Has any honest-to-God movie star ever been given sleazier settings in which to shine than Pam Grier? With her stately bearing and voluptuous build, regal high cheekbones and proud, prominent nose, Ms. Grier is one of those rare performers who seem to command the attention of the camera by nothing more than natural right. But the movies she made at the height of her fame, from roughly 1971 to 1975, are the type of tossed-together vehicles usually reserved for the disposable passel of starlets who populate B-movies or, as they’re called now, straight-to-DVD releases.
Even the best of Ms. Grier’s movies, Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), both directed by Jack Hill, are cheap-looking, with dialogue and plots that are—barely—by-the-numbers and acting that, to call it broad, would be to suggest nuance it doesn’t have. (The movies work because of Mr. Hill’s sense of pacing, and because he trusts the presence of his star.) Ms. Grier spends most of them getting beaten, shot up with heroin, abducted and raped. She spends the rest of the time dishing out even worse revenge on her tormentors.
In the opening of Coffy, Ms. Grier pretends to be a strung-out party girl in order to lure a kingpin drug dealer to a private rendezvous. Once there, she produces a sawed-off shotgun and announces, “This is the end of your rotten life, you motherfuckin’ dope pusher!” Mr. Hill thoughtfully positions the camera behind the baddie’s Afro so we can watch his head blow apart as Ms. Grier pulls the trigger. It’s one of those sudden movie moments so abrupt and sadistic that you can’t help but laugh.
At the time, the critical line on blaxploitation movies was that they were crass and violent outings financed by white movie executives to exploit the fears of the black audience. Now they tend to be regarded as movies that presented authentic images of blacks standing up to the corruptions and degradations of white-dominated society. There’s a grain of truth in both views, but a whole lot more phony moralizing.
Like the gangsta images of hip-hop, blaxploitation offered a form of minstrelsy that has nothing to do with authenticity. The films took the macho stance of the black-power movement and melded it to the most simplistic and cartoonish aspects of the vigilante movies of the era like Dirty Harry and Walking Tall.
In Coffy and Foxy Brown and the truly awful Sheba, Baby (the three films are packaged, but not remastered, as “Fox in a Box,” along with a lackluster tribute disc presented under the auspices of Vibe magazine), black people are trying to take their community back from dope dealers and gangsters. It’s a given in these films that they can’t rely on the cops (i.e., Whitey), who are always in bed with the mob, readily doling out protection in return for a cut of the action. The movies appear to be delivering the message that black people have the power to take their lives into their own hands. But it’s hard to credit them with that when they play on feelings of black helplessness and despair. The hillbillies who keep Ms. Grier captive in Foxy Brown lasso her with a rope when she tries to escape, a moment that is meant to call up images of black people being lynched and black women being raped by their slave masters. (One of the best things about John Singleton’s terrific remake of Shaft is the way he preserved the charge of blaxploitation while doing away with the racial divisiveness.)
On the other hand, there’s no denying that blaxploitation did allow many black moviegoers their first images of black heroes, did give them some of the good, disreputable pleasures that white audiences had enjoyed for years at shoot-’em-ups and gangster films. Blaxploitation movies were, implicitly and explicitly, a rejection of the higher ethos of the civil-rights years, during which so many black Americans lived out a daily demonstration of the cost—and the worth—of citizenship. But we should all be able to slip into a movie and have a lowdown good time watching the bad guys get whupped without feeling as if we were failing a civics exam.
The vigilante mechanics of Ms. Grier’s vehicles don’t have the sententious heaviness of movies like Dirty Harry or Death Wish or Walking Tall. They present themselves more as a chance for the audience to let off steam than as a prescription for society.
Given the abuse she takes and deals out, it’s remarkable that Pam Grier keeps her dignity as well as she does, even in the gratuitous nudity that inevitably marks these movies. (The sly, dirty smile she wears when disrobing for a man injects a conscious element of performance—she’s nude but not naked.) In some ways, the truest love scenes she plays are the ones when she’s delivering high kicks, karate chops, stabbing a thug who means to have his way with her with a sharpened bobby pin, dosing another with gasoline and then lighting a match, or, in the coup de grace of Foxy Brown, presenting the white crime boss—Ms. Big, this time—with a pickle jar containing her lover’s severed penis. Ms. Grier brings much more passion to these moments than she does to her interactions with the cloddish and stiff leading men she’s saddled with.
If these are the movies that created Pam Grier the icon, it’s others you have to turn to for Pam Grier the actress. She’s terrifying in Fort Apache, the Bronx as a junkie-hooker with dead eyes who kills both for the sheer fun of it, and as distractedly as if she were flicking away crumbs. But it’s Jackie Brown that haunts these films now. Intended as a paean to Ms. Grier, Quentin Tarantino’s version of Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch (in which the character is a blonde named Jackie Burke) is the finest role Ms. Grier ever played. Underrated when it appeared in 1997 (by this writer, among other critics), the movie remains Mr. Tarantino’s best film. It is as rich an examination of camaraderie, as well as a demonstration of action-as-character, as American movies have seen since Howard Hawks’ masterpiece Rio Bravo.
It’s another Hawks movie, though—1966’s El Dorado, a dark romp shot through with a deep knowledge of the pain and dignity of aging—that Jackie Brown also recalls. The amazing duets between Ms. Grier and Robert Forster are the sort of love scenes that American movies don’t afford people past their 40’s, and the type we rarely see among characters of any age: people deeply comfortable with who they are.
And yet, for all that confidence, Mr. Tarantino allows Ms. Grier the uncertainty of an adult entering middle age, no longer sure she has the strength to start over, terrified of where she’s headed. Ms. Grier essays the role with incredible grace and goes beyond it, making the movie an elegy for a career that should have leapt beyond the tawdry confines of blaxploitation. That she hasn’t had a role to equal Jackie Brown seems, while you are watching the movie, inexplicable. If anyone could have uttered Gloria Swanson’s line from Sunset Boulevard—“It’s the pictures that got small”—and made it sound like a simple statement of fact, it’s Pam Grier.