Movies

Let us now praise Pam Grier

Pam Grier in “Foxy Brown.”

American International pictures

Pam Grier in “Foxy Brown.”

Has there ever been a movie star quite like Pam Grier? Well, maybe two, and the very different ways they resemble her speaks to what makes Grier special.

But we’ll get to that.

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Currently the subject of a retrospective at the Harvard Film Archive, Pam Grier, Superstar! — the exclamation mark definitely isn’t silent — she’ll be at the HFA this weekend for screenings of “Foxy Brown” (Oct. 7) and “Jackie Brown” (Oct. 8). The “Foxy Brown” screening will include an onstage conversation between Grier and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Now 67, Grier’s best known to younger audiences as Kit Porter, on Showtime’s “The L Word” (2004-09). But during her ’70s heyday, she was the queen of blaxploitation: gorgeous without quite being beautiful, naive but never innocent, often put upon but always indomitable.

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Standing 5 feet 8 inches, she somehow seemed a lot taller. And that’s without factoring in platform heels and a full-bloom Afro. Grier did something that comes naturally to movie stars but not even the most skilled actor can fake: she loomed.

On Oct. 6, Grier is being presented with a W.E.B. Du Bois Medal by Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research. Other recipients this year include opera star Jessye Norman and Xerox CEO Ursula M. Burns, so Grier is in pretty heady company. Or should that be the other way around?

Billed as Pamela Grier, she made her debut in “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” (1970), was fourth billed in “Women in Cages” (1971), and played Bernie Casey’s love interest in “Hit Man” (1972). Forget about the actual movies. Even their titles are blunt instruments. But with “Hit Man,” Grier had entered the world of blaxploitation, and the blunt instruments would take on a sociological and political complicatedness that remains striking four decades and more later.

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Grier’s breakout came a year later, with the title role in “Coffy” (1973). Blaxploitation may have been radical in turning racial stereotypes upside down. It was anything but radical in its sexual politics. Except when Grier was onscreen. Just standing there, she was filmic feminism. Usually, she was doing a lot more than standing. Coffy is an operating room nurse who moonlights as a vigilante against drug dealers and pimps. Within five minutes, she’s blown away one of the former with a sawed-off shotgun blast to the head.

Part of the fascination blaxploitation offers is how it managed to be both so formulaic and full of surprises. The two biggest in “Coffy”? The white mobster who takes a very sinister shine to Coffy is played by Diane Arbus’s ex-husband, Allan. And going undercover, Grier’s character affects a Jamaican accent. Such an actorly touch is a reminder of the limitations of Grier’s range back then.

Blaxploitation is associated with ex-football players and the like, such as Casey and Fred Williamson. But it also featured such gifted actors as William Marshall, best known for playing Blacula, and Antonio Fargas, who specialized in cringing low lifes. One of them is the title character’s brother in “Foxy Brown” (1974).

As you might guess, Grier plays Foxy. Who else could live up to that name? Her sheer regality as an avenging angel in a floral pantsuit and stack heels is something to behold. (The greatest proof of Grier’s indomitability is her surviving the ’70s fashions she had to wear.) It’s one thing for a movie to feature killing and torture and rape and even a lesbian bar (with obligatory cat fight). But there’s castration, too. Foxy is a figure to be reckoned with.

Grier’s success inspired a copycat. Tamara Dobson, even taller than Grier, was Pepsi to her Coke. Dobson made two blaxploitations movies as Cleopatra Jones, a kind of secret agent/fashion model. One of the two actresses who recall Grier, Dobson makes you appreciate her all the more. Cleo is a figure of camp, unlike Foxy or (especially) Coffy. Grier’s characters have a desperation to them. Dobson’s in on the joke, even though she doesn’t realize the extent to which the joke is at her expense. No one ever laughs when Grier is on screen, even when she’s using a Jamaican accent, not unless she wants them to.

This is where the other comparison comes in. Look at the beaky nose and toothy smile. Pam Grier is Barbara Stanwyck reimagined and unleashed. Onscreen, both women are sexy and forthright, often beleaguered but always tough. “Death is too easy for you, bitch,” a bad guy sneers at Foxy. “I want you to suffer.” Grier’s characters, like Stanwyck’s, do tend to suffer. Unlike Stanwyck’s, they tend to prevail.

By the time of “Friday Foster” (1975), which screens on Nov. 11, blaxploitation was all but over. It was definitely over by “Greased Lightning” (1977), which screens on Halloween. Grier soldiered on during the ’80s and well into the ’90s, doing a lot of television and movies you likely haven’t heard of, let alone seen. And then Quentin Tarantino gave her the throne she deserved.

It’s “Jackie Brown” (1997). Jackie is no relation to Foxy, except that she is, since Grier plays her. Jackie’s a down-on-her-luck stewardess who gets nailed for money-running for gun dealer Samuel L. Jackson. She has to come up with a scheme to take care of both the law and Jackson, and, boy, does she ever. Stanwyck couldn’t have done it better.

The movie opens with a shot of Grier in profile, standing on a moving walkway at LAX. The shot lasts 73 seconds, an eternity in screen time, but you want it to go on forever. Clearly, Tarantino worships this woman. Just as clearly, she’s worthy of it. Of course she is. She’s Pam Grier.


Pam Grier, Superstar!

At Harvard Film Archive, through
Nov. 11. 617-495-4700,
www.hcl.harvard.edu/hfa

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.
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