Who could forget the posters for Coffy and Foxy Brown? A crazy montage of gun-toting bad guys, shady ladies, slicked out pimps, car chases and brawls, and in the center of all the chaos stood this beautiful woman, looking powerful, in control, and audiences thought, ‘I’ve got to see this.’ Who could resist a movie with the tagline The Baddest One-Chick Hit-Squad in Town? Back then I was just in elementary school and my parents would have no part of it. So I had to wait many years before I could see Pam Grier in action, but it was worth it. Despite the stiff dialogue and all the other flaws with these films, she stood out as an empowering black female role model at a time when there weren’t many.
The previously private Grier finally lets loose in her new memoir Foxy: My Life in Three Acts (co-written with Andrea Cagan) and you see how truly fierce she is. The actress was a Colorado farm girl with a close-knit family, the daughter of a nurse and an Air Force mechanic whose career brought the family all across the country and abroad where she was exposed to different cultures early on life, giving her an open mindedness that is the basis of who she is. She endured sexual abuse not once, but twice, a woman who has lived through racial discrimination, who moved beyond the B movies that launched her career like The Big Dollhouse and Women in Cages to become an iconic figure in the blaxploitation film genre, now considered groundbreaking for how it embodied strong black women.
Grier has also had her heart broken by a string of famous, but ultimately disappointing lovers, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who had begun embracing Islam early in their relationship and ultimately left her to take a Muslim bride, Freddie Prinze and Richard Pryor, whose addictions made life together impossible; she is a cancer survivor who got through her illness with both Eastern and Western medicines, a spiritually open soul, an avid reader, and so much more. Pam Grier is a consummate professional who approached all of her roles with dignity and saw them as learning opportunities both for her and others.
Pam Grier pieced together an interesting life for herself, acknowledging the pain and heartbreak of life, the career ebbs, and various pitfalls, but never letting them bring her down for too long. She is a trooper, a survivor, and by the end of the book, just like in those old movies posters, there she still stands, in the midst of chaos, calm, in control, and fabulous—still the baddest chick in town.
How do you go from farm girl to Foxy Brown?
Well, I think I brought my confidence to the roles because I was curious and open to a world that was changing; it was the time of the women’s liberation movement after all. And I have to say, a lot of the farm women were way ahead of the urban women. In the urban societies the men took care of the women and they stayed home in the kitchen, but farm women could hunt and use fire arms, they could drive tractors — they did so many more things because they had to.
I had seen that growing up and my grandfather wanted me to be able to hunt, and fish, and camp and be self-sufficient, he didn’t want me to be a victim, he wanted me to know how to do things, and that broadened my knowledge and my curiosity. It made me think, women know how to do things and step into the man’s role. They can stand up to men and show them that they are going to expose the ills of society, and that they are nurturers who want to make the world a better place.
You are a daughter of the women’s movement, even appearing on the cover of Ms. magazine. While many women called your films exploitive, you never felt that way. Where you were coming from and what was your message?
When we introduced an image of the female being so liberated, I think it frightened women a little, “I don’t know if I can do that, I’m afraid my husband would never allow me to do that, and then he wouldn’t be there to save me.” But there was a mixed social response. Other women were saying, “You know what? That’s not so bad. We should be able to stand up and fight back, it’s okay.”
All this was happening during the time of Woodstock, of free love and short skirts. It was a whole different movement, a global movement if you will. So we had this explosion happening all over the world, it wasn’t just about Gloria Steinem, or Bella Abzug, or Shirley Chisholm, or Barbara Jordan, it was coming from all around over, with people like Indira Gandhi standing up and saying, “no.” Growing up I could see how influential women were going to be in the world.
It was all about Buddhist principles of balance, Yin and Yang. We didn’t want to castrate men, like some of the men and women thought back in the day. We just wanted to stand up. Women were doing what Pam was trying to show them that they could do. It’s still so refreshing to have so many women tell me that I helped give them the confidence to be a firefighter, an Olympic s skier, and so many other things. Women just wanted to elevate themselves without putting anyone else down, and we have made such incredible strides.
Throughout your book, you are often very humble and self-effacing. When did you realize what a badass you were? When did you finally own it?
A puppy fell out of a truck at an intersection in Denver and I stopped my car right there to block the other vehicles so I could jump out and pull the dog to safety. Then I remembered, “Pam, this isn’t the movies!” Another time there was a lady being attacked in the supermarket parking lot. I got my stun gun and a jack from my car and went after the assailant; she was going to die if I didn’t do something. He looked at me and saw a woman with fire in her eyes—maybe he’d seen one of my films. Eventually he ran off, but again I realized, “Pam this isn’t the movies where they can yell cut!”
I also I put Richard Pryor’s injured horse in the back of my Jaguar to drive him down the highway to the vet. I didn’t care about the car, I was going to save Ginger’s life and I became aware that I will go beyond; I will do what I can to save a life. It wasn’t the movies teaching me to do that. This was something I had that was inherently in my character. But I have to be very careful. Don’t let Pam out on a Saturday night, she’ll put on a cape and hang out in a dark alley!
You were the victim of sexual abuse twice in your life, the first time at age six, the second as a young woman. You write that soon after the first abuse you noted that “pretty girls got all the attention, which made them targets.” How did you cope afterwards?
I felt that I had to be extremely attentive to the fact that your physical attributes could be a beacon, could be bait, and could be the impetus for you and for others to get hurt. So you try to find a way to navigate so that you can protect children and young girls from that type of abuse, and you hope that you can share lessons.
I didn’t tell my family what had happened to me. I kept silent, but I kept my family intact and that would eventually help them steer me, guide me, protect me, love me. If I had told them, houses would have been burned down, families divided.
All you have is your family, I didn’t want to lose them, I couldn’t do that, and unfortunately I think a lot of women keep quiet about abuse because they know there’s going to be such an implosion. What women go through! So I thought, how can I share with other women, maybe help prevent, help them navigate, help them know that they’re not alone. I share very painful issues so that others can know that they are not alone.
What surprises you most about your life?
I think surviving cancer was monumental and remains monumental; because I was given an expiration date and I surpassed it. I had been living a life in search of balance and then my Harvard trained physician sent me to Chinatown, and I get down there and there are people from every walk of life in line at the herb shop getting their bodies checked out, purchasing their herbs, twigs, and teas and I thought, my God this is huge, so now anywhere I go I always look for the Chinatown area because everyone there is engaged and open to trying new things and sharing their experiences. It helps give me wellness. I hope people see this as empowering because I know I did. I pass this around and share it, this journey of wellness and discovery.
You have had such an interesting journey. What do you want readers to take away from your book and your experiences?
Well, I hope that they didn’t notice my dangling participles! And I truly hope that people have lots of “aha” moments and realize that they are not alone. Here I am, this is “icon,” if you will, but someone who has humanized the iconic title, and humanized Foxy Brown, Sheba, Jackie Brown, and all the female imagery that I projected so that it was never one-dimensional. I want others to realize that I get my power from them, I didn’t invent it, I get my “foxiness” from all women. We get that courage from each other. So many women opened doors for me; I want to be able to open a little door for others. I want to give them that connection that pulled me through so that they may pull others through and share their journeys as well.
Pam is currently shooting a film in Los Angeles with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts and looking into the possibility of seeing Foxy on the big screen.