portrayal of women and sex, wild for its or any time. Women prisoners fighting half-naked in mud? OK, to be expected from the “exploitation” films produced by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. What you weren’t prepared for was the open declaration of women’s sexual needs, the rape of a “pansy” prison guard by the women, immediately followed by their forcing him into cunnilingus (“I’ll shut him up,” says one of the prisoners).
And that’s just the white women. Grier plays Blossom, the head of a guerrilla gang, and a ringleader to women forced into slave labor. Blossom is every inch an empowered woman of color, taking a beating and then getting back up to turn the tables on her captors and enemies. Yes, there is nudity. There are nipples. And guns and violence. After the screening, explaining her attitude toward showing body parts in many of her films, Grier said, “I was the first to do full-frontal nudity, and I’m proud of that. I paved the way for women to be comfortable in their own bodies on screen. If I hadn’t done that, there would never have been Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, or Helen Hunt in The Sessions, as much as I love them both.”
Pam Grier had been a student at UCLA, working part-time as a switchboard operator at the movie company American Independent Pictures for survival money, when she heard Corman was looking for a powerful black woman to be in his films. An early ambition was to be a doctor, but when she won a few beauty contests in her home state of Colorado, her mother, who Grier says once wanted to be an actress, encouraged her to try the movies.
Grier recalled, “Roger and Jack [Hill] were into women’s empowerment. At the time Roger was paying $600 a week, which beat the five part-time jobs I had totaling $140 a week. I put on that t-shirt, and it was wet, and I sort of came in the back door.” She told the audience that even some of her peers—including white female actors--criticized her for taking part in “B” movies. “But I said, ‘You have husbands and boyfriends looking after you. I have to work where I know I’m going to get paid,’” adding that she liked the humor of both Corman and director Hill. “People thought because I did four films with Jack, we were having an affair. But we weren’t.”
Two days later, in a standing-room-only, hour-long “Conversation with Pam Grier” on a wind-whipped, sleet-lashed St. Patrick’s Day, Grier reminisced about filmmaking in the Philippines, where the cheaply made early films were shot. She credited Stanislavsky’s An Actor Prepares, as well as her real-life background, for some of her methods. “Stanislavsky said to be organic. At first the camera people tried to get me to hit back slowly, so they could catch the angle better. But I said, ‘No, this is the way I learned it, on the streets.’” Grier then did a highly plausible imitation of Roger Corman, speaking very deliberately in his fashion, “Let Pam fight at her own speed.” Soon, Grier said, the other actors were fighting her way.
In Coffy (some prefer to credit Foxy Brown) with her in-your-face, sometimes violent persona, Grier crossed over to a broader audience in applying her brand of vigilante justice within the American black community. She said she put some of her life experiences into her role interpretations. “Jack said he wanted authenticity, so I thought OK, I’ll hide razor blades in my Afro and use them as surprise weapons. That was my idea, not his. Other actresses who had gone up for the role didn’t have that kind of background.” Hers included public school in Colorado.
The weekend salute highlighted the following films: Black Mama, White Mama, 1973; Scream, Blacula, Scream, 1973; Coffy, 1973; Foxy Brown, 1974; Sheba Baby, 1975; Bucktown, 1975; Greased Lightning, 1977; Above the Law, 1988; Escape from L.A., 1996. So, of course, it was not the literal fulfillment of “Foxy: The Complete Pam Grier,” which would have had to include more than 40 films and television shows, such as a recurring role on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” One subtext of the weekend was that there is a Grier biopic on the horizon, though not yet cast (she says she’s looking for someone angry enough to play her). She also signed copies of her 2010 autobiography Foxy: My Life in Three Acts.
Yet the arc of the festival was to show her impact on women’s, and of course, black women’s, roles. After the screening of Coffy, Grier said she saw this film as a landmark: the first time a black woman on film stood up and said, “I’m not turning the cheek anymore.” This reporter’s favorite is the scene in an early film when a white character calls Grier a nigger, and her retort is “That’s Miss Nigger to you.” Attitude plus.
Another breakthrough, and a jumpstart to her later career, was 1997’s Jackie Brown, directed by Quentin Tarantino, and written by him with Grier in mind. She plays a 44-year-old airline attendant besting both a guns ’n drugs dealer (wittily played by Samuel L. Jackson) and a couple of Los Angeles detectives (Michael Keaton turns in a cheeky performance as one). There is even an interracial romance with two over-forties, Grier and Robert Forster. With the perfect timing of a true raconteur, Grier would periodically drop in show-biz bits such as the fact that Tarantino’s script, which some critics are starting to view as his best work, arrived from the post office with 44 cents due. The audience also howled at the image of her cooking for director Federico Fellini. It’s not a new story, but she added to it, describing how he shut down his set to take “a lunch break” –Italians are always breaking for lunch, she said—when her horse accidentally crashed onto Fellini’s set during the making of Amarcord. (“My fantasy!” Grier says Fellini cried out when he saw a half-naked black woman in an Afro bursting onto his set on a hyperactive horse.) For those hearing this anecdote for the first time, it underscored how well Grier knows horses, and that she does her own stunts.
“Fellini made red sauce for me, but then he asked me to make fried chicken. All they had was squab. So I double-dipped the squab in the flour, and there was Fellini, sucking on those tiny little bones like it was a popsicle.” The tale of her getting cast in Fort Apache the Bronx (1981) was recounted with similar zest, as she recalled researching her part of a drugged-out prostitute by interviewing hookers on Manhattan’s Ninth Avenue, at that time notorious for prostitutes servicing truckers at night. Grier said she locked herself up in the Wyndham Hotel for 48 hours with nothing but coffee and a cherry pie to get in character. It must have worked, because when she came down in the hotel elevator she saw Carol Burnett, who ran the other way. “But it’s me, Pam Grier,” she cried out. She added that she got the role because Paul Newman said he was terrified of her while watching her audition.
The screening audiences over the weekend at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center and the Walter Reade Theater on Manhattan’s Upper West Side were mostly Caucasian, and young-ish. Grier made jokes about being in the movie business before some of them were born. Yet during the hour-long “Conversation,” which was prefaced by brief film clips, the attendees were mainly African-Americans, and included some longtime followers of her career. This correspondent sat next to a mother-daughter duo, with the mother periodically elbowing the younger woman as if to say, “See what we had to go through.” An elderly African-American man said he had come to hear Grier speak because she always “seemed true” to him; a number of young African-American women said they were present because “we are just Pam Grier fans,” as if to say “why ask why.” I was at four separate events where Grier spoke, and there were other screenings where she took part in Q&As. In this correspondent’s experience, this has to be some sort of a record for a luminary, even if the entire event was in her honor.
Oddly, the only awkward moments came during questions from the usually self-possessed Simon Doonan, fashion arbiter and columnist, and chief stylist for Barney’s department store. Interviewing Grier before the screening of Jackie Brown, he recalled that that when he first came to America in the 1970s, he was impressed by the image of Afros as a symbol of liberation. He asked Grier to comment on the sociological significance at that time of ’fros being short, medium or very full. Grier turned that slightly frivolous question on its ear, doing an impromptu riff with a willing audience member who had an Afro, as the two of them giggled about how hard it was to keep an Afro looking as it should. “If you drive, you end up with a donut hole in the back of your head,” Grier warned. “And if you sleep on it, you need a kitchen fork to pull it out, not a pick.”
This no-nonsense approach underlay her references to living in Colorado, where she fishes, works her land, tends to her horses, and rescues dogs. “I am enough outside the forest to see the trees,” she observed of her habits, saying she only goes to Los Angeles when in a film or auditioning for one. She did aver throughout the weekend how much she loves New York City, which she visits frequently to go to the opera.
The African-American film scholar Donald Bogle, in his book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks, explains the significance of Grier as “representing woman as protector, nurturer, mother surrogate.” It is certain that she stands up not just for herself, but the community (in The Big Bird Cage), her cinematic sister (in Coffy), stops a rape (in Black Mama, White Mama), and in many films including Foxy Brown punishes those responsible for the drug culture of earlier African-American communities. As for what she thinks of her place in cinematic history, and the history of women in film, her response was true to the unique Grier combination of loving the arts but being down-to-earth. Throughout the three day weekend, in humorous but still meaningful ways, she kept coming back to the theme that she believes she was ahead of her time in encouraging women to “have the freedom to not have to apologize.” And as if to get in one last lick, she reminded audiences that four of her most recent films included a younger man/older woman love combination.
Grier said that she loves all the films she has made. “I would never dismiss any of them,” scoffing at the term “blaxploitation.” “It wasn’t. Blaxploitation was just a little box somebody checked in a chart.” (The portmanteau, created by publicist Junius Griffin, also an NAACP executive, was picked up and popularized by The Hollywood Reporter and Variety.) Pam Grier is still forcing you to rethink things.