“A chick with drive who don’t take no jive!”
The Blaxploitation boom soared to prominence in the 1970’s, as movies from a myriad of well-established genres, such as crime, action, westerns, and horror, were given a distinct African-American makeover. The first big success story was 1971’s Shaft, which saw Richard Roundtree in the titular role as a private eye who goes up against the mob in the ghettos of New York. Shortly after, several films followed with black actors playing the types of roles white actors like Robert Mitchum, Clint Eastwood, and Charles Bronson were famous for. In an era that was heavily-populated with bankable male action stars, Pam Grier showed that women were just as capable as their male counterparts when it came to kicking ass, taking names, and putting butts in theatre seats.
Grier rose to fame in the 70’s, mostly playing characters who shot and seduced their way through corrupt power structures. Her first notable role came about in 1971’s The Big Doll House, a “women in prison” yarn which featured her as part of an ensemble cast who band together to plot a daring escape from captivity. That film also marked her first collaboration with Jack Hill, the director whose films eventually turned her into a counterculture icon and the first landmark female action star in American cinema.
The first few years of the 70’s saw Grier appear in prison-set exploitation pictures and Blaxploitation fares like Hit Man and Scream Blacula Scream. And while she impressed in those movies, it wasn’t until Hill cast her in 1973’s Coffy that she found her calling as a leading lady. Billed as the`“The Baddest One-Chick Hit-Squad that ever hit town!”, Grier plays a nurse who moonlights as a vigilante out to take down the dope pushers and corrupt powers-that-be whom she deems responsible for her sister’s death. What ensues is the story of a woman on the warpath that starts in the slums and ends at the top.
While Coffy revels in the gratuitous violence and sex that was commonplace in exploitation films at the time, Grier’s performance brings enough humanity and emotional gravitas to proceedings to ensure that this is more than your average gonzo sleazefest. Coffy is an empowered character, capable of taking care of herself in a world populated by thugs and corrupt patriarchal hierarchies. A lot of Blaxploitation movies were all about sticking it to “The Man,” and Coffy stuck it to him by blasting his dick with a shotgun shell.
In Coffy’s spiritual sequel, Foxy Brown, Grier is recast as a vigilante who infiltrates a prostitution and drug ring by posing as an escort so she can avenge the death of her boyfriend. Like she did in Coffy, Grier elevates the material beyond the schlock factor on display with a believable performance that makes us sympathize with her character’s motivations and root for her cause. Sure, there’s sex, drugs and moments of degradation as to be expected from a Grindhouse picture, but ultimately, like Coffy, it’s a film about empowerment.
At the time, Foxy Brown was criticized for displaying racial stereotypes and for being demeaning to women, but it was also praised for being emblematic of the burgeoning 70’s women’s movement. Grier’s characters were symbolic of the liberated women of the zeitgeist, and she ultimately became a feminist icon.
As she told Yvonne D. Simms in her excellent book “Women of Blaxploitation: How the Black Action Film Heroine Changed American Popular Culture,” “The 1970’s was a time of freedom and women saying that they needed empowerment. There were more empowerment and self-discovery than any other decade I remember. All across the country, a lot of women were Foxy Brown and Coffy. They were independent, fighting to save their families, not accepting rape or being victimized. This was going on all across the country. I just happened to do it on film. I don’t think it took any great genius or great imagination. I just exemplified it, reflecting it to society.”
Grier embodied the same characteristics in more lone wolf actioners throughout the rest of the decade. In 1975’s Friday Foster, adapted from the newspaper comic strip of the same name, she plays a shutterbug who gets caught up in a conspiracy theory after witnessing an assassination. Meanwhile, in Sheba, Baby, she plays a badass detective who must protect the men in her family after their farm is targeted by thugs. Both films once again portray her as strong, independent, and taking care of business as oppressive men try to enforce their puritanical stance. Not on Grier’s watch, though.
When the Blaxploitation fad ended, Grier fell off the map somewhat. The 80’s and 90’s saw her appear in several genre gems such as Something Wicked This Way Comes, Class of 1999 and Escape from L.A., but it wasn’t until Tarantino cast her in Jackie Brown that the world retook notice. That being said, Grier’s filmography is littered with cult delights deserving of reappraisal. Still, there’s no denying that her 70’s roles are the most memorable — and pioneering. Those years not only made her a household name, but they broke barriers for black women to enter the industry.
If you dig into Grier’s early filmography looking for problematic content, you’ll undoubtedly find plenty of it. These are still 70’s exploitation movies that set out to appease crowds looking for shocks and titillation, after all, so scenes, where naked women were raped and abused by misogynist cretins, were frequent. Then there’s all the racism, with N-bombs being dropped by crackers all over the place.
But Grier gave these movies meaning and helped pave the way for subsequent action heroines in American cinema. She helped push the genre forward by doing what her male contemporaries were doing while simultaneously embracing her femininity and culture. Grier helped diversify genre cinema in more ways than one, and her legacy deserves celebration. Here’s to the best one-chick hit squad that ever hit town.