The Pam Grier series opening today at the Wexner Center for the Arts is bookended by the two films that made Grier the first Black female action star. On the poster for Jack Hill’s Coffy (1973), she was billed as the “baddest One-Chick Hit-Squad that ever hit town!,” a vigilante nurse ruthlessly taking out pimps and drug dealers. When Coffy screened at the TCM Classic Film Festival in April, Grier was on hand for a Q&A, and as Dennis Cozzalio reports for Slant, “the crowd turned to putty in her hands.”
Grier will be in Columbus, Ohio, on November 10 to talk about her life and career with the Wex’s David Filipi before the series wraps with a screening of Hill’s Foxy Brown (1974), which famously climaxes when Grier whips out a handgun that has been hidden in her Afro. “I prepared [audiences] to accept a woman in leadership, who could be a jungle guerrilla with a gun and fight wars—just things I hadn’t seen,” Grier tells the Columbus Dispatch’s Erica Thompson. She wanted “to make men feel comfortable with women who can handle saws and drills and guns. We want to crash cars into buildings, which is what I got to do. And women cheered.”
“She could play rough, and she could be mean,” wrote Noel Murray at the Dissolve in 2015, “but Grier in her heyday also had an endearing exuberance about her, and a softness. When she flirted with the men in her films—giving her little half-smile—she looked genuinely enthusiastic about where the night might be going. And whenever her characters were captured by the bad guys and knocked around, no one in the audience wondered when a man would show up to save her . . . It’s not irrelevant to the popularity of Foxy Brown that Foxy dresses up as an expensive prostitute, seduces no-good louses, and then abuses and/or shoots them. But as handled by Hill, the sensationalistic elements seem both natural and marginal. Grier as Foxy would be fun to watch even if she kept her clothes on and her claws in.”
Here Comes Pam, the current season of TCM’s podcast The Plot Thickens, is built around Grier’s in-depth conversations with host Ben Mankiewicz. She talks about the traumatic aftereffects of being raped when she was only six but also about the joy of finding herself sitting in as a backup singer in a Los Angeles jam session with Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix. So far, Here Comes Pam has taken us up to Grier’s preparing to head off to the Philippines with Hill and his cast and crew to make The Big Doll House (1971) for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures.
Revisiting The Big Doll House for Slant in 2011, Simon Abrams noted that Grier “comes off as more dangerous than the girl that rapes a horny deliveryman at knifepoint.” New World Pictures’ string of sexploitation movies—Women in Cages (1971), The Big Bird Cage (1972), and so on—led to the blaxploitation hits from American International Pictures: Coffy,Foxy Brown, and Friday Foster (1975), the last film Grier made for AIP. As the blaxploitation era waned, Grier’s film and television roles grew smaller, and eventually, she took to the stage, appearing in plays by Sam Shepard and August Wilson.
In 2019, Grier spoke with David Marchese in the New York Times Magazine about her romance with Kareem Abdul-Jabber, an impromptu duet with John Lennon, and that time she found herself racing through Los Angeles with Richard Pryor in a bathrobe and his miniature horse in the back seat of her yellow Jaguar. In 1997, Quentin Tarantino breathed new life into Grier’s career when he cast her in Jackie Brown as a flight attendant so resourceful she manages to elude both the ATF and her drug-dealing boss. Jackie Brown screens on Friday at the Wex, and in 2011, Glenn Heath Jr., writing for Slant, called the film “an austere homage to blaxploitation films and an emotional love letter to Grier, an iconic figure Tarantino simultaneously respects and desires.”
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