With all due respect to Lynda Carter, the real Wonder Woman of the ’70s was Pam Grier. This month AE has been celebrating the impact and legacy of the Blaxploitation films of ’70s, and no discussion of that genre and its influence would be complete without honoring Pam Grier. Before Ellen Ripley, before Sarah Connor, before Buffy Summers, before Furiosa, there was Pam Grier’s cadre of smart and capable action heroes who brought pain to those deserving but with an identifiable sense of humanity. She has become one of the most lasting images of black culture, equally responsible for creating tropes as she would become for dismantling them.
It likely doesn’t escape anyone’s notice that our most celebrated female action heroes, what few there are when compared to their male counterparts, are all white. Not only did Pam Grier usher in the rise of the female action hero, but she also did it as a black woman, which at the time was unlikely and unheard of. And though she paved the way for those aforementioned female heroes, black women are still rarely given roles of merit in genre films. If black male actors had, and still have it rough, then black females have continually had it even worse. Prior to the ’70s they weren’t just marginalized, their existence wasn’t even recognized enough to be marginalized. Even in the early years of Blaxploitation, women were little more than accessories, props for sex scenes instead of actual love interests and characters. In 1973 Coffy changed things, but Pam Grier’s success and status as a cult icon wasn’t immediate.
Grier first made her mark on the silver screen in a series of exploitation films labeled “women in prison films.” The Big Doll House, Women in Cages, The Big Bird Cage, and Black Mama White Mama all featured nearly interchangeable plots of female inmates fighting against their jailers and the whims of a lesbian warden. Grier, due to her statuesque appearance and skin color (most of the women in these films were white) was often cast as the lesbian warden who took sadistic pleasures in torturing the female inmates. These films, while offering some absurdist humor upon reflection, are basically bottom of the barrel in terms of film quality. If you’re expecting to hear that despite these films’ inferiority Grier shined, you’d be expecting wrong. No one is good in these films, nor given the chance to be, because these films weren’t built on changing perception but providing a slightly more acceptable pornographic experience. Still, these films and Grier’s role in them have left a lasting impact on modern pop-culture from Orange is the New Black to Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s comic book series Bitch Planet. Even when she was at her worst, Grier is retroactively remembered as one of the best parts of whatever she was in.
Because of her frequent appearance in these “women in prison films” and her striking good looks, Grier has been labeled as a sex symbol. But that term diminishes her effort to be seen as more than that. When she entered Blaxploitation proper in 1973 with both Scream Blacula Scream and Coffy, she did so with an earnest commitment that was impossible not to notice. In the documentary Baadasssss Cinema, Grier talks about how she treated the roles in these films like she was turning in what would become an Oscar-winning performance. In her first starring role, Grier’s passion doesn’t come across in the “try-hard” way that a number of her contemporaries exhibited, but as genuine charisma, and “can-do” attitude. Coffy, the titular character from Jack Hill’s film of the same name, is emotionally volatile, unconquerable yet eternally wounded. We’re drawn to her actions and her words, as oddly choreographed and ill-conceived as some of those may be, not simply because she’s kicking all sorts of ass, but because she allows herself to feel the extremes of pain, rage, love, and all of the things that women were encouraged to repress.
Coffy, and a year later Foxy Brown, became instant feminist icons for the black community, showcasing that women had just as much interest in and right to take back their streets as the men did. These characters’ sexuality became aspects that were used to their advantage, and with the exception of a rape-scene in Foxy Brown, these characters exhibited a sexual agency that came across as powerful rather than exploitative. Coffy and Foxy propagated the image of the tough-as-nails and in-control black woman, the beneficial and detrimental aspects of which image have become hard to shake. Black feminists are some of the most capable and knowledgeable of those who work for women’s rights and their association with Pam Grier’s most iconic characters is a worthy one. But black women have also been placed into a stereotype of being angry, hard, and “difficult.” The memory of Foxy Brown castrating a male pimp has had more of a lasting impact on the perception of black women than the off-screen image of that action ever has. From the attitude to the afro, these symbols of strength have been corrupted by pop cultural prejudices to become red flags for the type of women you don’t want to mess with. But regardless of the roles for which she is most iconic, Pam Grier’s later roles showcase the true range of black female power, making her a lasting example of a strong black woman through more than just her ability to shoot guns and spout-off one-liners.
Bucktown (1975) and Friday Foster (1975) proved Grier’s strength in ways beyond action scenes, and while these films didn’t have the same impact as the earlier films, they displayed images of black women who could be layered romantic interests and career women. Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) may borrow more heavily from Coffy and Foxy Brown both in terms of title and style, but in terms of characterization Jackie Brown has more in common with the characters in those 1975 films. And even in the face of those sum of influences, Pam Grier shrugs off her identity as a Blaxploitation icon in Jackie Brown. Jackie Brown is a look at the human being behind the layers of tropes and stereotypes associated with black women, and she is the American black woman in her truest form. No number of nude scenes over the course of Grier’s career compares to the kind of nakedness she displays in what is arguably Tarantino’s best film. Brown carries the scars of a life-lived, and while we don’t explicitly explore her post, we get the sense that she is a woman who the system and culture has tread on but not trampled. And this life hasn’t left her angry, but smarter, more capable, and compassionate. She exhibits a richness of life and awareness of her own flaws and limitations that we so rarely see in even our best female characters. This ultimately becomes far more powerful and satisfying than watching Coffy drive a car through a building, or watching Foxy Brown kill her captors. We tend to look at strength in terms of what is the loudest and most aggressive, but it’s the quiet moments of Jackie Brown that are the most affecting. The same can be said of Pam Grier’s career, whose most affecting role has been her ability to look back on her legacy with humor, pride, and a knowledge that she is not the woman pop culture has cemented her as, but something greater. This not only makes her a Cinema Saint, but a tried and true superhuman.
Featured Image: American International Pictures