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The Trailblazing Spirit

of Pam Grier

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Pam Grier at a reception for "An Evening with Pam Grier." Image by the Canadian Film Centre and used under a Creative Commons License.
More Than Just One Of The Prettiest People To Ever Make It Big In Hollywood, Grier Is Also One Of The Toughest And Persistent Champions Of The Strength Of Women To Grace The Silver Screen

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

May 11, 2015 — Roughly one year before she would experience a career “mini-renaissance” under the direction of gawping fan, Quentin Tarantino, as the hand-picked, titular star of his Jackie Brown, Pam Grier met us for a quick drink in Los Angeles. She was in town from her home base of Denver, Colo., to film additional scenes for Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks spoof of alien invasion movies.

On that day in 1996, Pam strode into the lobby of the Nikko Hotel dressed in baggy Calvin Klein bib overalls and wearing a shapeless brown corduroy hat of the kind Woody Allen’s Annie Hall might have found at a Connecticut swap meet.

Amidst the exceedingly formal beautiful interior design of that Japanese-owned luxury hotel, Pam seemed like, well, just what she was; an anomaly – albeit a thoroughly American one. It wasn’t that she didn’t fit in, more to the point, she just went her own way, something she’s been doing (and still does) since she left Denver at the age of 18 for L.A. and a shot at the movies.

In the family tradition (her black, Chinese and Cherokee ancestors homesteaded in Colorado long before President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation), Pam became a pathfinder herself in the early 1970s by exploding cinematic stereotypes about which parts blacks could and couldn’t portray on screen. She pretty much originated the action heroine role of a strong, independent black woman who prevails against the long odds of a society indifferent to her suffering.

Decades before such female archetypes such as Sigourney Weaver in Alien or Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise struck their first celluloid body blows in defense of womankind, Pam was singlehandedly keeping the neighborhood safe from junkies, pushers and “The Man” himself through karate chops, jujitsu kicks or any other instrument of destruction within reach. In Sheba Baby, for instance, the resourceful Pam even struck back by producing a handgun that she had hidden deep in the recesses of her Afro. Word to your mother!

In addition to the inspired (sometimes cartoonish) violence, films like Coffy featured liberal doses of nudity that were a revelation to moviegoers conditioned more to titillation than more graphic depiction of sex. Standing a statuesque 5-feet, 8-inches tall, and blessed with cleavage that conjured images of the Grand Canyon, Grier soon found herself playing the dual role of sex symbol and avenging angel – a potent combination.

“I was really just a down-home girl, a kind of grass-roots avenger,” Pam gently protested. “People confuse me with ‘Cleopatra Jones’ who wore designer gowns while kicking butt. I always had a man in my life, worked at a job and drove a battered Mustang.

“One thing people forget is that my man would always protect me,” she continued. “It was only after he was killed, or whatever, that I stood up for myself. That was the underlying message of those movies; that women can be self-sufficient and don’t have to fold like a house of cards in adversity. In my own family’s past, the pioneer women were all ‘Foxy Browns.’ If the mule dropped dead, these women were out in the fields in the harness pulling the plow.”

According to Pam, Coffy, Foxy Brown, et. al., were reflections of African-American culture in the ‘70s and not “blaxploitation films,” a widely-used description she thinks is inaccurate.

“Black cat … black magic … black-balled … blaxploitation … they all have negative connotations,” Grier said. “My films didn’t exploit the black audience, they mirrored it. All those movies were reflections of African-American religion, music, art and pop culture. Hell, the Foxy Brown soundtrack is $87 if you can find it!” (At the time, Tarantino told her he had been looking for the ‘Foxy Brown’ album in record stores all over L.A.)

It was Pam’s willingness to play against type that led to her being cast as Charlotte, the murderous hooker in 1981’s Fort Apache the Bronx, co-starring Paul Newman. The role, uncompromising and blistering in its depiction of the scourge of angel dust, put Grier back in the sights of the Hollywood elite.

“I turned down the nurse role (played by Rachel Ticotin) in the movie even though everyone thought I was crazy because the nurse got to make out with Paul Newman,” Pam laughed. “I just thought the Charlotte role was richer.”

Pam hedged her bet by doing three weeks of “personal research” that included visiting shooting galleries with their own peculiar menus graffitied to the walls: hypodermics, $1.50 each; syringes, 50 cents.

“I even interviewed ladies of the evening, afternoon and morning,” Pam said. “The razor blade that Charlotte uses to cut the jugular of one of her tricks was my idea. Oddly enough, I heard about that growing up in the projects. Cute stuff.”

For Pam, those hardscrabble experiences from her early days are a long time gone and need only be referenced for movie roles. She told us she was thankful for the volunteer work she did with youth gangs, kayaking, skiing and hiking in her beloved Rocky Mountains and even the option of sitting serenely and watching a softball game that she may happen upon while out for a drive.

“This is heaven on Earth right here, right now,” she told us. “Each day you can make it your heaven or your hell. It’s your choice.”

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at www.reeltoreal.com
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