WASHINGTON — Her “Foxy Brown” rivaled “Shaft” and “Super Fly” as 1970s action heroes.
This weekend, Golden Globe nominee Pam Grier hits a pair of D.C. events, first to be honored at the “Salute Her Awards Luncheon” at the Marquis Marriott at 11 a.m. Friday, then a meet-and-greet at the Ubiquitous Expo at the Washington Convention Center at 1 p.m. Saturday.
“This is an extraordinary event for me,” Grier told WTOP. “As always, I am overwhelmed, surprised, humbled and honored. It’s great because I’m a teacher, and I think you should be able to share your path so you can move forward with new invention and with new ideas.”
One of those ideas is Bounce TV’s new streaming service “Brown Sugar,” featuring more than 200 African-American flicks. It’s available on Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Amazon Kindle, Roku and Google Chromecast. Subscribers receive a seven-day free trial, then pay $3.99 per month.
“[It’s] long overdue,” Grier said. “They’re movies that our greatest stars have been in [but] are obscure. … Back then, you didn’t see as many movies [released] because they didn’t have the promotional budget. … Now you can revisit these films. Hopefully it’ll inspire new filmmakers.”
The Brown Sugar streaming library includes such classics as Godfrey Cambridge in “Cotton Comes to Harlem” (1970), Richard Roundtree in “Shaft” (1971), Ron O’Neal in “Super Fly” (1972), Sidney Poitier in “In the Heat of the Night” (1967) and Richard Pryor in “Car Wash” (1976). It also includes obscure works, including a Pryor war flick that Grier calls “brilliant.”
Of course, the service will also include Grier’s own movies: “Black Mama White Mama” (1973), “Coffy” (1973), “Foxy Brown” (1974), “Sheba, Baby” (1975), “Drum” (1976), “Original Gangsters” (1996) and “Jackie Brown” (1997), for which she earned an overdue Golden Globe nomination.
“It’s worth revisiting just to spend a weekend or a film party watching these great films, which are a part of not only cinematic but artistic and cultural history,” Grier said. “My mom — she’s 80 — during the winter, we just had a moviethon festival of ‘Brown Sugar’ content with popcorn and movies she hadn’t seen. She couldn’t afford to go to movies, like a lot of our parents, because they wanted to keep us in school, clothed and make sure we had everything.”
Born in 1949, Grier grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Her mother was a homemaker and nurse, while her father was a mechanic and technical sergeant in the U.S. Air Force. As an army brat, she spent some time overseas, which showed her a difference in attitudes.
“We lived in a community off the air base and they were so into American [culture],” Grier said. “They loved Fats Domino, Nat King Cole, American music, dancing, culture, clothing and pop culture. Europeans loved America! They just didn’t have the discriminatory veil or curtain against African-Americans who came to Europe. … That was a great feeling to have there, but then to come back [to America], there were all these Jim Crow doors and discrimination.”
She’ll never forget her mother hiding her eyes from what she believes was a lynching.
“She shielded our eyes because there was something hanging from a tree; I think it was a human, possibly a black man, although whites were hung as well if they colluded,” Grier said. “When you have the pain of that, seeing it in your mother’s face, then as you get older, you see and understand things that, oh my god, it was probably a man hanging from that tree. ‘Strange Fruit’ was the Billie Holiday song she recorded regarding that in the South.”
Such horrific prejudice was the antithesis of her family’s own sense of justice and equality.
“My great grandmother had a sugar-beet farm and a hotel for the blacks and Chinese that worked on the railroad outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming, in the early 1900s,” Grier said. “My grandfather taught all the girls to be equal to the boys: to hunt, fish, change spark plugs, change a tire, bring the boat in. He was the first feminist in my life. … That’s been my mantra all my life. I brought it to film at a time the women’s movement started with Gloria Steinem.”
In 1967, Grier moved to Los Angeles, breaking into Hollywood as a receptionist at American International Pictures, where she was discovered and cast by Roger Corman in “Women in Cages” (1971) and Jack Hill in “The Big Doll House” (1971) and “The Big Bird Cage” (1972).
“I had the forethought of Roger Corman, Jack Hill and Larry Gordon,” Grier said. “They started A.I.P. — American International Pictures — with Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson. They had already started making films with women being very independent [in the ’50s and ’60s].”
This independence was also hypersexual in nature, as seen in Grier’s six flicks for A.I.P.
“It was sexy,” Grier said. “They were revealing in their clothing; women were hot and chewed gum. It was very European. Europeans had a different flavor: ‘La Dolce Vita!’ [America] had a subtle, puritanical background. Religious dogma was inflected and repressed women, who were waiting to burst out the seams — or burst out the bra, which they started burning.”
On the racial side, the era became known as “blaxploitation,” a term she pushes back against.
“What they need to know when they say ‘blaxploitation’ is that it was coined by two black advertisers,” Grier said. “It was to identify to exhibitors if it was a black or white film. That’s what we have to clarify, so people don’t continue a false narrative. … We got into unions, were paid very well, our unions protected our pensions, people got work, no one was exploited.”
Cultural debates aside, there’s no denying that Grier entered movie lore. Her title role in “Foxy Brown” (1974) created one of cinema’s first female action heroes who’s “a whole lot of woman,” a line that Beyoncé quotes as Foxy Cleopatra in “Austin Powers: Goldmember.” And yet, Grier insists that the role wasn’t a stretch at all, but rather close to her own real-life personality.
“My life was Foxy Brown before I did ‘Foxy Brown,'” Grier said. “I’ve helped women who were being attacked in a parking lot. I could have been hurt or killed, but I risked my life to save a woman being beaten up by a mugger who was trying to take her purse. Another time, a puppy fell out of a van [and] I pulled my car into the intersection, put my flashers on, jumped out and grabbed the puppy before it was crushed by traffic. … I was a perfect fit for the films.”
After recurring TV roles on “Miami Vice” and “Crime Story,” Grier’s Foxy Brown persona came roaring back for a whole new generation in “Jackie Brown” (1997), playing the title role in a loving “blaxploitation” homage by the ultimate genre-bending cinephile Quentin Tarantino.
“Genius,” Grier said. “He took inspiration from many filmmakers and Bobby Womack’s music. … He grew up in a time where, if you look at even ‘Pulp Fiction,’ the clothing, the skinny ties, stingy-brim hats, dancing, The Twist: all that’s from a culture we also loved. … Quentin’s work is extraordinary because he observed real people. You can’t be a great director or actor if you stay in a bubble; you need to get out and see people, smell people, feel them, hear them.”
Thus, Grier insists on living in rural areas to keep a pulse on the realities of Middle America.
“Just to be out in the real world, to see real people, real bigotry, real pain, real joy from some hardworking, honest people,” Grier said. “They say, ‘I don’t like some people who are n******, but I love you Pam, because you are fair.’ They’ve been taught by news, family or culture that people of color are angry or resentful. … I mean, we still have a Constitution that says blacks are 3/5 of a human being! It hasn’t been struck out! It’s still there, and people still believe it.”
In addition to race, Grier believes sexual orientation and gender identity is the current civil rights struggle.
“Now, we’re trying to cope with gender and transgender identity,” Grier said. “People still haven’t grasped that! They’re still [asking]: Are people born gay or is it a choice? I don’t think it’s a choice when you’re attracted to someone of the same sex; it’s biological. … It’s up to us to educate ourselves. … When we evolve cinematically, we’re teaching through entertainment.”
As such, she played a transgender character in John Carpenter’s “Escape from L.A.” (1996) before starring on Showtime’s lesbian-themed series “The L Word” (2004-2009).
“I wanted to do it because I just did not know about the discriminatory practices the LGBT community has to endure,” Grier said. “I really wanted to educate myself and learn about another culture, another group who’s struggled like African-Americans, women, people of color, Asians who were put in concentration camps. You need to do that or your life’s not full.”
These days, Grier feels very fulfilled, excited for the rising tide of fresh, diverse filmmakers.
“To see Ava DuVernay [and] Issa Rae … we’re breaking out and being accepted,” Grier said. “If you look at [‘Hidden Figures’], people didn’t know women were scientists for NASA. … It brings a feeling of political consciousness and pride. … The inspiration others have gotten from me, they will inspire others, which will be part of our cultural identity, awareness and pride. To be a part of this movement for women, to wake up with that joy — there’s nothing sweeter.”
Listen to the full conversation with Pam Grier below. Note: Interview contains colorful language.
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