Pam Grier – A Ground-Breaking Exploitation Icon

Pam Grier is best known as the leading heroine of Blaxploitation films from the 1970s. Standing 5’8” and demonstrating both sharp intelligence and strong resolve, she’s easily recognized as the embodiment of an empowered Black woman. Her performances demonstrate self-reliance, versatility and tenacity without sacrificing femininity. Her iconic roles often touched upon the less flattering elements of society that remained even with the progress of the civil rights movement, turning potentially negative stereotypes into relevant social commentary despite being delivered in the form of popular entertainment. Pam Grier is arguably the first true female action star whose significant mark on cinema has made her an enduring trailblazer and feminist icon for nearly five decades. There’s no indication that will change any time soon.

Pamela Suzette Grier was born on May 26, 1949, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Her mother Gwendolyn Sylvia was a nurse and her father Clarence Ransom Grier, Jr., was a Technical Sergeant in the United State Air Force before becoming a full time mechanic. Although her image is one of a strong Black female figure, Grier is the descendant of several different races – African American, Hispanic, Chinese, Filipino and Cheyenne Indian. That genetic heritage culminated in Grier’s striking physical presence and unique beauty.

There were hardships in Grier’s youth. While left unattended at her aunt’s house at the age of 6, Grier was attacked and raped by two men. In a 2010 interview supporting the release of her biography Foxy: My Life in Three Acts, she revealed “It took so long to deal with the pain of that . . . You try to deal with it, but you never really get over it. And not just me; my family endured so much guilt and anger that something like that happened to me.”

During her father’s active military career, Grier’s family moved frequently before settling down to civilian life in Denver, Colorado. She appeared in a number of local stage productions and participated in beauty pageants to raise tuition money for college, including the Colorado state competition for the Miss Universe Pageant where she placed third. Agent Dave Baumgarten took notice of her at one of these pageants, encouraging Grier to try her hand at a full time acting career. With the support of her mother, Grier dropped out of the Metropolitan State College of Denver at the age of 19 to pursue her destiny in Hollywood.

In 1967, Grier’s move to Los Angeles, California, led to a position at American International Pictures (AIP) as a switchboard operator. Grier had a bit part in the Russ Meyer exploitation classic BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1970) as a partygoer, complete with a full name credit, before being discovered by director Jack Hill (1933 – present) in the AIP office. Hill cast her in his Filipino shot AIP women in prison films THE BIG DOLL HOUSE (1971) and THE BIG BIRD CAGE (1972). Grier’s bold performances in both films would set the stage for her taking the lead in other AIP exploitation movies. While under contract to AIP, she would become an iconic figure of the early 1970s Blaxploitation films. Her characters were typically assertive, independent and driven by a strong sense of justice.

Jack Hill directed her as the lead in COFFY (1973), where the titular character would be promoted by the studio as “the baddest one-chick hit-squad that ever hit town.” After her younger sister becomes addicted to drugs necessitating commitment to a rehabilitation center, Nurse Coffy (Grier) turns into a vigilante as she seeks revenge on the criminals, drug dealers, pimps, and mob enforcers that have tainted her city. The film is jam-packed with violence as Coffy subverts both the criminal operations and local political corruption using both her sex appeal and unrestrained ferocity. Breaking new ground, Grier firmly cemented herself as a stand out action lead. The film met with popular acclaim and strong box office returns, but received mixed reviews from critics (although film critic Roger Ebert praised the film specifically for Grier’s female lead).

FOXY BROWN (1974), another AIP film directed by Jack Hill, soon followed and was originally released on a double bill with TRUCK TURNER (1974) starring Isaac Hayes. FOXY BROWN would push the boundaries of sex, violence and stereotypes even further, raising controversy for the Blaxploitation genre as well as Grier. In the film, Foxy Brown (Grier) seeks revenge on a drug and prostitution racket that has led to the murder of her boyfriend and has imperiled her addicted brother (a young Antonio Fargas). Foxy goes undercover as a prostitute to infiltrate the crime syndicate, but is soon exposed and being forced into sex slavery for the villains’ monetary gain. Eventually, Foxy enlists a neighborhood activist group, a thinly veiled reference to the real life Black Panthers, to help vanquish the illegal operations and bring a halt to the drug trade.

While Grier’s portrayal of Foxy Brown delivered another strong independent female character, she’s put in the position of posing as a prostitute, exposing herself several times, and engaging in promiscuous behavior to advance her path of revenge. She also plays to specific African-American stereotypes while opening the door for the objectification of women. In a period where African-Americans were fighting for a cause, the potential implications of FOXY BROWN narrowed that cause to one of violence and vengeance. Complicating matters further, Grier’s character, just as in COFFY, portrays a female lead who is nurturing and not afraid to put her personal well-being at risk for others. She’s never a victim, despite desperate circumstances. Her motivation is to seek justice for her loved ones, protect her family, and make her community an overall safer place. For these reasons, Pam Grier delivered a new type of heroine to the big screen, wading into some socially ambiguous waters while redefining how empowered women and African-American characters were portrayed in movies.

FRIDAY FOSTER (1975) marks Grier’s final film with AIP. It is based on an adaptation of the Friday Foster comic strip that ran in American newspapers from 1970 – 1973. Friday (Grier) is a former fashion model turned photojournalist who witnesses the assassination attempt on one of the nation’s wealthiest African-American businessman before seeing the murder of one of her closest friends. When Friday becomes a target, she teams up with private detective Colt Hawkins (Yaphet Kotto) to investigate. The story becomes increasingly intricate as the two uncover a plot to eliminate prominent African-American figures in an effort to prevent political unity within the Black community and secure the continuation of a white power structure.

There are two important themes within FRIDAY FOSTER, both significantly bolstered by Pam Grier’s performance and her growing influence within the film industry. The first is the predominant ideology of Black unity and self-determination through family, community and economics. While there are still traditional Blaxploitation elements throughout the film, there’s a growing sophistication in the handling of social dynamics. The story doesn’t rely on the seedier elements of pimps, drug dealers and criminals, but instead, introduces political intrigue and the complexity of the social paradigms evolving from the continuation of the civil rights movement and, more specifically, the Black Power movement established in the late 1960s.

The second main thematic element of FRIDAY FOSTER focuses intently on gender issues, extending the exploration of the empowerment of women and their current status within society. In a December 1976 Jet Magazine interview, Grier stated “I want to show them I’m not just another body for the camera but a serious actress.” She also said, “I took the parts no other Hollywood starlet would touch because they didn’t want to be demeaned or mess up their nails. It was a risk, but I didn’t know any better and somehow I came out on top.” This theme runs consistently throughout FRIDAY FOSTER as Grier’s protagonist is a woman who perseveres despite being marginalized by many of the male characters, reflecting strong feminist underpinnings as well as an evolution in Grier’s ability to influence her roles. Friday is still required to use her sex appeal as a tool to advance her initiatives with the film acknowledging society’s acceptance of men defining a woman’s power as established through her male relationships.

Throughout the 1970s. Grier had a number of high profile romances, including actor/comedian Freddy Prinze, comedian Richard Pryor, Soul Train host Don Cornelius, and basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. She turned down a marriage proposal from Abdul-Jabbar when he made the union conditional upon her converting to Islam.

With the Blaxploitation cycle beginning to wind down in the late 1970s, Grier moved on to primarily character roles in both film and television. A few notable examples include: a drug addicted prostitute in the Paul Newman vehicle FORT APACHE, THE BRONX (1981), a Dust Witch in the film adaption of science fiction writer Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES (1983), and Steven Segal’s detective partner in ABOVE THE LAW (1988). She had recurring television roles on Miami Vice (1985 – 1989) and Crime Story (1986 – 1988).

In 1988, after over a decade of playing strong liberated female characters, Grier was forced to focus her time and energy into overcoming a battle with cervical cancer. She counts her survival as one of her greatest achievements. It would then take almost another 10 years before director Quentin Tarantino would write the script for JACKIE BROWN (1997) with the lead role crafted specifically for Grier. The critical success of the film would launch the second stage of her career, with many new opportunities emerging for both the big and small screens, including a recurring role on television’s Smallville (2010) and 70 appearances on the cable drama The L Word (2004 – 2009). In 2013, Grier provided her vocal talent for the video game Grand Theft Auto V as the disc jockey for fictional radio station The Lowdown 91.1.

For those looking to explore the filmography of Pam Grier, here is a select list of her more popular exploitation films:

THE BIG DOLL HOUSE (1971)
THE BIG BIRD CAGE (1972)
BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA (1973)
COFFY (1973)
THE ARENA (1974)
FOXY BROWN (1974)
FRIDAY FOSTER (1975)
GREASED LIGHTNING (1977)
ABOVE THE LAW (1988)
ESCAPE FROM L.A. (1996)
ORIGINAL GANSTAS (1996)
JACKIE BROWN (1997)
GHOSTS OF MARS (2001)

Pam Grier broke new ground with her performances in both exploitation, and more specifically, Blaxploitation films from the 1970s. She’s an enduring talent who established herself in transformative roles that stimulated insightful discussion around gender, social activism and the African-American community during a period of collective change. She’s arguably the first real female action star, setting the standard for those actresses that followed.

Do you have a favorite Pam Grier film you’d like to discuss? If so, we’d love to hear from you. Just drop us a comment below or join our Facebook group to discuss..

Contributed by: Drew Beckmann

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6 comments

  1. She was on my list to include in our Ladies of Exploitation section but Pam deserves more than just a few paragraphs. Which doesn’t mean she won’t be included in the future. This is an excellent piece, Drew. Thanks so much for working on it.

  2. I really love Pam Grier and she truly is a phenomenal actress. Even in movies like Fortress 2 I’m pumped when she is on screen. I’ve watched Beyond the valley of dolls at least half a dozen times and never knew she was in the movie. Jackie Brown will always be my personal favorite performance of hers. I generally watch it every year or so and as I get older it’s a movie that keeps getting better. Jackie Brown really showcases Pam’s full range as an actress. Great job, Drew!

    1. Thank you for the compliment and glad you like the write up. I agree, JACKIE BROWN may be my personal favorite of all of Pam Grier’s films. There’s a maturity and subtly to the performance that makes it stand out and something to revisit from time to time.

  3. Great job Drew!

    Newer film fans are familiar with her name but don’t have an appreciation for what she did. This article will be a great resource to share with people who need a Pam Grier crash course. 🙂

  4. I was blown away the first time I saw FRIDAY FOSTER. Previously been familiar with FOXY and COFFY, I was surprised by just how different of a character she was. I guess I expected more of the same but thank goodness it wasn’t.

    I want to include it in lists of comic book films in the hopes that it gets a little more recognition.

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