The unsung hero of the 1970s, Pam Grier was the alternative to … actually, scratch that. There wasn't an alternative to Pam Grier. She was the first real female action hero, one of the first black women to headline theater marquees and make the studios copious amounts of money, and a prime example of the liberated woman of the 1970s. She also was a figurehead for the now-treasured blaxploitation era, a seminal epoch during which grindhouse theaters played low-budget sex-and-violence romps starring all black casts. The period only lasted for a few years in the mid-‘70s, but it’s impossible to ignore some of the masterpieces of its Golden Age.
But blaxploitation was generally at its best when it revolved around Pam Grier, who wasn’t just another voluptuous, afroed sexpot but rather a sexy, confident, and thoroughly intelligent heroine unafraid to seduce, unafraid to brawl, whenever the occasion arose. None of her films were great, per se, but they carried a sort of lusty, exciting fun that kept their tongues firmly in cheek while audiences could lap their only slightly overt sleaziness up.
Coffy is widely considered to be Grier’s finest hour, with Foxy Brown providing her with her most iconic character. As much as I like Coffy (the most well-made of the bunch), though, Foxy Brown holds a sort of vicious energy easy to become attached to (and prefer), and Friday Foster, which came at the tail end of blaxploitation in 1975, is arguably her actual finest hour. Foxy Brown captures everything we love about a Grier film: it’s dirty, funny, cheekily violent, packed with the most gaudy of ‘70s iconography, and features Grier in all sorts of compromising positions and wigs. Friday Foster, however, makes for a sort of 360 for her — though she does manage to break free from her clothes once again, Friday Foster is her most irresistible role. Not out for blood, not necessarily street smart, and not as I-don’t-care-if-I-break-a-nail willing to get herself pummeled by a gaggle of thugs, Friday relies more on her wits than her gut instincts. She’s more approachable, more human, not just some rough concoction of one of Jack Hill’s many lurid fantasies.
But to say one Grier film is better than another is unjust — they all have the same basic budget, the same subpar acting talent, the same tawdry direction, the same barely there writing. It’s more a matter of what setting you like to see her kick ass in the most.
In Foxy Brown, she portrays a young woman on a path of revenge after her government agent boyfriend (Terry Carter) is killed by drug pushers, who may or may not be linked to a whorehouse (disguised as a modeling agency) fronted by Steve Elias (Peter Brown) and Miss Katherine (Kathryn Loder). In order to bring them down, she poses as a hooker and infiltrates their quarters, befriending a young mother and making a dangerous number of enemies in the process.
One could say that Foxy Brown contains the most brutal violence of Grier’s oeuvre — she is sexually assaulted at one point, later on calling her cronies to castrate the someone who did her wrong — but the barbarousness of it all is coated in an appealingly grimy sheen that brings Foxy’s escapades closer to Earth rather than faraway in schlock land. The villainous Loder makes for a superb contrast between the bombastic bloodlust of Grier, who is at her action heroine peak as Foxy.
With Friday Foster, Grier is given the chance to tone down her normal brassiness in favor of a smiling knowingness — here, she is a magazine photographer (and former model) who inadvertently records the attempted assassination of a politician. Friday isn’t the type of person to simply hand over the photos and earn a quick buck, so she, along with detective Colt Hawkins (Yaphet Kotto), investigate for themselves, leading to a deep conspiracy.
Though Friday Foster is typically the underdog of Grier’s time with American International (unless you count the mostly forgotten Sheba, Baby), it’s my favorite of her blaxploitation films. It’s nearly a political thriller, holding itself together with a well-structured plot and tightening its intrigue with memorable supporting performances from Yaphet Kotto and Eartha Kitt. It’s as fixated on Grier as it is with solving its own mystery, and that’s what I like best about it. It doesn’t feel cheap; there’s a feeling that its filmmakers realized the true treasure Grier is and decided to make a movie matching her talents.
Campy, ballsy, and magnificently entertaining, Foxy Brown and Friday Foster are the movies Pam Grier will always be remembered for, unless you’ve seen her Tarantino-helmed 1997 comeback Jackie Brown — then you might consider them to be prerequisites for a career best. But no matter: the nostalgic kicks are incomparable.
Foxy Brown B+
Friday Foster B+