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September 23 – November 11, 2016

Pam Grier, Superstar!

Rising like an urban goddess from the tumult, confusion and bloodiness of Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the Black Panthers, the sexual revolution, women’s liberation, government conspiracies, assassinations and cover-ups, Pam Grier’s most famous screen personas—Coffy, Foxy and Sheba—seem to have been called into action by a civilization in upheaval. These figures single-handedly detonated layers of oppressive cultural conventions that were desperate for radical revision. Revolutionary even within the low-budget flash of the “blaxploitation” arena that had already blindsided movie theaters across the country, Grier’s films broke away from the action movie pattern that featured passive, two-dimensional female characters on the sidelines. Instead, Grier’s characters were defiant, authoritative, resourceful vigilantes whose intellectual, physical and sexual adeptness American movie screens had never experienced the likes of before. The women she portrayed boldly and bodily, colorfully and brutally, empowered the disempowered. All of the boiling frustrations, all of the silenced voices were violently erupting onto ecstatic movie audiences from a single black woman reclaiming her power on her own terms.

Like her screen persona, the political was always deeply personal for Grier. Part Caucasian, African American, Asian and Native American, she has been aware of discrimination and alienation from all angles ever since her birth in 1949 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Her father was a mechanic in the Air Force, entailing frequent moves about the US and back and forth across the Atlantic on and off military bases. She experienced all kinds of communities—those that were harmonious and colorblind or racially segregated and intolerant. A victim of various degrees of racial and gender discrimination throughout her life as well as sexual abuse, Grier notes that she “saw more violence in my neighborhood and in the war and on the newsreels than I did in my movies. Coming from the ‘50s, things were very violent. We were still being lynched. If I drove down through the South with my mother, I might not make it through one state without being bullied or harassed.”

Initially enrolled at Metropolitan State College in Colorado as a pre-med student, Grier felt less inspired by the enormous struggles that path required and was also unable to ignore another calling: her acute desire to be involved in film. Unable to afford film school, the multitalented Grier unintentionally caught the eye of Hollywood when she entered beauty pageants to win prize money for tuition. At first, this attention translated to operating the switchboard at a Hollywood agent’s office as one of multiple jobs she held down while receiving a free introduction to film courtesy of student “guerilla” filmmakers at UCLA. Shortly after switching over to the now legendary, independent B-moviemaking machine American International Pictures as an operator, she landed a small part in Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970). Meanwhile, she started appearing in theatrical productions and singing backup for Bobby Womack, Lou Rawls and Sly Stone, among others. By her second film—Roger Corman’s The Big Doll House (1971)—Grier had already secured a leading role. She braved the extremely low budgets and rough conditions of the Philippines production, even handling some of her own stunts and singing the theme song. Her drive and moxie led to role after role in mostly women-in-prison films like The Big Bird Cage (1972) and Black Mama, White Mama (1973), in which she played aggressive survivors who are both tough and voluptuous. Never shy about showing some skin, Grier began her career deeply submerged in the funny paradox of a particular kind of exploitation cinema where women—as characters and as actresses—found both liberation and objectification.

After their major blaxploitation hits like Slaughter (1972) and Blacula (1972), AIP director Jack Hill relocated Grier from fantastic situations in exotic locales to reality-based dramas taking place in America’s own inner cities. Cutting in front of Cleopatra Jones by a few weeks and surpassing it at the box office, Coffy became the first blaxploitation film to feature a black woman as its star and gave birth to America’s first action heroine. In addition to Cleopatra Jones and a handful of others, Pam Grier’s films were the only American movies being made starring a powerful woman of any race in the lead. Able to function adeptly in a man’s world—driving the plot, resorting to violence, making wisecracks—Grier’s complicated characters are also free to make the most of their femininity as a lethal weapon in an arsenal that includes equal parts intelligence and resourcefulness. And still more phenomenal for the time, Grier always portrayed single women with active sex lives who were emotionally and physically protective of their families and the dispossessed. Unlike her tough male cinematic counterparts who toss their ladies aside when business calls, the Pam Grier persona is a fierce fighter, an irresistible aphrodisiac and a tender, loyal lover who is only vindictive when betrayed.

Not a decoration, token or sidekick, Grier’s superheroines shun and disrupt all of the stereotypical African American roles in films—whether male or female—and their inevitable exoticism or submissiveness. If any of her films refer to that history, it is to confront it, upend it and exorcise those demeaning demons. Upon receiving female fan mail, Grier realized that her characters were “doing and saying what [black women] wanted to say.” With a raw energy and the collective anger of generations, Grier forced both blackness and femaleness to center stage. Her characters were not simply on equal footing with their white, male equivalents—they were bent on turning the whole screen inside out.

With Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli, Grier quickly became one of only three female stars in the 70s who could open a film. The border now successfully breached, other women soon followed her lead in choosing more potent, commanding female roles over what was often their only other option: the passive, pretty love interest. For a period after Grier’s emergence, there was a greater demand for black actresses in general as well as a trend of female action stars—though mostly on television and primarily featuring white actresses; Get Christie Love! starring Teresa Graves was the single exception.

“My movies were the first they had done with a strong woman character, not to mention black,” stated Grier. “Once they saw the grosses, they wanted to do every one of them like that. I was angry. You can’t give people the same thing all the time… [T]he next time you go for something a little better than you had before.” After fulfilling her contract, Grier left AIP and established her own production company; yet creating and securing complex roles for women proved to be a challenge in an industry still focused on relatively restrictive cages for their female figures. Instead, she studied direction and production, and continued to bring her range and vitality to a variety of roles on television and in films like Greased Lighting with Richard Pryor, Jack Clayton’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) and the Paul Newman feature Fort Apache, the Bronx (1981), in which she chillingly inhabits the part of a psychotic prostitute. However, due to mostly “boring” offers, she turned more to the theater in the 80s, starring in productions like Fool for Love—for which she won a NAACP Image Award—and Frankie and Johnny, in which she played the first black Frankie.

Miraculously surviving a terminal cancer diagnosis in 1988, Grier returned to the screen during a resurgence of renewed appreciation for the blaxploitation hits of the 70s. Films like Escape from L.A. (1996) and Original Gangstas (1996) pay tribute to her trailblazing persona, but it was superfan Quentin Tarantino who most profoundly delivered the great cultural debt owed with Jackie Brown. Grier was able to reannounce herself to the world as not only a treasured icon, but an accomplished actress with a refined style that now seemed effortless.

Grier continues to accept the braver, more meaningful roles. Playing a straight woman in a multiracial lesbian world on the groundbreaking Showtime series The L Word, she once again took on controversial subject matter and helped give voice to another media minority. And in her offscreen life, Grier is actively involved—through various organizations and personally—in coming to the aid of both animals and humans suffering from difficult circumstances. Firmly embedded into the iconography of American culture, Pam Grier continues to make an enduring impact that ultimately transcends both race and gender. – Brittany Gravely

The Harvard Film Archive is honored to welcome Pam Grier to two evenings of screenings and talks, including a conversation with intellectual luminary and Harvard’s Alphonse Fletcher, Jr. University Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, of which Gates is the director, will be presenting Grier with this year’s W.E.B. Du Bois Medal on Thursday, October 6 at 4pm in Sanders Theatre, Memorial Hall, 45 Quincy Street.Tickets are free and available through the Harvard Box Office.

Special thanks: Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Abby Wolf, Matthew Weinberg—The Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Harvard; Vera Ingrid Grant—The Cooper Gallery, Harvard.

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Friday September 23 at 7pm

Coffy

Directed by Jack Hill. With Pam Grier, Booker Bradshaw, Robert DoQui
US 1973, 35mm, color, 91 min

With its startlingly violent, stark opening scene of vigilante justice at the hands of a statuesque, defiant beauty, Coffy instantly explodes any preconceptions of the victimized woman on screen and presents Hollywood’s first female action star. Released just three weeks prior to Cleopatra Jones—which had slipped through AIP’s grasp, thus instigating their own version—Coffy is a raw, no-holds-barred attack on the racist, sexist power structures both above and underground. Beginning as simple revenge for her sister’s involuntary, debilitating drug addiction, Coffy’s quest uncovers deep corruption throughout a system designed to protect its citizens. Dependable Nurse Coffin leads a double life as a seductive avenging angel, defending the defenseless—disguising herself as a high-priced call girl, hiding razor blades in her hair and a gun in a stuffed toy—so that she can ultimately turn the tables on the sadistic kingpin and his motley confederacy who are perhaps partly standing in for that titillated male audience that must pay a steep price for objectifying women. Print courtesy Park Circus.

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Friday September 30 at 9pm

Sheba, Baby

Directed by William Girdler. With Pam Grier, Austin Stoker, Rudy Challenger
US 1975, 35mm, color, 90 min

A thoroughly independent, more sophisticated Grier emerges in the form of Sheba Shayne, a former cop turned private investigator. With echoes of the Western even in her name, Sheba comes immediately to the aid of her father, whose business is being threatened by organized thugs. Tainted by racism, classism and good old-fashioned corruption, the police flail impotently against the mob’s increasingly deadlier attacks. When one hits too close to home, the poised Sheba taps into her more raw, uninhibited reserves in order to protect her family and eliminate the source: a wealthy, white overlord. Sheba fearlessly sets to work doing “what the police won’t” in this urban Wild West, proving more effective than any man, black or white, at wiping out the scourge. To be fair, the police do not have access to the same precious resources: passion, charm, wiles, beauty and the sex appeal of a supernatural goddess. Print courtesy Park Circus.

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$12 Special Event Tickets
Pam Grier in conversation with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Friday October 7 at 7pm

Foxy Brown

Directed by Jack Hill. With Pam Grier, Antonio Fargas, Peter Brown
US 1974, 35mm, color, 91 min

With Foxy Brown promoted as an “action heroine with a social conscience,” Grier’s superhero status reaches mythic heights in what is perhaps her most famous vehicle. Tragedy and betrayal strike too close to home, and the political becomes personal for Foxy Brown as she is forced into exacting her own brand of vigilante justice. Harnessing the powers of Black Panther-like revolutionaries, Brown takes on a seedy underground operation headed by an insecure villainess who makes prostitutes available to local officials in order to protect a lucrative drug ring. Not holding back on disturbing allusions to slavery and the history of violence against both women and people of color, Foxy Brown boldly goes where few films dare tread. Castrating the males in power one by one—symbolically and, at one point, literally—Brown seeks more than revenge; she wants her enemies to take profoundly painful walks in the shoes of those they have long oppressed. Print courtesy Park Circus.

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$12 Special Event Tickets
Pam Grier in person

Saturday October 8 at 7pm

Jackie Brown

Directed by Quentin Tarantino. With Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster
US 1997, 35mm, color, 155 min

Longtime Pam Grier fan Quentin Tarantino pays sincere tribute to her impact on cinema and culture with his version of a Foxy/Coffy scenario updated to the more circumspect climate of the 90s. By changing the female protagonist in Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch from white to black, injecting his cleverly nervous, rapid-fire repartee into the script, and casting Grier in the lead, Tarantino creates a smart, electric retort to Hollywood’s neglect of its finest. Even Tarantino’s usual casualties run relatively low as Jackie—still sassy, still sultry and fearless, but a little older and a little more tired—no longer needs to conspicuously destroy all evil. She simply wants to retrieve a life she has continually been denied and attempts to do so via an intricately crafted plot to divert funds from Samuel L. Jackson’s sociopathic gun smuggler into her own purse. Breathing well-deserved new life into both Grier’s and Robert Forster’s careers, the tightly scripted film marks a high point for each of its three stars and lovingly tops off Grier’s record-breaking list of films with her character’s name as the title. Print courtesy Quentin Tarantino.

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Monday October 31 at 7pm

Greased Lightning

Directed by Michael Schultz. With Richard Pryor, Beau Bridges, Pam Grier
US 1977, 35mm, color, 96 min

Originally Melvin Van Peebles was slated to take on the story of Wendell Scott, the first black driver to both enter NASCAR and win a Grand National Series race, but he left the directorship to Car Wash’s Michael Schultz. Greased Lightning stars Richard Pryor in the title role, continuing to reveal the depth of his range beyond the comedic. Despite taking a few liberties with Scott’s life, the film hardly exaggerates the prejudice and racism the racecar driver experienced throughout his life. With a good-natured, upbeat tone, the inspirational story follows the dramatic cultural shifts from segregation to the civil rights era. Similar to Scott, the film’s stars Pryor and Pam Grier—who plays his loving, more pragmatic wife—survived much racial prejudice and surmounted numerous obstacles throughout their careers. Their onscreen chemistry is also not an embellishment; shortly after the production wrapped, the fictional husband and wife became an actual couple for a while. Print courtesy Warner Bros.

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Friday November 11 at 9pm

Friday Foster

Directed by Arthur Marks. With Pam Grier, Yaphet Kotto, Godfrey Cambridge
US 1975, 35mm, color, 90 min

In a distinct break from her violent vigilante roles, Grier’s last film with AIP—the only one based on a comic book—features a model-turned-photographer who teams up with Yaphet Kotto’s private investigator to crack a couple of puzzling mysteries peopled by those who are not what they seem. Joining a packed cast of current and future stars including Eartha Kitt, Scatman Crothers, Carl Weathers, Godfrey Cambridge and Ted Lange, Pam Grier takes on a persona more Nancy Drew than Foxy Brown. Rather than surprising her enemies with razor blades, needles or shotguns, Foster’s wildest stunt is stealing a hearse from a friend’s funeral to chase down a suspect. She is still much desired, very independent, smart and resourceful, but for the most part leaves the violence to the men, who in this film are, for a change, not all inept or corrupt. The slightly breezier switch-up marked an end to Grier’s blaxploitation spree both for audiences and for Grier, who felt that her defiant superhero roles had served their purpose and had played themselves out. Print courtesy Park Circus.

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Harvard Film Archive • Carpenter Center • 24 Quincy Street • Cambridge MA 02138 • 617-495-4700