Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Pamela Suzette Grier

I first came to know Pam Grier in 2004. She portrayed Kit, the headstrong older sister of one of the main characters in the Show Time series The L Word. I was shocked to find out that Pam Grier was not only the first female African American action hero but that she played the iconic roll of Foxy Brown as well. I dressed up as Foxy Brown four years ago for Halloween. I researched the character for her attitude and wardrobe never realizing it was Pam Grier that played her. That is why I chose Pam Grier as my African American actress to research.

Pam was born May 26, 1949 in Winston Salem North Carolina. Her mother was a homemaker as well as a nurse. Her father was an airplane mechanic in the United States Air force. Pam’s military family relocated often with their assignments occasionally taking them overseas. Pam spent many of the first five years of her life in England. At the age of six, Pam was left unattended at a relative’s house and she was raped by two older boys. This was the beginning of the devastating abuse that Pam would suffer in her life. At the age of 16, Pam was date raped. This event caused her to downplay her beautiful looks for years to come.

The Grier family eventually settled in Denver, Colorado where Pam finished high school. The family experienced great racial strain during this time period. She was not popular in school and had a very hard time finding a date to the prom. She was a survivor deep down and she forged ahead. During high school Pam performed in a few stage productions. She eventually entered a Denver beauty contest in the hopes of winning the cash prize and securing enough funds to put her through college. Pam did not win the contest but she did come in second place. There was a Hollywood talent scout at the beauty contest who approached Pam and made an offer for her to come to Hollywood. After finishing college, and at the urging of her mother to seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Pam headed for LA in 1967.

Pam’s idea of her future was a job in the medical field, helping other people. When Pam’s boyfriend at the time was killed in Vietnam she turned to acting as a way to release the grief and frustration that she was feeling over the death of her love. Pam landed a few stage rolls but she was not an instant success. Pam took a job as a receptionist at American International Pictures to pay the bills. It was there that she was discovered by director Jack Hill. Jack had a deep respect for women and the power that he felt that they held within. He was making a series of women’s prison movies and he cast Pam in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), The Big Doll House (1971), Women in Cages (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972). This was the the Blaxploitation era and these violent and sometimes sadistic films put Pam Grier on the map.

In 1973, Pam played the lead character Coffy in a movie of the same name. Pam says today that the character of Coffy came from Pam’s image of her aunt on her mother’s side who was a strong, independent black woman. Coffy is out to avenge the people who got her sister hooked on drugs. She is a badass chick with a gun that does not one time need a man to come and save her. Coffy was one of the few images of a strong black woman for the young girls of that time period. Also in 1973, Pam starred in Scream Blacula Scream which was met with mixed reviews.

In 1974, Pam’s breakthrough roll, and the one she is most known for today was released. She played Foxy Brown, a jive talking African American woman with a gun. Not such a stretch from her other rolls. Foxy is a woman seeking revenge after her government agent boyfriend is gunned down. Foxy experiences being drugged and violently raped in this movie and seeks her revenge in a way that, in today’s times, may have been edited out of the final cut of the film. Pam was portraying strong black women before this country understood that there was such a thing or that they had a place in society. I am amazed that after the sexual abuse that Pam herself experienced, she was able to act out very graphic rape scenes in her movies. Pam had no idea at the time the impact that her performance of Foxy Brown, and others, would have on her life as well as the entire African American community.

In 1975, Pam starred in Sheba Baby, Bucktown and Friday Foster. She did just one movie in 1976 and she began to fall off from there. Pam was losing interest in what she felt was a repeat of the same as kicking female lead. She seriously questioned in her mind at this point if acting was really her passion and she decided to work less. She accepted small rolls in TV and Miniseries. In the 1980’s Pam did a few guest star rolls on The Cosby Show, Miami Vice and Night Court. Pam was not heard from much during this time.

In 1997, Quentin Tarantino, resurrected the career of Pam Grier when he offered her a starring role in his third film, Jackie Brown. Tarantino was a huge fan of Foxy Brown and wanted Pam to play a modern version of her sexy alter ego. Tarantino knew what he was doing when he cast Pam alongside box office powerhouse, Samuel L. Jackson. Pam proved herself to be just as sexy in middle age and she began her comeback to entertainment. After the release of Jackie Brown, Pam was offered many rolls including guest appearances, recurring characters and supporting roles.

During the press tour to promote Jackie Brown, Pam admitted to having been diagnosed with Cervical Cancer in 1988 and being given 18 months to live. Pam credits her Cancer diagnoses for making her see the important things in life and living to the fullest every day. Pam moved to a 100 acre ranch in Colorado where she rescues dogs and horses. She is a private woman who prefers the quiet of the country as opposed to the big city life. Pam seems like the type of woman that anyone could be friends with. She has lived a fascinating life and has given much back to the community.

In one of her most recent rolls, from 2004 to 2009, Pam played the straight bar owning older sister of one of the main lesbian characters on The L Word. Pam’s character, Kit, is a strong, independent black woman who struggles with her mixed race, her role as a woman in society and her sexuality. Pam is a huge supporter of gay rights as well as civil rights so the roll seems to come naturally to her. I read a lot of interviews, movie reviews and eventually went to buy Pam’s book, Foxy: My Life in 3 Acts, as research for this paper. I am now fascinated with Pam Grier and I will probably eventually see every movie she ever made. There are so many parallels between Pam’s character choices and my life. Reading about Pam personally made me see that she accepted those roles for a reason. Most of her characters did mimic her own life in some way.

Pam has been romantically linked over the years to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Comedian Richard Pryor, Freddie Prinze and, most recently, Hempel from 2000-2008. Although she never married, Pam says she still dreams of her prefect wedding. Over the course of her career, Pam has been nominated and awarded many NAACP image awards for numerous rolls. For Jackie Brown alone, she was nominated for 10 awards. Most notably, the SAG Award for Best Actress and the Golden Globe, also for Best Actress. Pam was even nominated for a Daytime Emmy for her part in an animated show Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for every child. Pam has clearly made her place in history as one of the pioneers for African American women, not just in film but also in real life. Pam had to have known that the movies that she did were racy for the time period. She had to understand that they would be met with resistance. She accepted those rolls anyway. She accepted them, she researched them and she performed them with gusto. Pam Grier is looked back on today as a living icon and a legend, as she should be.

1 comment:

  1. She truly is something else. Here's my appreciation: