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The veteran actress reflects on her career ahead of a film retrospective in her honor.
Pam Grier is one bad mamma jamma. Once the queen of Blaxploitation classics like Foxy Brown and Coffey, Grier, 63, now spends her days riding and rehabilitating horses on her ranch in rural Denver, Colorado. She’s a woman who’s played by her own rules in life and on film.
This week the Film Society of Lincoln Center honors her “fiercely spirited screen presence” with a retrospective of her 45-year career called “Foxy: The Complete Pam Grier,” screening notable classics like Foxy, Black Mama, White Mama, and Jackie Brown. And the best part: Grier will attend many of the screenings.
ESSENCE.com caught up with Grier, who talked about how she brought her independent spirit to the screen, being raised by a feminist grandfather, and who she’d like to play her in an upcoming biopic.
ESSENCE.com: How did the retrospective come about?
PAM GRIER: They called me and said they wanted to do it. They had a wonderful explanation of why they wanted to do it. My career spans 45 years. It’s older than you, and most people. And the fact that my grandfather was the first feminist in my life. He wanted me to hunt and fish, not be a victim, and be independent. I brought that to the films I made, which shocked and startled, but women embraced and some men embraced in the closet.
ESSENCE.com: Are you saying some of the roles you took, like Coffey and Foxy Brown, had you inherently in them?
GRIER: Yes — I brought my inner life to the characters and to the story. I was very comfortable with guns. I knew that women had a different way of solving crime. I didn’t want to sweep our problems under the rug like many of the films with Black male leads before me. There were a dozen films with more violence and sex in them until I stepped in the shoes as the lead, and then it became Blaxploitation. Back in the day, my aunts and grandmother chopped wood. They drove a horse and carriage. They drove when they weren’t supposed to drive. So, I wanted to show that women weren’t monolithic.
ESSENCE.com: When you watch your old films, do you relate to the woman on the screen?
GRIER: That woman is a part of me in many ways. You bring a lot of your truth to your roles. And also, I take roles that challenge me. In Escape From L.A. I play a man who is in drag as a woman. The preparation to do that is just extraordinary. Letting my armpit [hair] grow out. It was very interesting.
ESSENCE.com: Do I dare ask you which one of your films you love more?
GRIER: They’re so different. I love the way Jack Hill — the director of Coffey and Foxy Brown — and Roger Corman allowed me to be a feminist in my early films. They really allowed that freedom. You weren’t Black, you were just a woman. I loved the evolution of Foxy Brown and Coffey into Jackie Brown by Quentin Tarantino. He called [Jackie] his feminist side. Quentin has a way in his films where he doesn’t want people to come together and like each other. He wants them to fall apart, but that’s that human complexity that’s so interesting.
ESSENCE.com: Speaking of Tarantino, what did you think of Django Unchained?
GRIER: It was amazing. People don’t understand. Yes, you could make it very dramatic. But no one would go because we know how painful the narrative of slavery is. It’s not making fun of slavery; it’s not mocking it. Because if it was, Kerry [Washington] wouldn’t have done it. Jamie [Foxx] wouldn’t have done it. Quentin wouldn’t have done it, and neither would [producer] Reggie Hudlin. They know what they were trying to say within the context of the most brutal and inhumane oppression in U.S. history. And here’s a Black man coming to save his wife and he doesn’t get lynched. I’m sure there were a few more Djangos back then, but their narrative hasn’t been heralded. Not everyone was a victim. I hailed the fact that at least it had a Black hero in it who met slavery head-on to save his wife. I’m sure it’s the voice of someone, somewhere. And maybe many.
ESSENCE.com: When you look at the landscape of Black women in film and television now, do you see a Foxy Brown or Coffey figure?
GRIER: On various levels you’ll see independent Black women not being victimized, being intelligent, well educated and not necessarily aggressive with a gun unless they’re forced to. I love Deception with Meagan Good, and Regina King in Southland being a Foxy or what my mom or aunt would be. I’m so proud of women today.
ESSENCE.com: You’ve also got a biopic coming up.
GRIER: Yes, my book Foxy: My Life in Three Acts was optioned last year, and we just finished the script. It’s gonna be amazing.
ESSENCE.com: Who would you like to play you?
GRIER: I have no idea. Not every actress can play every emotion. It’s gonna be up to them. [Laughs] I don’t know who’s gon’ bring it. It may be an unknown; it might be a globally known. It’s up to them. We’ll provide them with the best tool, the best director, but it’s really up to them. Some actresses cannot play being attacked. There are some women that can’t do nudity. Now we might have to use a stunt double or a body double. We don’t know who can do the work, but it’ll be there for whoever wants to meet the challenge.
The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s film retrospective “Foxy: The Complete Pam Grier” runs March 15-17.
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