Women in Film: The Power of Sex and Independence in the Enduring Legacy of Pam Grier
No conversation about strong women in film would be complete without mention of Pam Grier, the foremost iconic actress of the blaxploitation film era of the 1970’s. Grier began her acting career while still in college, and although majoring in film, she didn’t actually intend to pursue acting. Following her film debut in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), in which she had only a minor role, she was discovered by writer/director Jack Hill while working at American International Pictures as a receptionist paying her way through college.
BLAXPLOITATION: Breaking Molds
The term blaxploitation refers to a subgenre of film in which African American culture is exploited, particularly in terms of common stereotypes. Grier simultaneously embodies the stereotype and transcends it in her portrayals of strong and independent women in action film roles, the type of roles that traditionally had gone to men in years previous to her arrival on the movie scene. While she has a long list of movie, television, and theater credits to her name, she is most well-known for her title roles in Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974), Sheba, Baby (1975), Friday Foster (1975), and the much later Quentin Tarantino film Jackie Brown (1997).
In her early roles, Grier portrays women of color that are viewed as sexual objects by the men in her films, but who in reality are strong, independent and supremely capable of taking out the bad guys when the opportunity presents itself. In both Coffy and Foxy Brown (streaming info here), there is an anti-drug theme at play, with both characters out for a vigilante-type of revenge against the illegal drug trade. Sheba, Baby takes the gender-bending role even further as Grier portrays a former police officer turned private investigator who is called home to ultimately avenge her father’s death at the hands of corrupt white men and in the face of police corruption.
The film Friday Foster in which Grier again played the title role offers a departure from the female action hero role that had defined her thus far. This time around, Grier plays a journalistic photographer, and while still strong and independent, she is not constantly gun-toting and shooting. Based on a comic strip from the early 1970’s, Grier could be said to have paved the way at least in part for the popularity of future comic-book based films.
REVIVAL: A New Twist on an Old Theme
Finally, in 1997, Grier portrayed the more mature, more complicated, but still insanely sexy Jackie Brown in the Tarantino film of the same name – a film and role that Tarantino reportedly wrote specifically for her. While yet another tough and independent female role, Jackie is nonetheless a more complicated character than Grier’s previous roles, a character whose legitimate job is that of a stewardess for an airline that flies from Los Angeles to Mexico and back, a job she uses to smuggle money into the U.S. for a Mexican arms dealer. She ultimately double-crosses both the arms dealer and American federal law enforcement in a double sting operation that nets her half a million dollars.
While working to break through racial and gender restrictions in Hollywood films by constantly taking on deeper and more complex roles, Grier also paved the way for future successes for women in action hero roles. A few short years after the release of Friday Foster found the female action hero roles gaining steam with Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of Ripley in Alien, in turn followed by Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and later incarnations such as Lara Croft of the Tomb Raider films.
Today, Grier is a cancer survivor who continues to work in the television and movie industry while also actively working with charities and non-profits to help both animals in shelters and people going through cancer treatments. Her next movie, Grandmothers Murder Club, is currently in pre-production and due to be released sometime in 2017.