Pam Grier: from 'blaxploitation' films to 'The L-word'

Pam Grier appears in a scene from the film "Just Wright." (MCT)
Pam Grier appears in a scene from the film "Just Wright." (MCT) MCT

WASHINGTON — Pam Grier let out a hearty chuckle when asked to assess her impact on the 1970s, action-packed, "they-have-a-plan-to-stick-it-to-The-Man" film genre known as blaxploitation.

"There were quite a few formulaic films before mine with male leads from Jim Brown to Fred Williamson and Issac Hayes with the same formula of fighting crime, thugs and pimps," she said. "As soon as a woman does it, it's blaxploitation, but it wasn't blaxploitation when men were doing it."

Such is the straight talk Grier delivers in conversation and in her new memoir, "Foxy, My Life in Three Acts," a recount of her rise to fame as the queen of B-movies that were geared towards black audiences, the setbacks in her romantic, and her career resurrection through director Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown," a 1997 blaxploitation homage he wrote specifically for her.

In addition to her book, she has a role in Queen Latifah's new romantic comedy "Just Wright" and is shooting another movie with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.

She played straight club owner Kit Porter on Showtime's lesbian-themed series "The L Word" and was a cast member in the CW's Superman series "Smallville."

All of this from a shy girl from Colorado, who didn't set out to be an actress, let alone a pinup queen, and marvels at the staying power of her popularity today.

"Every day I go: 'What, really?' I was surprised, I was amazed, I was taken aback by so much interest in what I did," Grier said during a telephone interview from her Colorado ranch. "Too bad it wasn't any rich or historical work ..."

Still, blaxploitation films were revered by audiences who were hungry to see black actors in leading roles taking on wrong-doing blacks and evil whites.

The genre was reviled by some in the black community as overly-simplistic tales from the 'hood that played into stereotypes of blacks as violent pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers.

On screen, Grier was a two-fisted woman in a man's world. In films like "Coffy," "Foxy Brown" and "Sheba Baby," she was the buxom, butt-kicking action hero who could karate-chop, jump out of airplanes and into the sack as good as the guys. Oh, and the nude scenes didn't hurt, either.

"She was the reigning black female sex symbol of the 1970s," said Mark Anthony Neal, a Duke University African and African-American studies professor who specializes in black popular culture. "Had she been able to have film opportunities in the white mainstream in the 1970s, her contemporaries would have been Raquel Welch and Farah Fawcett."

Stephane Dunn, an English professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta, said Grier was the right package that arrived in Hollywood at the right time culturally.

"She came out in the time black power, feminist era," said Dunn, author of "Baad Bitches" and Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films." "She had the first opportunity among black (actresses) to have the kick-butt leading role."

Grier may have played together sisters on screen, but her life off camera was anything but. She said she was raped at 6 and again at 18, painful incidents that made her withdraw and stutter.

Her romantic life was chaotic. She fell in love with a cerebral young basketball player named Lew Alcindor, but the relationship fizzled when he converted to Islam and changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He wanted Grier to convert so they could marry, but she was reluctant.

"It was the time of the women's movement and women's independence, and here he's embracing a legacy that's 14 centuries old that is not as fair to women," Grier said, adding that she and Abdul-Jabbar remain good friends. "I'm going to leave the movement of civil rights, women's rights, women's liberation to love a man who's embracing a dogma that's not fair to me? Where do I sit?"

She later dated comedian Freddie Prinze, who gained fame in the 1970s from the NBC sitcom "Chico and the Man." Prinze had a drug addiction — and a desire to get Grier pregnant — that Grier feared would wreck her life if she remained with him.

"He was going to destroy me, even though having a child isn't destruction, but my career, my work, I'm taking care of my mom, I've got my family who says 'Pam, you need to get an education if you're not going to stay in the film industry, they may not be enough work for a black female,' all these real valid issues," she said. "I felt very good as much as I felt very sad that I had to leave someone who really adored me, and you don't find a lot of people in your life that really adore you."

Prinze, who also suffered from depression, committed suicide in 1977.

Later, she fell for Richard Pryor, another comedian tormented by drug abuse. Grier thought she could "save" Pryor, even though he confided that he feared that if he stopped using cocaine he wouldn't be funny anymore.

She figured it was time to leave him when her gynecologist told her that she had a buildup of cocaine residue in her body that probably came from Pryor secretly applying the drug on his private parts to enhance his sexual performance.

As the '70s morphed into the 1980s and the blaxploitation era faded, jobs for Grier faded from marquee roles to guest star appearances in films and television. Her lucked changed when she was stuck in a Los Angeles traffic jam and found herself next to Tarantino, a blaxploitation films fan.

The director of "Pulp Fiction" and "Inglorious Basterds" told her "I'm writing a movie for you" based on Elmore Leonard's "Rum Punch" book.

She shrugged his comments off as idle Hollywood small talk until she received a postage-due package six months later with Tarantino's name on it. In it was the script for "Jackie Brown," a vehicle that introduced Grier to a wider audience.

"He said 'I wanted to write my 'Foxy Brown' for you,'" Grier said. "I owe him at least one child."

Grier has been working steady ever since.

When she's not working, Grier spends most of her time on her Colorado ranch enjoying nature with her horses and dogs.

"This is a healing place," said Grier, a cervical cancer survivor for more than 20 years, "I believe in wellness, not being in stressful situations, and sleeping with dogs. Just throw another dog on the bed to stay warm."