Pam Grier: ‘I was part of a female cinematic revolution’

Pam Grier was at the cinema with friends in the early 1990s, watching a violent thriller by a hot young director, when she experienced a minor shock. The motor-mouthed crooks up on the screen were shooting the breeze; their conversation turned to Black female action stars of the 1970s. And suddenly there it was: the name “Pam Grier”, uttered admiringly by Tim Roth and Chris Penn.

“My friends were all standing up and screaming right there in the theatre,” she recalls. And what did she do? “I slid down into my seat. I couldn’t believe they were talking about me.”

The movie was Reservoir Dogs. And its director, Quentin Tarantino, happened to be a devoted connoisseur of Grier’s career: everything from the sweaty, seedy women-in-prison movies she made in the early 1970s, such as The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage, to tough-nosed vigilante action thrillers such as Foxy Brown, in which she secretes a pistol in her afro and dishes out street justice in a variety of groovy threads. Who can forget the matching floral headscarf and balloon-sleeved blouse she wears while confronting her no-good duplicitous brother? “That’s my sister, baby,” he reflects after she has trashed his home. “And she’s a whole lot of woman!”

The 73-year-old actor is speaking from the bucolic setting of her ranch. “The horses are making lots of noise,” she says cheerily. “They’re like: ‘Whaddup, Mom?’ They always wanna know who I’m talking to, so I told them it’s the Guardian. They said: ‘What Guardian? Do they have carrots?’” Today she is in New Mexico. “Then next week, I’ll be in Colorado. And after that – who knows?”

She comes to London this month as part of a retrospective season at the British Film Institute (BFI), Pam Grier: Foxy, Fierce and Fearless, which shows how she rose to become one of the leading stars of US Blaxploitation cinema. What started as a scrappy guerrilla film-making movement in the 1970s soon developed into a successful formula, with stylish crossover hits including three Shaft movies (featuring Richard Roundtree as a no-nonsense gumshoe, plus that funky, sultry Isaac Hayes theme song), and Super Fly (Ron O’Neal as a coke dealer quitting crime, to a score by Curtis Mayfield). Vehicles led by Grier, such as Foxy Brown, Friday Foster and Sheba, Baby as well as Cleopatra Jones, starring her one-time flatmate Tamara Dobson, added fuel to the Blaxploitation blaze.

It was Coffy that gave Grier her first lead role in the genre in 1973, casting her as a nurse taking revenge on the dealers who got her kid sister hooked on drugs. Near the start of the film, she strolls into surgery fresh from having spent the evening posing as a sex worker, shooting one dealer in the head with a sawn-off shotgun and plunging a syringe of heroin into another. Then things get really nasty.

Quentin had my posters up on the walls! I was honoured to see them

Blaxploitation was not without its critics, many of whom felt that it dealt only in demeaning stereotypes: pimps, pushers, junkies and crooks. But in Grier’s autobiography, Foxy: My Life in Three Acts, she mounts a spirited defence of the films that made her a star: “To me, what really stood out in the genre was women of colour acting like heroes,” she writes, describing her typical characters as “street-smart women who were proud of who they were. They were far more aggressive and progressive than the Hollywood stereotypes.”

The centrepiece of the BFI season – and rereleased across UK cinemas this month – is Jackie Brown, the bittersweet 1997 thriller that Grier made with Tarantino. After dropping that first hint of fandom into Reservoir Dogs, he called her in to read for a minor part in Pulp Fiction as the girlfriend of a drug dealer played by Eric Stoltz. She still remembers the first time she walked into the film-maker’s office for the audition. “Quentin had my posters up on the walls,” she says. “I was honoured to see them, because what I had been part of was a female cinematic revolution.”

That part in Pulp Fiction went to Rosanna Arquette – “Eric only came up to my waist!” laughs Grier now – but consolations don’t come much mightier than what happened next. Adapting Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch, about a middle-aged flight attendant double-crossing the FBI agents who catch her in a drug-running and money-laundering sting, the director changed the main character’s surname from Burke to Brown (in homage to Foxy), and shaped the part to correspond with Grier and her history. The result was her richest performance, and a film that is widely regarded as Tarantino’s masterpiece.

She almost didn’t receive the script. Tarantino hadn’t put enough stamps on the envelope, so it languished at the post office for several weeks before Grier got around to paying the shortfall. “Then when I looked at the handwritten address, I thought it was some fan sending me photographs to sign or something,” she says.

It was a fan all right: only someone convinced of Grier’s greatness could have written her such a juicy, demanding part. She brought a lifetime of warmth, sagacity and weariness to her performance as Jackie. Arrested at the airport for flying in with $50,000 and a sachet of cocaine, she is pointedly reminded by the (white) arresting officers that, as a Black woman in her mid-40s with grim career prospects, she has no option other than to strike a deal. Grier, who went eight hours without a bathroom break during the shooting of that scene to help inhabit Jackie’s discomfort, conveys a sullen, guarded hurt and a defiant steeliness.

The movie represented her comeback, though she wasn’t exactly on her uppers before Tarantino came calling; she had recently worked with John Carpenter (on Escape from LA) and Tim Burton (Mars Attacks!). But it was Jackie Brown that ushered a new variety of roles her way, such as Jane Campion’s feverish Holy Smoke, in which she played the lover of a deprogramming counsellor (Harvey Keitel) who is trying to extricate a young woman (Kate Winslet) from a cult. With a Golden Globe nomination for Jackie Brown under her belt, she was back in business.

Grier was born in 1949, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, her mother a nurse, her father an officer in the US air force. Life on a succession of military bases tended to be pleasant, with a diverse population. Stray into town, though, and the whiff of racism was ever-present. Walking home in Columbus, Ohio with her mother, who was struggling with heavy shopping bags, the six-year-old Grier noticed one empty bus after another zooming past them. “Why won’t the bus stop for us, Mom?” she asked. “Because we’re Negroes,” her mother replied. Her father’s job meant she was never in one place for long. Somewhat improbably, she even lived for two years in Swindon, UK, where she learned to play cricket at school and taught her English friends skipping-rope games from back home.

Back in the US, her life became more emotionally fractured after her parents broke up when she was 13. She was raised through her teenage years by her mother; at 18, Grier won a beauty pageant organised by the radio station where she was working as a receptionist in Denver, Colorado. A Hollywood agent who represented Richard Roundtree spotted a spark of potential in the way she carried herself, and advised her to move to Los Angeles. There, she found bits of work as a backing singer, while also holding down a receptionist’s job at the talent agency APA (which, funnily enough, she signed to as a client this summer).

There’s nudity, wet T-shirts, bad dialogue … but you also got to see women of colour speak up

It was here that an agent invited her to audition for the producer Roger Corman, who was casting a new prison B-movie, The Big Doll House, to be shot in the Philippines. “It’s about women in a prison in the jungle,” the agent told her. “Bondage, torture, attempted escape, punishment, drug addiction, machine guns, sex. The usual.” She was nonplussed by the offer. But one audition later, she was on her way to the Philippines.

Never having acted before, she learned on the job, with the film-maker Jack Hill – who directed her in several other movies including Coffy and Foxy Brown – serving as her mentor. It was he who “told me that I needed to reach into my gut, not my mind, to find the real emotion”. A rash of movies followed in quick succession: this was the Corman way, shooting back-to-back quickies using the same sets, crews and locations. But Grier always felt as though she was on borrowed time, even as she began to become famous. In fact, she only agreed to the Corman films in the first place on the proviso that her receptionist job would be waiting for her once shooting was finished.

Elements of the women-in-prison genre may seem baffling to modern audiences, with their stark menu of nudity, subjugation, violence and revenge. In Black Mama White Mama, there is a shower scene within the first five minutes, the female inmates happily soaping themselves while the lesbian warden ogles them through a hole in the wall. Later, Grier and another prisoner are locked naked inside “the oven” – a vertical tin box standing in the blazing sun – before throttling a guard with the chain that binds them together. It’s a damn sight livelier than The Shawshank Redemption.

Grier looks back on those productions with affection. “They’re campy fun,” she says. “You’ve got nudity, wet T-shirts, the dialogue isn’t that great, you can’t take them too seriously. But audiences also got to see women of colour stand up and speak up. Everyone knew that they’d been oppressed for so long, never allowed to fight back.”

A fellow cast member on The Big Doll House told her that “it’s only a B-picture – you don’t have to work that hard.” Yet Grier has brought the same commitment to most of the 100-plus roles she’s played, even when the project was patently ridiculous. Take the 1972 science-fiction horror The Twilight People. The cinema marquees of the day put it best: “Half Beast … All Monster! Pam Grier as the Panther Woman!” She chuckles at the memory. “They told me: ‘You’ll be playing a part-panther.’ I said: ‘I’ll take it!’ You’ve got Godzilla and King Kong, and now here I am playing the panther woman. I’m in good company!” She pauses for a second. “I still have the teeth somewhere … ”

All the tomfoolery and gaudiness of those early pictures hid a serious purpose, she says. Audiences were “hungry for a female action hero”, just as Black actors were sick of being cast as “nannies and maids”. Looking back, she notes that “there were not many opportunities for people of colour. You had to create jobs and careers.” Black culture was not merely hard won but liable to be overlooked or eradicated.

Pam Grier
Pam Grier today; the actor lives on a ranch in New Mexico. Photograph: Christopher Smith/Invision/AP

“When Richard Pryor was writing Blazing Saddles with Mel Brooks, he asked me: ‘Were there really Black people in the west?’ I said: ‘Hell yeah!’ It wasn’t taught in schools but there were Black rodeos, Black cowboys. We weren’t in the history books; we were erased because we didn’t matter, and it would only arouse hostility from the people who didn’t want to share the narrative, or the historic winnings, of building this country.” There is a direct line, she explains, from that history of erasure to her choice of roles. “I felt it important for women of colour not to be invisible any more.”

Related: ‘They created a new blueprint’: the legacy of Blaxploitation film posters

That they aren’t is partly down to Grier. Her early work is justly celebrated, and recognised as part of the Black cinema canon. The reputation of Jackie Brown – which turns 25 this year – continues to rise. And her memoir, which details everything from the childhood sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of boys in her neighbourhood to her turbulent romances with the likes of Pryor and the basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, is being adapted for television after several faltering attempts to turn it into a film. Casting is about to begin. “We just have to find the right foot for the shoe,” she says.

In recent years, she has been whooping it up in comedies such as Poms (ageing cheerleaders!) and Bad Grandmas (grannies hide a dead body!). To those wondering what there could possibly be left for her to do, she has news: “I just made a film about a zombie apocalypse,” she announces, referring to the forthcoming As We Know It. The publicist is trying to wrap up our conversation and hustle her on to the next appointment, but Grier isn’t having any of it.

“I want to play a zombie,” she continues. “I want to drop an arm or leg in a driveway. Have you ever seen a zombie ride an escalator? No! They stand there hypnotised by the moving steps. We can live with them, OK? Half-zombies, I mean, not full ones. All they want is to drink at the bar. They’ve got to learn to pay with money, not some half-eaten corn cob … ” Who knows where she’s going with all this? Only a fool, however, wouldn’t want to find out.

The Pam Grier: Foxy, Fierce and Fearless season runs at BFI Southbank, London, until 4 October. Jackie Brown is back in cinemas across the UK from 16 September.