What kind of action star was Pam Grier? She karate-chopped people. She shot people. She cursed people out. She dunked their heads in barrels of powdered pool chlorine. She seduced for sport, for information, because it made bad men blissfully unaware that she was about to murder them. She was the action hero who got a lot of action. She took out rapists, pimps, imperialists, chauvinists, bigots, and Blacula. Murder her boyfriend, sell deadly dope to her sister, try to steal her daddy's business, and she'd get you with her sexual Trojan horse routine. Her action had principle — the way Clint Eastwood's, Charles Bronson's, and Chuck Norris's only claimed to have. Pam Grier granted the original 1970s death wish. Harry Callahan might have been dirty, but some of the vengeful women Grier played were filthy.
Her persona ascended the ladder of opportunity, from nasty ladies' prison guard (Women in Cages) to guerrilla liberationist (The Big Bird Cage) to vigilante-nurse (Coffy) to vigilante-vigilante (Foxy Brown) to vigilante-photojournalist (Friday Foster). Grier became a star during the age of the so-called exploitation film. But her legacy is greater than any one work of sexploitation or blaxploitation. To see her aim a shotgun at a drug dealer and blow off his Afro is to feel her power. The Pam Grier era lasted only about five years, from 1971 to about 1976. But they were five years that mattered enough to frame our perception of her subsequent work — from the housewife she played opposite Richard Pryor in Greased Lightning and her cop-killing junkie-whore in Fort Apache the Bronx to playing Steven Seagal's partner in Above the Law and a transsexual gangsta in Escape From L.A. to being resurrected by Quentin Tarantino as Jackie Brown. They were also five years that have never been replicated by any Black American woman and few Black men.
This weekend the Film Society of Lincoln Center, in New York, has planned a mouthwatering retrospective that both gives Grier her due as a pioneer and encourages appreciation of her as this once-in-a-lifetime event. The conflation of a woman's sexuality with power is almost as old as the movies. And to a large extent the conflation was cautionary. Louise Brooks, Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor — they played carnal women who were made to suffer, either by death, humiliation, or social demotion. Jane Fonda was almost a generation younger than Taylor, and if she wasn't embarrassed by the power of Taylor's body in movies, she didn't feel comfortable using her own body to empower herself. Fonda was a beauty who agreed to star in the soft-core space-tease Barbarella, then spent the height of her fame running from that beauty. Fonda's ideas of politics and feminism became too high-minded. She intellectualized sexuality so that it seemed too important to be fun. Grier represented a radical alternative. She understood the power her body had over men (and women). She used that power to make direct personal and political assaults. That was the thing about so-called exploitation movies. They didn't have the time or talent or money for subtlety. Refinement was a luxury. Crudeness was their currency. If infiltrating a drug ring meant posing as a call girl whose assignment involved seducing a judge, so be it. When Fonda played the call girl Bree Daniels in Klute, Bree needed therapy.