Pam Grier is known for a lot of things. She is known as a truly gifted, hard-working, dedicated and passionate actor. She is known for being at the forefront of the blaxploitation scene, for her role as Coffy, Foxy Brown and for Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, a role, it turns out, that Tarantino wrote specifically for her. She is also known as Kit Porter, the ex-alcoholic and known singer who turns her life around and truly re-discovers herself within a group of supporting and loving friends, who just so happen to be lesbians, in Showtime’s The L Word.
I knew Pam Grier mostly as Kit Porter, being much too young to have known her work as she was just a twinkle in a B-movie producer’s eye, but I was still thoroughly excited to get to know Pam Grier, the person and the actor, when I had the opportunity to review her newly-published memoir, Foxy: My Life in Three Acts. That in itself shows how Pam Grier transcends generations; her vast portfolio truly contains something for everyone, regardless of their age or their personal entertainment preferences.
Grier begins her memoir naturally, in the early years of her life–years 1949 to 1970. She grew up with her father serving in the Air Force, which allowed her family to see and experience everything this country, as well as other countries, had to offer, but at a time where people of color were forbidden to experience something as simple as public transportation. She recalled a specific experience when she lived in Columbus, Ohio at a time where segregation was at an all-time high and her family had been given a lovely place to live on base, but only because upon meeting her father, his superiors thought he was Caucasian, when he was really biracial. When they found out that her family were people of color, they promptly told her father that he would have to make other living arrangements off base. It was at this time, when Pam Grier was just five years old, where she realized that being a person of color came with many obstacles and she and her family ran into the racial wall throughout her childhood.
While Grier and her family moved every two years because of her father being active in the Air Force, she had always considered Colorado home, although she did spend some time in Wyoming on her family’s farm, which was also where she climbed onto her first horse and fell in love for a lifetime. While living with her Aunt Mennon, a compulsive, irresponsible and generally angry “wild child”, in the projects of Denver, Colorado with her mother, father and brother, as well as with her cousins, she was six years old when she was first raped by her three male cousins in the home when her mother was out and her aunt had left the children unattended. She was saved by the telephone repairman, who had come into the house and barged into the room when he had heard what was going on, after an appointment to fix the telephone wiring had not been canceled. Grier never told a soul about what had happened to her, not fully comprehending what had happened. After being raped, she developed a stutter and consistently went out of her way to make herself unattractive to the boys, and to men as she grew older.
Her introverted behavior didn’t stop until she was much older and after losing her stutter, her introverted-self returned when she was raped again at eighteen years old, while out on one of her first dates with a family friend. Again, she didn’t tell anyone what had happened to her, this time, in fear of her family going out and killing her attacker and her need to keep peace within her family, as her parents divorced and she saw her mother struggling to complete her nursing degree.
After competing in and winning a beauty pageant, purely for the prize money she needed to fulfill her hopes of going to college to study film and to become an actress, Grier was offered the chance to move to Hollywood. She took the plunge and moved to California, quickly snatching up as many jobs as she could possibly work, as well as attend groups and meetings with UCLA students studying film on campus, although she was not a student.
While dating now basketball household name, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who when she met him was just named Lew, Grier landed her first acting job, a “B-movie”, The Big Doll House. After completing that movie, she was immediately hired by the same people behind the first movie, for her second, Women in Cages. It was also at this time when Lew, now Kareem, was consistently pressuring her into converting to Islam and to be an obedient wife he could take care of; but Grier never wanted anyone to take care of herself, being a driven and strong-willed woman with goals of her own that needed fulfilling. She and Kareem inevitably split when he gave her an ultimatum to marry him, or else he would be marrying a Muslim woman who had already been prepared for him–and he would be marrying this woman on Pam Grier’s birthday of all days. Needless to say, she declined his offer, as painful as it was, because regardless of how open her mind was to the idea, the more she read the books Kareem had given her about converting and what would be expected of her, the more she thought that the religion was degrading and oppressive towards women and Kareem married a woman he did not know for his religion.
Pam Grier mentions a great deal about the importance of the women’s liberation movement and her mother sending her information on the movement and the advancement of women. She also mentions a cameo appearance Gloria Steinem made on The L Word, asking who has fought harder for womanhood than Gloria Steinem? But these statements in conjunction with one particular statement really left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Almost off-handedly, Grier mentions her sexual relationship with a man as a grown woman and says that women should wait to have sex until they can be with a good man because if they don’t and have too much sex at a young age, they will be too stretched out for sex to be pleasurable. This is actually rather offensive, since feminism has a great deal to do with sexual liberation, as well as liberation from the patriarchy. To warn that you will be too stretched out for it to be pleasurable feels more like a back-peddle from feminism and sexual liberation. While this may seem like a very tiny issue and may not even catch the attention of most who read her memoir, it is still embedded in my mind and it’s still rubbing me the wrong way.
Grier has been involved in long-term relationships with many men who had not been worthy of not just her, but of any self-respecting woman and after reading about her experiences watching boyfriends like Freddie Prinze Sr. and Richard Pryor fall down the long and dirty road of deadly drugs and self-destructive behavior, you have to respect a woman for following her logic instead of purely her heart and knowing that as much as she wished she could save the men she loved throughout her life, that sometimes you have to let them go and make their own decisions and having to be more of a mother than a partner to a man is something no woman should be expected to do. It was when she was in a relationship with Richard Pryor, who at the time had been doing so much cocaine that it was present in his seminal fluid, that Grier was told by her gynecologist that she would have to stop having a sexual relationship with him unless he wore a condom or she could die because the cocaine was showing up inside of her and was destroying her reproductive organs. Throughout Foxy, Pam Grier consistently proves to herself that she is stronger and more self-aware than she could ever possibly give herself credit for.
Pam Grier is a survivor. A survivor of repeated sexual assault, as well as a survivor of cervical cancer that she found she had when dating a man named Phillip who let his mother live in poverty, having to carry one light bulb from room to room when she needed to see around her house while he was raking in millions, and who also stood Grier up after she had come out of surgery. But Pam Grier consistently triumphed, throwing herself into winning the fight of her life and consistently shining in every finished product that emerges where we are able to see her dedication and hard work pay off. Grier is an underdog; a woman who came from very little, but with one dream and a great deal of hard work, she succeeded in what she set out to do in her life and she just keeps on shining.