Watching Foxy Brown on DVD again after a number of years I had to marvel once again at Pam Grier’s grace under pressure.
No matter what part she was assigned (and weathering every creative device the writers and directors came up with to film her Amazonian frame sans clothes) she tackled each role with grit and purpose.
Admittedly as a young hormonally-addled heterosexual male “grace under pressure” wasn’t the first phrase that popped into my mind when I gazed in awe at this gorgeous warrior woman with the intimidating Afro and the kind of classic features that could have been carved on the prow of a ship.
Yet even then I could sense there was something behind the eyes that made her special. Something I couldn’t put it in words. I just knew I didn’t feel that with Tamara Dobson (Cleopatra Jones) or Teresa Graves (Get Christie Love!)
It was only when I read her autobiography Foxy: My Life in Three Acts that everything began to fit into place. Suddenly I knew the words to express my admiration and awe for this amazing woman: words like courageous, resilient, passionate and compassionate.
Add the phrase “dedicated to her craft”.
In the memorable opening scene of 1981’s Fort Apache: The Bronx a couple of cops in a patrol car leer suggestively at what appears to be a stoned prostitute walking down the street. In just a few minutes the unsuspecting officers are winging their way to Donut Shop Heaven after Ms. Grier’s character whips a pistol out of her purse and riddles them with bullets. It’s a small part but Ms. Grier reveals (in the book) that she spent hours rehearsing the role.
Even in an early effort like 1973’s Black Mama White Mama you can already sense her focus and concentration. It may be a drive-in action cheapie but – dammit! – she is going to get it right to the best of her ability.
Unlike most of her peers in the B-movie trenches Ms. Grier edged her way into mainstream features and television work. (I can still remember her steamy clinch with Phillip Michael Thomas in TV’s Miami Vice while Phil Collins sings “In the Air Tonight” in the background.)
She wasn’t typecast as provocatively dressed ghetto mamas either. (For example, she played an assistant district attorney in Law & Order: SVU ).
She can sing, too. (The old rock chestnut “Some Kind of Wonderful” lives up to its title on an episode of The L Word thanks to Pam’s inspired vocalizing and the buoyant, funky arrangement.)
It took super fan boy Quentin Tarentino to give Pam her meatiest role to date. The gifted writer/director adapted the script from an Elmore Leonard novel called Rum Punch. In the book the main character is a white, 40ish stewardess named Jackie Burke. Tarentino rewrote the story specifically for Ms. Grier and renamed the film Jackie Brown as a homage to Foxy Brown.)
In one memorable scene the camera lingers on her face as Bobby Womack sings Across 110th Street on the car radio. A series of conflicting emotions play across her magnificent ebony features. The intriguing mix of strength, vulnerability and ferocious survival instincts which fuel her character are all reprised in those few moments. (I know she won a Golden Globe nomination for her work in this film but she shoulda won an Oscar nod too.)
The scene could also summarize Ms. Grier’s own struggle to continue working at her craft long after many of her co-stars have retired or passed on.
At 63, she continues to work in both films and television. A glance at Internet Movie Database reveals she has just completed a film called Man with the Iron Fists directed by Wu-Tang Clan member and film composer RZA and co-written by hot young actor/filmmaker Eli Roth. There is also talk of adapting her memoir to film. That last one may be a challenge. Ms. Grier says her personal choice is Halle Berry. Yeah, I could see it. However, even Ms. Berry’s formidable talents may not be up to the challenge.
After all, there is only one Pam Grier.
James Brown once warned that “Papa don’t take no mess.”
Turns out Mama don’t take no mess either.