There are few cinema heroines who will forever be remembered as total ass-kickers. Such pursuits still remain relegated mainly to male leads, despite the steadily equalizing sexes. Whether for a lack of interest or some kind of modern day sexism, Hollywood has yet to find a 21st century equivalent to play the tough kind of woman the legendary Pam Grier was best known for back in the day. Never before was there any woman who looked so gorgeous while wielding a shotgun poised to blow off a dude's manhood as just desserts for his misdeeds. Doubtful there will ever be another quite like Pam.
Pamela Suzette Grier was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 1949. The daughter of a homemaker and an Air Force technical sergeant, she was raised a military brat for most of her youth, moving from base to base in Europe and America before settling in Denver, Colorado when her father retired from military service. She and her family made do the best they could, but Pam was always determined to have something more. Growing up in the poor side of town, Pam learned to stand up for herself early and faced harsh realities. At 6, she was raped by two local boys while left unattended at a relative's home. She was raped again as a teen by her date. Tragic as those experiences are for anyone, such real-life experiences were something Pam would later draw from to play her iconic female action heroes.
Pam did various stage shows in the Denver area and participated in beauty contests to raise money for college, but when spotted by an agent at one pageant and encouraged to try her hand at acting, she decided to skip all that and move to LA to make her name. There she got a job working as a receptionist at American International Pictures. Shortly thereafter she began appearing in various low budget "women in prison" movies. These films, bearing names like THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, WOMEN IN CAGES and THE BIG BIRD CAGE were often filmed overseas in countries like Taiwan and the Philippines and existed mostly as glorified soft core porn. They followed rather formulaic plot lines involving women unjustly imprisoned being treated badly by corrupt or abusive administrators and forced to attempt escape. Such movies delivered plenty of nudity and a whole lot of sex abuse and sexual innuendo. Certainly not the most high brow of productions, but they did allow Pam to get her foot in the door and angle herself in the right place at the right time for a cinematic revolution that was just over the horizon.
Around the beginning of the 1970s a new cinema craze began to grow in popularity amidst many so-called "minority" movie-going audiences. Later given the name Blaxploitation, films like SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG, SHAFT and SUPER FLY sparked a wave of similar films in this new genre of filmmaking. These movies were new in that they were cast with predominately black actors playing the main characters. White actors were usually sidelined to smaller parts, playing villains or shady types. Featuring soul music soundtracks by popular black music groups of the day, most of these movies focused on gritty stories of life in urban slums, where crime and violence were made commonplace.
Like the vast majority of action movies of the time, these Blaxploitation movies started out with male actors playing the lead ass-kickers. However, being a relatively underground cinema movement, the film makers behind these movies were much more free to go in different directions with little fear of shaking things up in their own genre. Thus the arrival of Pam Grier to the Blaxploitation scene. Cast in the 1973 film COFFY, it was Pam who took the lead as the woman wronged by inner city drug dealers against whom she must seek revenge. While a rather standard story amidst this genre of movie, Pam's role as the female, gun-toting aggressor against male opponents was a revolution, not only for Blaxploitation, but for cinema in general.
Her performance as Coffy earned Pam the praise of critics and the love of audiences throughout the world who were spellbound by her forceful performance and her beautiful face and body - all of which were major highlights of the film. She quickly became not only an action movie powerhouse, but also a sex symbol, an African American icon and a source of female empowerment. Pam went on to star in several more Blaxploitation movies in proceeding years, becoming one of the top stars in the genre.
Unfortunately for Pam and her fellow blaxploitation actors, the genre took a sharp decline toward the end of the 1970s and was mostly defunct by the start of the '80s. Many actors who had built their careers on blaxploitation films, found entering the mainstream much more difficult. Many never made a go of it and soon fell into obscurity. Pam was not one of them, managing to keep her career alive with regular roles in various prominent movies and TV shows in the 80s like Miami Vice, Crime Story and Knots Landing.
Pam kept herself relevant well into the 90s with regular work in movies and TV shows, but it wasn't until the rise of the indie movie scene with Quentin Tarantino at its vanguard that Pam saw a return to her former glory. Cast as the lead in his 1997 blaxploitation throwback JACKIE BROWN, Pam proved she hadn't lost a thing in the intervening 25 years, both as an action movie fixture and a sex symbol. The film earned Pam a Golden Globe nomination and brought about a resurgence in appreciation for the blaxploitation genre, helping to rejuvenate the careers of many stars in that genre in the process.
Pam's resurgence in popularity continues to this day. She has had regular roles on Law & Order: SVU, The L Word, Smallville and several different movies. In 2010 she released a memoir, Foxy: My Life in Three Acts. Now 64, Pam lives a quiet life back in her home state of Colorado, but she will always be remembered for that relentless, no-jive-taking, beautiful black woman with a body made for sin and a shotgun at the ready, cleaning up the ghetto streets one drug dealer at a time.