Cunning, Fierce and Fearless: The Movies of Blaxploitation Icon Pam Grier
Because the BFI launches a brand new retrospective on Pam Grier – an actor identified for her “type” and “sultry savoir-faire” – we suggest 5 movies from her unorthodox profession
A long time earlier than Black Panther, Moonlight and Get Out had been lighting up international field places of work and awards ceremonies, and lengthy previous to the emergence of Spike Lee (Do The Proper Factor) and John Singleton (Boyz N The Hood), who laid the foundations of a golden age of Black cinema within the Nineties, Black cinema skilled one in every of its first main heydays with the blaxploitation increase of the Nineteen Seventies.
A portmanteau of the phrases “Black” and “exploitation”, this vibrant motion was sparked by the successes of low-budget, Black-directed thrillers like Candy Sweetback’s Baadasssss Tune and Shaft within the early decade. With mainstream studio flicks in decline as counter-culture cinema was on the rise, and with Hollywood alerted to the untapped potential of the ‘Black greenback’, a wave of flicks telling Black tales and starring Black actors had been abruptly put into manufacturing – with violence, nudity and pleasure usually central to the attraction.
The gambit was successful. And whereas present-day reflections are crucial of the restricted stereotypes these movies bolstered (often beneath the course of white filmmakers and producers), this was, nonetheless, an period throughout which Black actors, musicians, and different creatives had been discovering new alternatives collectively. Because the sounds of Curtis Mayfield, Roy Ayers and Isaac Hayes crammed the auditoriums, audiences flocked to see Fred Williamson (Black Caesar), Richard Roundtree (Shaft) and Pam Grier kicking white individuals’s asses on-screen.
The latter actor, a display sensation who turned celebrated because the “queen of blaxploitation” for her performances in a collection of thrilling low-budget (and infrequently X-rated) works, is well known this month by the BFI with a programme titled Pam Grier: Cunning, fierce and fearless. Identified for her “type” and “sultry savoir-faire”, say the programmers, Grier turned one of many de-facto icons of the period because of her dominant roles in women-in-prison movies, violent revenge flicks, detective thrillers and even swords-and-sandals gladiator movies (“See wild girls struggle to the dying!”, reads the poster to Steve Carver’s 1974 movie The Enviornment).
The BFI’s 14-film retrospective charts the numerous heights of Grier’s profession – from the blaxploitation period to her Tarantino-inspired profession revival within the 90s and past. Higher but, Grier herself can be current for a collection of in-person reflections and discussions, in what’s poised to be an unmissable occasion. Try a few of our highlights from the season beneath.
The Huge Doll Home, 1971
On the dilapidated Jail del Inferno, 150 scantily-clad girls incarcerated for prostitution, espionage and homicide are pressured to work onerous labour by scowling head warden Lucian (Kathryn Loder). In the event that they insurgent, they’ll be tortured with whips, hearth hoses, electrical energy and venomous snakes. All of the whereas, native intercourse pests Harry (Sid Haig, The Satan’s Rejects) and Fred (Jerry Franks) make common visits to the jail hoping to reap the benefits of the struggling interns.
The Huge Doll Home makes for surprising viewing right now, however within the 70s, this was simply one other entry within the extremely worthwhile women-in-prison sexploitation sub-genre – which supplied titillation and violence by the bucketload. Actually, each the deserted Filipino jail wherein The Huge Doll Home was filmed and the movie’s core forged can be reused the identical 12 months in one other manufacturing starring Pam Grier – although Ladies In Cages (additionally screening on the BFI, alongside different “chicks in chains” works The Huge Fowl Cage and Black Mama, White Mama) is a decidedly extra nihilistic providing.
Nonetheless, this starring debut for Grier – who performs a fierce, cigarette-smoking top-bunker within the first of many collaborations with director Hill and co-star Haig – helped lay the roots for her ascendancy as an exploitation star. She’s magnetic because of her daring and brazen perspective, putting appears to be like (together with the traditional yellow mini-dress and afro combo) and killer one-liners. “Get your ass again right here or I’ll cave it in!” she declares.
A transparent affect on Quentin Tarantino movies like Jackie Brown and Kill Invoice, Coffy finds Grier’s titular hospital nurse in search of justice after her younger sister falls sufferer to the 70s LA medicine epidemic. When Coffy’s good friend – one of many final good cops on the town – is overwhelmed to the purpose of mind harm, she’s pushed over the sting, and goes on an unstoppable marketing campaign of bloody vengeance.
An enormous monetary success on the time of its launch regardless of being filmed in simply 18 days, on a price range of $500,000, Coffy bursts with 70s type to match its extreme nudity and uncooked, surprising violence. Jumpsuits, fedoras and pimps with canes are throughout this thriller – which additionally packs in one-eyed mobsters, a funk-laden Roy Ayers soundtrack, and the indomitable Sid Haig as a wise-cracking henchman.
A bonafide blaxploitation traditional, Coffy was additionally the movie that made Grier, a robust Black feminine lead, an actual star. She’s in outrageous type as a woman-on-a-mission who conceals razor blades in her hair and fires shotguns within the faces of her enemies. Because the movie’s poster places it, “She’s ‘the baddest One-Chick Hit-Squad that ever hit city!” – and you’ll hardly argue with that.
Cunning Brown, 1974
Initially launched as a double-bill with crime thriller Truck Turner (starring funk-and-soul famous person Isaac Hayes), Cunning Brown was truly supposed to be a straight-up sequel to Hill and Grier’s earlier hit, Coffy, till studio execs pulled a last-minute U-turn. The ensuing movie was divisive amongst critics – The LA Instances referred to as it “one other film about vengeance, vigilantes, dope, name ladies and violence interspersed with intercourse, vulgarity and hatred” – however it ended up being a monetary success and, later, an influential cult traditional.
Opening with a psychedelic, James Bond-like title sequence – wherein Grier dances in vibrant silhouettes to Willie Hutch’s ultra-funky rating – the movie shortly switches in tone as a shifty drug peddler is pursued down a darkish road. The harried Hyperlink Brown (Antonio Fargas, Starsky & Hutch), Cunning’s child brother, then finds himself cornered at a scorching canine stand – till the titular heroine reveals up in a crimson Dodge Charger to save lots of the day.
However the drug syndicate – which incorporates The Huge Doll Home villain Kathryn Loder and The Godfather heavy Tony Giorgio – don’t quit there. Earlier than lengthy, Cunning Brown finds shut allies picked off one after the other, inspiring a private vendetta for vigilante justice. Amid airplane hijackings and sawn-off shotgun slayings, Cunning Brown (with the assistance of the Black Panthers and Sid Haig) kicks ass left proper and centre hereafter, dropping outrageous one-liners all of the whereas. And thanks partially to The Jackson 5 stylist Ruthie West, the movie’s costume designer, she appears to be like persistently fabulous whereas she does it.
Friday Foster, 1975
‘Wham! Bam! Right here comes Pam!’, reads the tagline on the poster to Arthur Marks’ 1975 thriller Friday Foster – nicely and actually confirming the star energy that Grier had commanded by the mid-70s. Right here, she performs an ex-model turned photographer named Friday Foster, who turns into embroiled in a political conspiracy in Washington DC after witnessing an assassination try on the wealthiest African American individual within the USA.
Cue a heap of feather boas, bell bottoms and afro-haired beauties on this action-packed romp teeming with 70s type. However whereas the superfluous funk music, daring rooftop foot-chases, cigar-smoking sleuths and switchblade assassins be certain that it is a fun-filled outing from begin to end, there’s additionally a top-notch forged of blaxploitation legends whose presence elevates the whole manufacturing.
A number of years earlier than a fateful voyage into deep area in Alien, Yaphet Kotto performs a smooth-talking, suit-wearing non-public investigator right here. His Dwell and Let Die co-star Julius Harris (who performed claw-handed henchman Tee-Hee within the Bond flick) performs Foster’s mean-spirited boss, Riley. Santa Child singer Eartha Kitt is a vogue present curator, whereas Scatman Crothers – the telepathic janitor from The Shining – seems as a titillated pastor. Maybe the perfect of the lot, although, is a younger Carl Weathers (Rocky, Predator) – who performs a near-mute criminal hell bent on inflicting bother for Foster and her sidekicks.
Jackie Brown, 1997
Having auditioned unsuccessfully for a task in Pulp Fiction within the early 90s earlier than taking over supporting elements in movies by Tim Burton and John Carpenter, Grier was invited to learn for the lead in what can be Quentin Tarantino’s third movie in 1997. Upon arriving at Tarantino’s workplace, Grier discovered his partitions adorned with posters of her movies, like Coffy and Cunning Brown. The titular position of LA heist film Jackie Brown, arguably Tarantino’s finest, was confirmed as hers quickly after.
Jackie Brown opens with a memorable sequence wherein Grier, a blue-uniformed air stewardess, is captured side-on as she passes mosaic-tiled partitions on a transferring walkway at an airport. She’ll quickly be detained within the places of work of two ATF brokers, and interrogated for cash and drug smuggling on behalf of the Kangol beret-wearing arms supplier Ordell Robbie (Samuel L Jackson). Going through jail time and monetary catastrophe, Brown hatches an formidable plan with smitten bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) in an try to save lots of her life – simply because the police and her black market employer shut in on her.
The forged is the center and soul of this 90s traditional, and Grier, in one in every of her most magnetic and iconic roles, was nominated for a Golden Globe for her efficiency whereas Forster, her sympathetic co-lead, was nominated for an Oscar. Neither had taken on a lead position in years on the time of manufacturing. Robert De Niro, in the meantime, is quietly hilarious as an offbeat ex-con with a hashish drawback – and Grier’s previous blaxploitation co-star Sid Haig even reveals as much as ship a memorable cameo because the choose in a courtroom scene.
This densely-plotted and character-driven work additionally provides numerous references to Grier’s earlier profession. Soundtrack cues, typefaces, poster designs and dialogues are among the many easter eggs that nod to works like Coffy, Cunning Brown and The Huge Doll Home (in addition to loads of different blaxploitation flicks) – and Jack Hill and Roy Ayers are duly thanked within the credit. Grier would go on to seem in cult productions like Bones, Ghosts of Mars and Smallville thereafter, as her profession acquired a lift within the wake of the movie’s launch.
The Pam Grier: Cunning, fierce and fearless movie retrospective at BFI Southbank in London runs from 2 September–4 October, 2022.