Pam Grier: In Her Own Words


The first American-born female action star, one of the pre-eminent sex symbols of the 1970s, and a fiercely self-reliant, independent woman who reshaped dramatically the representation of Black women onscreen, Pam Grier’s cinematic persona was a remarkable combination of toughness and tenderness that made her the undisputed queen of the blaxploitation boom.

In interviews and her 2010 memoir Foxy, Grier reflects on breaking into showbiz with the “women in prison” subgenre films The Big Doll House (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972), made with producer Roger Corman and director Jack Hill on the cheap in the Philippines, which then paved the way for her now-iconic avenging angel roles in Coffy (1973), Scream Blacula Scream (1973), Foxy Brown (1974), and Sheba, Baby (1975), as well as her “comeback” showcase, Jackie Brown (1997). These days, she is still acting—“I love being asked at 70 to show my badonkadonk, my gray hair and my craziness,” she said in 2019, with the release of Poms—and lives on a horse ranch in rural Colorado.

As our Late Nites series pays tribute, Metrograph takes a look back at the storied life of Pam Grier—whose intelligence and sensitivity as an actor is matched by her powers as a natural-born raconteur—in her own words.

On being the undisputed queen of the blaxploitation boom

scream blacula scream

Scream Blacula Scream (1973)

“It’s difficult to define something when you’re in the center of it, so I really didn’t see what was happening while I was living it. But there were a lot of opinions about this genre, as it was being defined by the mainstream, the black leftists, the religious right conservatives, and the lesbian community. To me, what really stood out in the genre was women of color acting like heroes rather than depicting nannies or maids. We were redefining heroes as school teachers, nurses, mothers, and street-smart women who were proud of who they were. They were far more aggressive and progressive than the Hollywood stereotypes. Despite the fact that many men and some women were not supportive of female equality like they are today, the roles all made sense to me. After all, these were the women with whom I grew up. I guess I was ahead of my time.”

On taking a leap of faith, at age 21, to work with Roger Corman on her first role

The Big Doll HOuse

The Big Doll House (1971)

“I said, ‘Roger, I’m leaving three jobs, and I want to get into film school, and you want to hire me? I don’t know anything about acting. I don’t want to leave these jobs and have you fire me.’ But in a sense, he was sponsoring me to learn whatever I could. I did my own makeup. I read Stanislavski, and that was my bible. And that’s how I learned what an actor does.”

On the realities of working on a Corman exploitation set

the big bird cage

The Big Bird Cage (1972)

“My stuntman was a Filipino man covered in Max Factor chocolate makeup with a piece of carpet on his head for an Afro wig—and he came up to my waist… I learned Tagalog just to be able to figure out what they were saying. But I could pick him up and throw him across the room.”

On empowering women of color

friday foster 3

Friday Foster (1975)

“I wanted everyone to get used to seeing women of color. I did nudity in Coffy and Foxy Brown to help create the audience, to make people accept seeing women in power, with martial arts and guns. I call it the ‘Brown Nipple Revolution.’ I wanted to make people start seeing women of color, because we weren’t the epitome of sexual attraction for the male audience, in movies, magazines, anything. I said, ‘How come we don’t see women of color in Hollywood and see them beautifully, like Fellini and Bertolucci and Bergman see women? They just don’t do it.’ But we were told our brown nipples weren’t attractive. I was trying to break that line of what was acceptable in society.”

On the inspiration behind foxy brown

Foxy Brown gun

Foxy Brown (1974)

“She is the woman who is a little bit more aggressive than Coffy; Coffy was a grass-roots communicator, Foxy was strategically more radical and aggressive. I wanted to show that side of womanhood. She is like my aunt—my aunt basically was a Foxy Brown: she rode a Harley, she wanted to be an architect, she’s beautiful, the song ‘Brick-House’ [by the Commodores] was written for her, and she’s very smart and independent… To show that, it shook a patriarchal world and a movie-going world.”

On shifting female representation onscreen

Friday Foster (1975)

“It was an exciting time in the ’70s. I broke the mold, if you will, in the sense that men would say, ‘Wow, I don’t want to attack you, because I love you and respect you so much, and I understand you should be allowed to be sexual.’ There were so many things that were happening then. All I wanted to do was show how I survived in my family as a woman. Yes, I was raped at six. And I didn’t curl up and die. Then it happened again at 18. It was a horrible attack. So I wanted to let women know, you might be raped once or twice, I don’t wish it on anybody, but I’m okay. That was the greatest gift I could give back to people who followed me in movies.”

On maintaining her independence


Coffy (1973)

“I was brought up to be self-sufficient and to accept that as a member of the human race, there are certain things you have to go through. I always thought that not living here in Hollywood was a way of showing that I’m not afraid of losing my career. I’m afraid of losing me.”

On her relationship with Richard Pryor

Greased Lightening

Greased Lightning (1977)

“He made me very happy. But I knew that he was going to squander it. I was there for him. I got him a bike, and we went riding on the beach. The happiest moment was seeing him get on that bike. Or when I put his horse in the back seat of my Jaguar. He loved that horse. He was so happy. We were a real couple. Then outside forces would force him to be Richard Pryor, the Man.”

On turning down a role in the 1983 James Bond flick Octopussy

scream blacula scream 2

Scream Blacula Scream (1973)

“I remember the meeting. The role was like, I just walk around in a bikini. When I read this script I said, ‘Is that it?’ And I didn’t mean to insult Cubby Broccoli and everybody who was there at MGM meeting me. But I said, you know, I’m bringing a huge audience, and they’re going to want their money back. They’re not going to find you. They’re going to find me. So I’ll pass.”

On filming Jackie Brown with Quentin Tarantino

jackie brown

Jackie Brown (1997)

“I tried to knock every shot out of the park by being as real and raw as possible. A perfect example was an interrogation scene I did with Michael Keaton’s character, Ray Nicolette, a government agent. I wanted it to feel like a real interrogation room, where they shined a glaring light on you and didn’t allow you to leave to go the bathroom. I sat on a hard chair for eight hours to shoot that scene, and I took no bathroom breaks. I wanted to feel trapped and scared because the agent was supposed to be pressuring me. ‘I’m cornered,’ I said to myself as my bladder was slowly filling up. The hours went by, and I had to go to the bathroom so badly my eyes hurt. I thought I might let it go right there in my seat. Finally, when I couldn’t have been any more tired or cranky with my bladder so full I could scream, I had a spontaneous angry outburst that defined the agony of the moment.”

ON life at the ranch

pam grier ranch

Photograph by Rikkí Wright for The New Yorker

“I’m up at three or four, before the sun comes up. I get my coffee and all the dogs, and we go down to the barn and check on the horses. I kiss them and hug them. Because I’m a cancer survivor, I say, ‘If you wake up breathing, you’re going to have a good day.’”