Unsung Hollywood: Pam Grier
10 p.m. Wednesday, TV One
First she was Coffy. “The baddest one-chick hit squad that ever hit town.”
Then she was Foxy Brown. “A chick with drive, who don’t take no jive.”
Pam Grier was not just the most prominent female action star of blaxploitation movies of the 1970s, but also the first big box-office female action draw in all of film.
And yet, as she revealed in her 2010 autobiography “Foxy” and recalls in the bio film this week on TV One’s “Unsung Hollywood,” Grier’s string of roles as fierce women seeking vengeance could be tied to an early life in which she was abused both as a 6-year-old and as a teenage beauty queen in Denver.
“She took the guns from the guys and used it against them. She took the power and used it against them. She took the sex and used it against them. Pam Grier changed the dynamics of black eroticism in the 1970s,” Michael Eric Dyson, the author and sociology professor at Georgetown University, says in the “Hollywood Unsung” episode, premiering Wednesday.
“She commanded respect, as opposed to asking for it,” Snoop Dogg says in the film. “And to be a great actress on top of it, and not only that but to be the sexiest black woman to ever hit the screen. ...”
And while she continued to work in smaller roles and in theater when blaxploitation movies fell out of style, Grier was also remembered such that Snoop Dogg put her in his “Doggy Dogg World” video and Quentin Tarantino wrote his 1997 movie “Jackie Brown” with her in mind. She spent six seasons as a matriarch on Showtime’s “The L Word.”
There was something formidable about Grier with her gun and bikini in those ads for “Coffy,” “Foxy Brown” “Friday Foster” and “Sheba, Baby.”
She thought of her family when she played the larger-than-life characters she is best known for. “Foxy Brown was a fighter and so was I,” Grier writes in her autobiography. “While my role in ‘Coffy’ had reminded me of my mother, a nurse who stood up for herself, Foxy Brown was my Aunt Mennon, who had a bad temper and was quick to pick a fight.”
When she was first cast as “Coffy,” she says, it wasn’t a role everyone was clamoring to do. “Women didn’t want to do ‘Coffy.’ It was written for a Caucasian woman – to do stunts, hold a gun, you know, and a heavy form of karate or kung fu or jujitsu or aikido, or whatever they’re going to do. I learned that on a military base.” (Her father was an Air Force mechanic who bounced around and eventually raised the family in Denver.)
She brought those skills as well as a simmering personal story to the tales of revenge and justice.
“I brought a lot of my own narrative to the work, which kind of propelled me,” she says. “But it probably inspired a globe of women to be themselves, which is great.”
In addition, it helped actresses from then on “walk with confidence and not be judged as being, ‘Oh, you do stunts, so you must be a lesbian.’ You know, crazy stuff that you never believe people would judge, but they do,” Grier says.
“But as we get roles and do roles and redefine ourselves, people are educated and they find a comfort zone. Barriers are down. Women are free to be themselves, whether they’re gay, whether they’re masculine, whether they’re feminine, whether they’re right or left or liberal or conservative.”
As tough as she is onscreen, Grier, 64, comes off as fairly shy, someone who would just as soon be on her Colorado ranch as on a red carpet. She says it took her a while, too, to begin her autobiography.
No matter what she does in her career, Grier will likely be recalled as Foxy Brown. “If that’s what I have to bear, I will gratefully,” she says. “I just want us to continue to grow and explore and discover who we can be.”