There she was, winking knowingly into the camera as she karate-kicked in her superbaaaaad leather outfit, every hair in her boulder-sized Afro in place.
Those in the overflow audience at the University Art Museum Pacific Film Archive at UC Berkeley could hardly contain themselves as they watched her on screen, battling the villains and romancing the good guys.
The silky announcer on the trailer they were viewing for the 1974 blaxploitation epic “Foxy Brown” gave added punch to her punches.
“She’s a chick with drive that don’t take no jive,” he purred while the thumping percussion thundered her every move. “Brown sugar with a touch of spice. She won’t budge when she carries a grudge. There ain’t no hope for dudes who deal in dope.”
Finally, the kicker: “Never fear. Pam Grier is here.”
The screen went dark, the lights came up, and Pam Grier was there. The actress, a.k.a. Foxy Brown, a.k.a. Friday Foster, a.k.a. Coffy, a.k.a. Sheba Baby, smiled at the crowd.
The audience, composed mostly of college students and twentysomethings, erupted, momentarily overwhelming Grier, attired in a fashionable straw hat that barely shielded her eyes and a flowered dress with an ornate net-like pattern subtly hiding her midriff.
She finally stepped up to the microphone and said, almost incredulously, “Boy, wasn’t I a hot little firecracker 20 years ago?”
It has been two decades since Grier’s last starring role in a motion picture, when the combination of her statuesque beauty, smoldering sexuality and lethal physical prowess in films such as “Foxy Brown,” “Coffy” and “Sheba Baby” made her the undisputed queen of the so-called blaxploitation movies.
While her post-'70s life and career have been something of a roller coaster, Grier’s firecracker days seem to be far from over. In fact, several prominent filmmakers, rappers and poets are aiming to make Grier hotter than ever.
Quentin Tarantino and the Hudlin brothers of “House Party” and “Boomerang” fame have written or are developing works for Grier. She has met recently with other filmmakers, including Tim Burton.
She has achieved icon status among the rap community and young people, with recent guest shots on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “Martin.” Her cameo last year as the head-bopping girlfriend of Dr. Dre in the video of Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “It’s a Doggy Dogg World” further solidified her standing with young audiences.
The 40-ish Grier spends much of her time living in an isolated rural area of Colorado with her English field spaniels Magic Johnson and Buckwheat. She will make a rare local public appearance Monday night at the House of Blues, co-hosting “Roni’z Bakstreeet Poetri,” an evening of poetry with an urban rap flavor.
“Even in those movies, when there were stereotypes, Pam still represented a strong and physically beautiful black woman,” said Roni Walter, a local poet who is organizing the event. “She faced all these difficult tasks and still has to be strong. When you mention ‘Foxy Brown,’ people go crazy. Black youth love her now just as much as they loved her in the ‘70s. I sell memorabilia from that period, and her photos sell the most.”
Indeed, at the Berkeley tribute in July, she was surrounded by dozens of young people, prompting archive officials to drag her away after the crowd kept on seeking autographs, pictures and hugs.
“She is large,” said Warrington Hudlin, who is now shopping around a script that would feature Grier in an action drama bringing her ‘70s persona into the ‘90s. “Those films didn’t show what an accomplished actress she is.”
Grier is clearly delighted with the retro movement that has brought her back into the spotlight. Unlike others in the genre, she has embraced her work, and is not totally surprised by its revived popularity.
“I’m a little surprised, but I understand it,” said Grier as she relaxed during a leisurely lunch at a Berkeley hotel. “There’s certain movements that are cyclical, and people like to reminisce. There’s a comfort zone about that time that was interesting. It had everything--it had an energy, a creativity, politics. I can’t wait to see the world in bell bottoms and hip-huggers again. But I’m not doing that again. Those platform shoes broke my ankle!”
Grier does not seem far removed from the 1970s, at least physically. The Afro is gone in favor of flowing shoulder-length hair, and her face expresses more maturity, but her features are even softer and prettier than they were in “Foxy Brown.” She retains a delicate cat-like smile that projects a knowing confidence, even though she insists that she has never considered herself attractive or pretty.
Explaining her personality, Grier, who has never been married, said, “I’m a loner. A recluse. But I love people. I like to go into my little hole, and then I like to get out my power tools and build houses with hundreds of people for Habitat for Humanity.”
Grier is extremely forthcoming about her past and her social concerns. A natural storyteller, she appears to take delight in telling about her experiences, spicing them with great detail and humor. Like her characters, she prides herself on being self-reliant, even to the point of owning her own power tools (“I’m great at drywall and I installed a garbage disposal for my sister by myself,” she said proudly).
While hoping that her heightened visibility will lead to meatier roles in films (“I would love to work with Meryl Streep and Jackie Chan”), Grier is passionately committed to using her role model status as a means to help troubled urban youth. Several show business projects and interests she has been writing or working on in recent years revolve around the young and downtrodden in housing projects, or homeless people. Show business and its trappings are not a priority for her.
“I’m an advocate for making life better for people,” she said. “If I can do that in film, it’s better than any commercial success I can have. Someone [the late David Baumgarten of the Agency for Performing Arts, who inspired her] made my life better. I know what it is to not have.”
Hudlin said: “The thing that startles people about Pam is that she is so down to earth, and unimpressed with her star status. She’s very approachable and has a sophisticated social consciousness.”
Grier’s interest in helping the less fortunate existed even when she was in the midst of blaxploitation, a trend that exploded in the early 1970s and featured African Americans in a series of commercially successful but controversial films. In the aftermath of the civil rights movement, African Americans, who had historically been pushed to the background of Hollywood, suddenly found themselves center-stage in low-budget films that featured them as super-detectives (“Shaft,” “Truck Turner”), super-pimps (“The Mack”), super-drug pushers (“Superfly”) or super-vampires (“Blacula,” “Scream, Blacula, Scream!”).
Several male stars emerged from the films, including Richard Roundtree (“Shaft”) and Ron O’Neal (“Superfly”), but Grier was the only bona fide female star (Tamara Dobson, who starred in two “Cleopatra Jones” films, did not achieve the same level of adoration). Grier’s charisma in the films, all made by American International Pictures, overshadowed her male counterparts and made up for her own limited acting experience.
The formula Pam Grier film featured colorful characters, pumped-up music and nonstop action, with Grier performing her own stunts. She portrayed a strong woman who was equally proficient with her body, brains and brawn, and woe to the man or woman who crossed her. Sex also played a major part in the movies, with Grier often appearing in various stages of undress either in bed or in battle. Sometimes at the end of the films, she would stand alone, beaten and broken. But it was clear that she was a survivor.
In 1973’s “Coffy,” she seductively lures a drug pusher into his apartment, then pulls out a sawed-off shotgun and proclaims, “Turn off the light, this is the end of your rotten life, you [expletive] dope dealer,” before blowing his head off. Coffy, it turns out, is a young nurse waging a one-woman war against drug dealers as vengeance for destroying her young sister’s mind with narcotics. During her crusade, Coffy uses her charm and sexy wardrobe--and sometimes no wardrobe at all--to get to the main dope dealers.
In 1975’s “Sheba Baby,” Grier plays Sheba Shayne, a private investigator who is also “a dangerous lady,” according to the breathy theme song. She and her ex-boyfriend Brick try to help her father, who co-owns a community loan company. When he is murdered, Sheba stops at nothing to get the white villain, an underworld millionaire known as Shark.
But Grier’s most famous role remains Foxy Brown, in the 1974 film of the same name. Foxy finds herself caught between her drug pusher brother (a flamboyant Antonio Fargas) and her undercover cop boyfriend, When her brother betrays her and her boyfriend is shot down by mobsters, Foxy takes on the culprit, the murderous Miss Katherine, who controls powerful local officials with her ring of call girls.
After surviving a brawl in a lesbian bar, numerous beatings, a kidnaping, a rape and a shot--against her will--of heroin, Foxy finally confronts Miss Katherine with a gift --the severed penis of her boyfriend.
“People have said that Foxy Brown inspired Lorena Bobbitt,” Grier said, giggling mischievously.
Describing Grier’s impact on the 1970s, Nelson George, author of “Blackface: Reflections on African-Americans and the Movies,” wrote: “Pam Grier was a cult figure who was even embraced by many feminists for her ball-breaking action films. She remains one of the few women of any color in American film history who had vehicles developed for her that not only emphasized her physical beauty but also her ability to take retribution on men who challenged her.”
Grier says now that her characters reflected the awakening of the women’s movement.
“It was OK for women to fight back,” she said. “We didn’t have to be married in order to be accepted into society. We wanted to have our careers. We wanted to be equal. We wanted to study martial arts.”
Coming to Hollywood after a fairly sheltered, close-knit adolescence, Grier said, she fit easily into the action genre because of her upbringing as an Air Force brat in Denver and on military bases, with a brother and young male relatives who were always physically active, wrestling, tackling one another.
“I liked action,” Grier said. “You know how it is when you grow up and you think the world is very liberal and you want to be allowed to do the same things that other people do. You think, ‘Oh, God, I want to do action movies like the males do,’ then you do them and go, ‘Aaaarrgh, why did I ever decide to do this? This is going to kill me!’ ”
But she had an understanding of her appeal: “My characters had a femininity. I was tough, but there was always this soft, feminine side.”
Grier’s blaxploitation popularity, however, did not lead to leading roles in mainstream films. She appeared as a concerned but supportive wife in “Greased Lightning” in 1977 with then-boyfriend Richard Pryor, “Something Wicked This Way Comes” in 1983, and as Philip Michael Thomas’ girlfriend on “Miami Vice.” She also performed in several theater productions, including “The Piano Lesson” in Denver in 1991, and as May in Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love” in 1986 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, for which she won an NAACP Image Award for Best Actress.
Her favorite film roles were as a homicidal hooker in 1981’s “Fort Apache, the Bronx,” and as Steven Seagal’s bantering police partner in 1988’s “Above the Law,” even though that role didn’t make use of Grier’s physical skills.
But Grier says she’s not bitter about the absence of immediate crossover stardom.
“I wasn’t mature enough back then--I didn’t have the acting chops,” she said. “I was still coming out from the anesthesia of the school of hard knocks. I had to live more. I had to survive some serious things.”
Warrington Hudlin put it another way: “There are few white actresses that have had the power she has on screen. It’s so potent, it was hard for her to assimilate in mainstream films. She would have wiped her male counterparts off the screen.”
Although Grier is open on most subjects, she grows quieter when taking about her post-blaxploitation career.
“I had to catch up to who I was, go through a reassessment of my life,” she said. “I missed out on having college friends. I was considering going back to school for pre-med.”
One painful memory revolved around her relationship with Pryor. In his recent autobiography, “Pryor Convictions,” Pryor writes disparagingly of Grier and their courtship: “Unfortunately, our relationship wasn’t able to survive Hollywood. Of the two of us, I became the star, but I was put off by how much I thought Pam believed that stardom belonged to her. In my head there was only one Numero Uno, and it wasn’t her.” He also wrote that Grier showed up uninvited to his 1977 wedding to Deboragh McGuire at NBC Studios.
“It hurts me that he can never say anything positive about our relationship,” said Grier, adding that she helped keep Pryor off drugs and alcohol during their six-month relationship. “He was healthier with me than he was at any time in his life. I got him to exercise, taught him to swim. I wanted him to write. I helped support him. I put together a party with all his ex-wives and friends, which really freaked him out but made him happy,” she recalled with a smile.
But she said Pryor turned on her one day at his house when a friend of his challenged him about letting “this bitch tell you what to do.” Grier said it was over, not because of his treatment of her, but because he didn’t have the strength to stand up for himself.
Still, she hopes to work with Pryor some day on a future project, and she hopes to channel her energy into directing and writing. She is filming a movie in Gary, Ind., that will reunite her with many of the blaxploitation stars--Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, O’Neal and Roundtree. The story concerns a group of ex-gang members who reunite to take on drug dealers.
“Life is fun right now, it’s a gift” Grier said, “and I’m so glad I survived.”
Just don’t expect her to put on platform shoes.