Pam Grier: the first Black Superwoman you didn’t know existed
After binging her films on theGrio TV, you can’t help but have a greater appreciation for what Pam Grier did from women in action films – especially Black women
When I was first asked to review a selection of Pam Grier movies including Black Momma White Momma (1973), Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974), and Friday Foster (1975), I was a bit surprised.
In addition to politics, I usually write about super heroes, science fiction and afro-futurism, so a collection of blaxploitation movies from the mid-70’s didn’t sound like my ministry at all. Beyond that, most blaxploitation films I had seen were terrible, so I didn’t go into these reviews with particularly high expectations.
Did watching these films cause me to do a 180 on my opinion of the genre? Not at all. Most of these movies are still campy see and sexist, with the production values of a senior film project at a community college. However, I did gain an amazing appreciation for Pam Grier, who is a super woman on the screen. She’s badder than Linda Hamilton as Sarah Conner, sexier than Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and honestly might be the grandmomma of the entire Dora Milaje squad. So even if you don’t come to love the movies or the blaxploitation era, you will definitely fall in love with Pam Grier.
If you are unfamiliar, blaxploitation films are a genre that ran from the early to mid 1970’s. The genre didn’t just feature Black people, but was centered on Black characters, Black stories and Black love. The term blaxploitation wasn’t a compliment at the time. Many in the Black community and political and cultural elite criticized the movies for graphic depictions of sex, violence, criminal activity and really lousy writing and production. What was the value of finally seeing Black people on screen if the heroes are always pimps, pushers and prostitutes?
However, the movies were super popular with Black teens at the time, and more importantly, profitable to many producers and directors. This gave stars like Yahpet Koto, Carl Weathers, Tommy Lane, Antonia Fargas and of course the queen of them all, Pam Grier, main character roles when White Hollywood was still using Black folks as stands in and servants.
While most Gen Xers only know these movies through spoofs like I’m Gonna Get You Sucka, Hollywood Shuffle and my personal favorite Black Dynamite (both the show and the cartoon), blaxploitation films did manage to sneak in some occasional commentary about the state of Black life outside of urban fantasy. In the film Foxy Brown, when the titular character’s brother Link, played by Fargas, goes on a short monologue about why he, and many other Black men in his community, end up selling drugs, you can tell he wasn’t just speaking about the fictionalized ‘70s New York they were in.
“Foxy, I’m a Black man, and I don’t know how to sing, and I don’t know how to dance, and I don’t know how to preach to no congregation. I’m too small to be a football hero, and too ugly to be elected mayor. But I watch TV and see all these folks and the nice homes they live in and all them fancy cars they drive, I just get so full of ambition. Now you tell me what I’m supposed to do with all this ambition?” the character said.
Of the four films featured on theGrio TV this weekend, they are actually bookended by the best and worst features, as far as quality and overall entertainment. Black Mama, White Mama is laughably bad, and the last film, Friday Foster, is shockingly well made and fun. The two middle films, Coffy and Foxy Brown may be more famous, but don’t stand out as either exceptional or terrible.
Black Mama, White Mama is a remake of the Defiant Ones, the famous film about two convicts, one Black and one White, whose hands are chained together and who are forced to overcome their differences in order to escape prison. Lee Daniels (played by Grier) is a former prostitute who’s on the run from her pimp after she’s stolen enough money to leave the business, and Karen Brent (Margaret Markov) is a White girl who’s joined the revolution in the imaginary south American county where both women are jailed (it’s actually filmed in the Philippines, but that’s the least of the film’s inconsistencies).
You can’t call this movie cliché ridden because most of our modern clichés probably came from this film, but if there were a Mad Libs for bad film tropes, this movie would fill them all. There’s a gratuitous women’s prison shower scene with lots of topless nudity and a surprising lack of actual soap and bubbles. There’s a sadistic White lesbian prison guard who’s turned on by torturing inmates. There’s a Hispanic gangster who sexually assaults two sisters while cuckolding their father. There’s lots of sexual abuse and shoot outs so bad they’d made the A-Team proud.
If any of those things appeal to you (and if they do, you might want to talk to a professional) or if you just want to see half-naked political debates between a LITERAL Karen and Lee Daniels (I can’t imagine the director knew how on the nose those names would sound to viewers almost 50 years later) then perhaps you’ll like Black Mama, White Mama.
On the other end, Friday Foster is absolutely delightful. It’s a glamorous fantasy adventure film reminiscent of old Lois Lane stories and pulp adventure books from the 1950’s. Friday (Grier) is a jet setting assistant fashion photographer for “Glance” magazine in New York. She’s beautiful, all the men want her, she gets to attend high-end parties and when one of her model friends is murdered, she gets wrapped up in a national conspiracy which ties in a Black senator, the richest Black man in America and the Black power movement.
While the acting isn’t top notch (and remember this movie came out a year after the Godfather 2, so there was better acting out there) Grier is so charismatic as the plucky Friday Foster. She chases down bad guys, gets into shoot outs, car chases and gets to sleep with wealthy and powerful Black men — not for seduction purposes, but because she wants to. Imagine BET’s Being Mary Jane mixed with POWER on Starz and you’ll get the basic idea. Out of all of the films, you finish Friday Foster thinking “Why hasn’t THIS movie been re-made?” It’s based on an old comic strip that ran in Black newspapers in the 1970’s and it’s certainly the most complex and creative of the four movies. It’s also the one that show’s Grier’s range the best.
Coffy and Foxy Brown might have the more famous names, but they’re the least interesting of the four films overall. If badass revenge flicks featuring a lot of nudity, rape and drug dealers are your thing, then jump in with both feet. Foxy Brown’s relationship with her slimy brother Link provides the movie some spark, but once she goes undercover as a model/prostitute to seek revenge, the excessive imagery of white men assaulting Black women was a hard to watch. The same applies to Coffy where again Grier goes undercover as a prostitute.
Once you’ve sat down and consumed all of these films on theGrio TV, you can’t help but have a greater appreciation for what Pam Grier did from women in action films — especially Black women. While hampered by the racism, sexism and cheap budgets at the time, Coffy, Foxy, Lee and especially Friday are well-rounded Black women action characters — more than you see in a lot of television shows and movies today.
Many of the Black women in action movies and television today are still just virtue signaling sexual validators for white male leads (think Final Space, Lower Decks, or almost any Black women in a CW super hero show), or they are super power action stars with no romantic or sexual lives at all (think Michonne for several seasons on the Walking Dead, or Agent 355 on Y the Last Man). Grier managed to be a fully three dimensional character — she had love, life, lust and adventure on her own terms. While that can’t turn all of her movies into classics, it definitely makes them worth a weekend binge on theGrio TV.
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