Pamela Suzette Grier was born on May 26TH, 1949 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina to Sylvia Samuels, a nurse, and Clarence Ransom Grier, a mechanic and Technical Sergeant in the US Air Force. She moved frequently throughout her childhood due to her father’s military career, but the family eventually settled in Denver, where she attended both secondary school and college. In order to raise money for tuition for her sophomore year, Grier entered several beauty pageants around the state and even earned second runner up in the 1967 Miss Colorado Pageant – it was there that she was discovered by an agent who urged her to take up acting and she quickly moved to Los Angeles with her aunt and cousin, Rosey Grier, a pro-football player and actor, in 1968 to pursue a career.
Pam worked several jobs upon her arrival in Los Angeles, but it was a receptionist job with American International Pictures that led to her discovery by director Jack Hill, who cast her in his women in prison films The Big Doll House (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972). (Shortly before that, she was also given a role in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a film released in 1970 that was written by Roger Ebert and directed by Russ Meyer, but her part was small and allowed for limited screen time. Her breakout role was in Coffy, Jack Hill’s Blaxplotation film about a nurse and vigilante, played by Grier, who seeks revenge on the drug dealers who lured her sister into a life of debauchery. Her character was lauded as”baddest one-chick hit-squad that ever hit town!” and despite the film’s sexual and violent elements, it was a box office hit. Grier was the first African American female to headline an action film and she is credited as the woman who paved the way for current female actions stars like Angelina Jolie and Charlize Theron, and more specifically the new wave of black female action heroes like Taraji P. Henson, who plays a kick-ass hit woman who’s dressed to kill in Proud Mary. Throughout the 1970s, she played the lead in several other Blaxploitation films produced by AIP like Foxy Brown (1974), Sheba Baby, and Friday Foster (which were both released in 1975.)
In the late 1970s, the popularity of Blaxploitation films fell, and Grier appeared in several smaller roles and cameos. In the 1980s, her career picked up, with roles in films like Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981), Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), and Above the Law (1988). but she found success mostly on television, where she had a recurring role onMiami Vice from 1985 to 1989 and made appearances on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Night Court, and Martin. Despite her popularity in Blaxploitation films, Grier often had trouble breaking into more mainstream films – in 1988, her role was cut from the American drama film, Rocket Gilbraltar, when the film’s director, Daniel Petrie feared repercussions from interracial love scenes – but she found solace in theatre where she played in Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love and in Frankie and Johnny at Clair de Lune.
In 1997, nearly 30 years after her move to Los Angeles, Grier appeared in what has been regarded as one of her more memorable films, Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.
The film paid homage to her earlier roles in Blaxploitation films and she was nominated for a Golden Globe and won the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Image Award. More recently she played in Smallville, Larry Crowne, and The L Word.
In a historical context, Pam Grier’s on screen success was a major step forward – to see a black woman on screen kicking ass and taking names one minute and playing a housewife the next was empowering and inspiring… but for that time, it was triumph just to see any black person on screen no matter the context. Yet, Grier’s inability to find mainstream success outside of her work on television is indicative of Hollywood’s lack of diversity and society’s inability recognize black women for who we are. When Grier wasn’t playing vigilante’s in Blaxploitation films, she was playing characters surrounded by people struggling with drug addiction living in the inner city, or worse, she was playing a junkie herself. Yes, Pam Grier is a role model.. she paved the way for women in action movies… but society kept her from becoming the star she could have been.
That said, Grier is an influence not just because of what she represents to the African American community, but because of what she represents to women. Throughout her career she played women who were unapologetically sexual — she became a sex symbol, pinned up in the locker’s of teenage boys all across America. She owned and celebrated her sexual prowess while killing bad guys dressed in a bikini top and a mini skirt. From the beginning of her career, she’s played characters that take their sexuality into their own hands and use it to lure rapist, pimps, and drug dealers into her traps. More importantly, she shares her experiences as a survivor of sexual assault (she was gang-raped as a child and at 18 she was the victim of date rape) and encourages other survivors to speak up and get help — Grier also formed the Pam Grier Legacy Fund, which is a non-profit organization that seeks to aid abused women and children. Through advocacy and public speaking, Grier hopes to put an end to the stigma of victims of sexual assault and of course, educate people, women and men, about informed consent.
“Neither a racial role model nor simple stereotype, Pam Grier’s ’70s screen persona was multifaceted. Her characters fused feminist sensibilities, black nationalist radicalism, vigilante justice,” Mia Mask, the author of Divas On Screen: Black Women in American Film said of Grier in an interview with NPR. No other statement about the queen of action flicks has been more true. Grier is not only a role model to women in the African American community, she is an inspiration to all women – her history in film has paved the way for all actresses.
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