Spotlight On: Pam Grier

The daughter of an Air Force soldier and a nurse, Pam Grier did not just shatter the proverbial glass ceiling she took a hammer to it and pounded it into sand. Initially moving from her home in Colorado to Los Angeles for school, Grier took a job as a receptionist for a studio and occasionally delved into the music industry. But there was no denying that she radiated a natural charisma and her bosses realized this, to the point that B-movie legend Roger Corman wanted her cast in an upcoming women in prison film. Despite her film debut being in a supporting role, she is the one audiences wanted to see more of. From there Pam Grier found even more acting work in cult and exploitation flicks until her breakout role in Coffy turned her into a full-fledged action hero and movie star. During the “blaxpoitation” era of the 70’s she was undoubtedly one of the biggest box office draws on the planet, but sadly her star seemed to fade following this period. While Hollywood may not have seen her as they once did, audiences never forgot about Pam Grier. True enough the 1990’s saw her have a career resurgence as those who grew up watching her onscreen began to cast her in their own movies, most notably an acclaimed turn in Jackie Brown. While she spent a number of years seen by laypeople as the star of a niche corner of cinema, Pam Grier is now largely recognized as the groundbreaking star that she was. As a black woman in a largely white man industry, she conquered the world becoming nothing short of an icon in the process.

The Big Doll House (1971): While Pam Grier had never acted before, legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman realized her potential early on and had her cast in this “women in prison” movie to be shot remotely in the Philippines. What she lacked in experience, she more than made up for in work ethic and a natural screen presence. Among the ensemble cast of young women, her character was the tough one and there was no doubt you would ever forget her. She was the only one seemingly ready and willing to stand up to the sleazy trader Harry (Sid Haig) and participating in the climactic escape. In addition to being her screen debut, the Big Doll House was her first collaboration with director Jack Hill and actor Sid Haig who would both play huge roles in her career as she began her meteoric rise.

Coffy (1973): When it was clear, Pam Grier was more than capable of carrying her own film, Jack Hill was more than willing to cast her as the titular hero in his latest action flick Coffy. By day Flower Child Coffin AKA Coffy was a nurse seeing firsthand the problems drugs and crime were bringing on her community. So by night she decides to take matters into her own hands as a vigilante using guns, sex appeal, or good old fashioned ass-kicking to bring down the local criminal empire. At the top of this empire is the scene-stealing “King” George (Robert DoQui) who is so high up in society, Coffy has to get creative in taking him out. This film broke new ground by being an action movie with an African American woman in the lead, and Pam Grier was more than ready to take on that responsibility and in the process cementing herself as a true movie star.

Foxy Brown (1974): While it was initially intended as a sequel to Coffy studio politics prevented that from happening. However, Foxy Brown may be the movie Pam Grier is most associated as the biggest hit of her heyday. After the murder of her undercover agent boyfriend, Foxy Brown goes undercover as a prostitute to get to the bottom of a conspiracy. Navigating the criminal world, Foxy goes through the worst the villainous Miss Kathryn (Katherine Wall) can put her through. But thanks to her smarts and a cleverly hidden gun, she is have her revenge. Easily one of the best films of the blaxpoitation movement, Foxy Brown touched on a number of hot topics of the era while still being an ass-kicking fan favorite.

Fort Apache, the Bronx (1981): When the black cinema movement ended in the 70’s, Pam Grier’s time as a leading actress was seemingly over. But she was far from done acting, evolving into more of a character actress and in this crime thriller proved the depth of her talent. A veteran of the infamous 41st “Fort Apache” precinct Murphy (Paul Newman) takes mentorship of young officer Corelli (Ken Wahl). Deep in the South Bronx they are besieged by crime and corruption all around them. This includes Charlotte, a drug addicted prostitute who has no problem gunning down two cops setting off a chain reaction. This leads to a new dynamic between Murphy and Corelli as the “Blue Wall” comes into full effect.

Jackie Brown (1997): During the 1990’s Grier saw a career resurgence as the directors who were fans of her back in the 70’s began to cast her in their own films. Chief among them was Quentin Tarantino who put her in the lead in his anticipated Pulp Fiction follow-up Jackie Brown. A flight attendant who is now beginning to realize the passage of time, Jackie uses her job as a cover to launder money for the crime boss Ordell (Samuel L Jackson). This puts her on the radar of the authorities, who want to use her to bring down her boss. But Jackie has plans of her own, and with the help of Max Cherry (Robert Forster) she plans on double-crossing both sides and make off with a fortune. Even though decades had passed since Pam Grier had taken the lead for a major motion picture, Jackie Brown proved that she was still up to the task.

The Plot Thickens: Here Comes Pam (2022): After a life and career filled with the highest of highs and lowest of lows, Pam Grier sat down with Ben Mankiewicz for a season of Turner Classics’ podcast series The Plot Thickens entitled “Here Comes Pam”. Naturally she discusses her legendary film career, but the Hollywood veteran also gives an unfiltered look at her personal life. Over the course of seven episodes we get the full picture of the brilliant, courageous, hard working, and overall fascinating woman she is.