Tribute To Pam Grier
Admittedly, my first introduction to the legendary Pam Grier was later then it should have been. It was college and The L Word was the weekly TV event that a handful of my friends and I would gather to watch. The show had a knack for imbuing culturally significant references of women’s empowerment in its script but took it a step further by casting Pam Grier, an icon of Black women’s empowerment, in the main cast as Kit Porter. Shortly thereafter I would come to understand the immense legacy she has had and continues to build upon to this day.
Pam Grier moved to Los Angeles in 1967 when she was 18 years old intending to enroll in film school. Instead, she was soon discovered while working the switchboards at a film studio and booked her role. In 1973, she became the first Black woman to headline an action film, a remarkable feat and a testament to her talent. Prior to the 1970s, films were made for white audiences with roles for Black actors often being relegated to enslaved characters or overly meek figures that followed closely to the guidelines of what was considered well-mannered and agreeable, generally lacking any depth. Over time, however, studios began to realize that there was money to be made targeting Black audiences leading to a genre dubbed blaxploitation. While blaxploitation was a short-lived film genre that did perpetuate negative stereotypes of the minority communities, it also became a catalyst for Black cinema as a whole and provided leading roles to Black actors. These parts depicted heroic, powerful figures, a departure from the flat and subservient characters that had previously been exclusively available to Black talent in the industry. Pam was the genre's standout star.
Between 1972 and 1977, Grier headlined 18 films and became the blueprint for film’s powerful sex symbol who didn’t need a man’s help and was inspiringly unapologetic about it. There are more concise names for the character type, and in recent years this trope has been ridiculed for its redundancy and reliance on the male gaze in recent years, but such criticism often fails to acknowledge how pivotal it was for women when Pam Grier first graced the screen. Her costumes were form-fitting and revealing, but always signaled power through the use of bold colors and, of course, the affirming stature in which she wore them. The cult classic Foxy Brown (1974) is a perfect example of Grier’s ability to assert her sexuality and dominance simultaneously.
Her love life was also legendary. Grier had a high-profile romance with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but left him swiftly after being given an ultimatum to convert to Islam or be left for a women he was arranged to be married to the same day. Unfortunately for him, she declined his offer. There were many famous partners in her life, like comedian Richard Pryor, but none were ever able to convince her to wed.
Turning down situations that are not in her best interest is actually one of Pam Grier’s lesser-known strong suits. In the early 1980s she was approached by MGM to be in the James Bond film Octopussy. After reading the script and seeing that her character would have minimal dialogue and main contribution to scenes consisted of walking around in a bikini, Grier explained to MGM execs in a boardroom, “I’m bringing a huge audience, and they’re going to want their money back. They’re not going to find you. They’re going to find me. So I’ll pass.” It wasn’t until Quentin Tarantino presented her with the script to Jackie Brown (his 1997 homage to Grier’s prior Blaxploitation roles, and the genre as a whole) that she finally agreed to take on a major production she deemed worthy of her talent. In the film, you see a familiar side of her past characters: assertive and bold with a complex past. The only thing that’s changed is the style. But whether her onscreen character is pulling a gun out of her afro in the ’70s, or in a ’90s mall food court with a backwards Kangol hat talking about setting up a drug dealer to steal his money, as Grier told Vulture in 2018, “in all of them, the subtexts are a part of me.”
Grier’s life has become a legacy of strong stances. She now spends most of her time on her ranch in Colorado and is a local activist for the farming community there. She has also been a vocal supporter of the #MeToo movement and is consistently calling out the present iterations of racism in America. In 2018, Grier began working on a biopic based on her 2010 memoir Foxy: My Life in Three Acts. I look forward to that project’s completion, allowing a whole new generation of fans to be introduced to the woman who taught us that beauty, brains, and brawn are all innately feminine traits.