Sunday, November 29, 2009

Underrated Performer of the Week: Pam Grier, Cinema's First Female Action Star

In an interview with Charlie Rose, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino suggested that Pam Grier may have been the cinema’s first female action star. In a 1975 interview article in Ms. Magazine, Jamaica Kinkaid wrote that Grier’s films of the 1970s displayed a “woman who is independent, resourceful, strong, and courageous.” Undoubtedly, her strong female heroines were in sharp contrast to the supporting roles played by most actresses in the action film genre. Yet, despite her groundbreaking roles, Pam Grier’s career as a leading actress was fleeting—with the exception of a revival of sorts in Tarantino’s 1997 Jackie Brown.

Grier was born in Winston-Salem, NC, but moved frequently due to her father’s career in the military. She entered beauty contests and sang backup to Jimmy Womack before landing a job as a receptionist at budget-minded American International Pictures. After a bit part in Russ Meyer’s satire Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Grier starred in 1970’s The Big Doll House, a Philippines-shot “women in prison” picture. She followed it with two similar films (Women in Cages and The Big Bird Cage) and supporting roles in the bigger-budgeted Hit Man (a remake of Get Carter) and Scream, Blacula, Scream (a sequel to—what else?—Blacula). Her career got a boost when she landed a co-starring role opposite Margaret Markov in 1972’s Black Mama, White Mama, an above-average rip-off of The Defiant Ones that was co-scripted by future filmmaker Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs).

That film’s success led to the title role in 1973’s Coffy, Grier’s most famous action film. By this time, blaxploitation films had evolved into a lucrative genre. The term “blaxploitation”—derived from “Black” and “exploitation”—was used in the early 1970s to denote action films with predominantly African-American casts. The genre’s biggest stars were Richard Roundtree (Shaft), Fred Williamson (Hammer), and Jim Brown (Slaughter). But Pam Grier held her own in Coffy, as a fierce heroine obsessed with bringing down the drug kingpins responsible for her eleven-year-old sister’s addiction. The lovely Grier didn’t hold back—Coffy was every bit as violent and ruthless as the criminals she killed and maimed (“Coffy—she’ll cream you!” screamed the ads).

Grier followed up Coffy with Foxy Brown (1974), another violent revenge picture in which her heroine destroys a dope-prostitution ring responsible for killing her worthless brother and her undercover narcotics agent boyfriend. Although Coffy and Foxy Brown were both big hits, the blaxploitation genre began to receive criticism for its violence and promotion of African-American stereotypes. As a result, Grier played a private detective in the more subdued Sheba, Baby and a fashion photographer in Friday Foster (both 1975). Neither film did big business and, by 1976, the blaxploitation genre pretty much came to an end with martial arts-themed movies like Black Belt Jones. Grier’s career as a leading action star ended, too.

She got occasional supporting roles in mainstream movies: she played opposite then-boyfriend Richard Pryor in the stock car biography Greased Lighting (1977); she was a killer prostitute in the Paul Newman cop film Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981); she played the “Dust Witch” in the atmospheric Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983); and she was Steven Seagal’s partner in Above the Law (1988). She stayed busy with television, too, playing Philip Michael Thomas’ girlfriend in a few Miami Vice episodes.

But lead roles eluded Grier until Quentin Tarantino offered her the title role in Jackie Brown (1997). Tarantino had long admired Grier’s action films and he had considered casting her in Pulp Fiction. Her portrayal of a stewardess mixed up with an arms dealers and FBI agents in Jackie Brown earned her critical praise and a Golden Globe nomination. She subsequently returned to supporting roles, but continues to stay busy, having recently completed a long run in the TV series The L Word.

Pam Grier never married, although she has been romantically linked with Pryor and former basketball player Kareen Abdul-Jabbar. She is a cancer survivor. She was named as one of Ebony Magazine's "100 Most Fascinating Women of the 20th Century.”


  1. Thank you so much for choosing Pam. She not only played tough women in movies, but she was an incredibly strong person in real life. She was given 18 months to live after being diagnosed with cancer. That was over 20 years ago. She played so many memorable roles, even if she didn't have the lead, like in SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM. For anyone interested in seeing her films and not acquainted with her work, I'd recommend FRIDAY FOSTER. It was proof that Pam was a versatile actress and didn't always have to play the perpetually enraged woman like in COFFY and FOXY BROWN. Pam was not only a splendid actress, but she was also one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the screen, and is still as beautiful as ever today. What a great woman to receive acknowledgement at the Café. Thanks, Rick!

  2. Rick & Sark , Pam just about steals the Tim Burton Movie Mars Attacks as Jim Brown's Ex-Wife.

  3. My favorite work listed for Grier would have to be the underrated "Something Wicked This Way Comes." Thank you for a very informative write-up, Rick!

  4. Rick, I think I remember Grier in Miami Vice. I thought she was beautiful. Awesome review.

  5. Pam was also good at comedy/camp, I thought she did well with her small part in Jawbreakers as Det Vera Cruz. Also thought she rocked in the Tv Miniseries "First to Die" -- she perfectly fit the part of medical examiner Clare Washburn from the James Patterson book! Great selection!