Best Known For
Pam Grier is best known for acting in many "blaxploitation" films in the 1970s.
Pam Grier stops a vicious mugging in a Denver parking lot.
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"What can you lose?" her mother asked her. "You can always go back to school. Why don't you try it?" Grier moved to Los Angeles and enrolled in acting classes while working as a switchboard operator for American International Pictures to pay the bills. Grier then made her big screen debut at the age of 22 as one of several sexy inmates in the 1971 film Big Doll House.
Following that role,
Grier quickly established herself as a staple of the so-called "blaxploitation" films of the 1970s—films specifically geared toward African-American audiences that played heavily on black stereotypes. They were typically set in ghettos and featured drug dealers, pimps, and gangsters. After appearing in Hit Man (1972) and Black Mama, White Mama (1973), Grier landed her breakthrough role as the title character—"the baddest one-chick hit-squad that ever hit town"—in Coffy (1973). The next year she delivered her most iconic performance to date as a high-class prostitute out for revenge in Foxy Brown, perhaps the definitive film of the "blaxploitation" genre. In 1975, Grier scored another hit with Sheba Baby.
While Grier's films have sometimes been criticized for portraying negative black stereotypes, she insists that they served a social function by exposing the ugly elements of the black community that still existed even in the wake of the civil rights movement. "I showed this in the pictures and it was just so ugly and people saw it and said, 'Wow! That's really the way it is.' All of a sudden there was a kind of violent reaction to it."
In the 1980s, Grier broke through into a couple of mainstream blockbusters with roles opposite Paul Newman in Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981) and opposite Steven Seagal in Above the Law (1988). However, despite roles in TV series such as Crime Story (1986-1988) and Miami Vice (1985-1990) and an appearance opposite Jack Nicholson in Mars Attacks (1996), by the late 1990s Grier appeared to have passed the heyday of her career. Then, in 1997, Quentin Tarantino chose Grier to play the titular role in his acclaimed film Jackie Brown. Portraying a flight attendant caught up in a crime scheme, Grier received rave reviews and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress for her performance. Propelled by Jackie Brown, Grier enjoyed a late-career revival on the TV series The L Word (2004-2009) and Smallville (2010).
Grier will be best remembered as the leading heroine of the "blaxploitation" film genre of the 1970s. Grier's characters always stood out as empowered black women who relied on nothing but their own strength to achieve their goals. As one film producer put it, "She exists in the American imagination in a way that is permanent. She represents a self-reliant, dynamic female figure that doesn't have to forgo femininity for potency, for militant power." Grier has said that her philosophy is to pour her all into every character regardless of the size of the role or the overall tenor of the film—a lesson she learned by reading about the famed Russian theater director Constantin Stanislavski. "He said there's no such thing as a small role, there's no such thing as a small heart," she recalls. "He said I should approach any role as if it's my life, and that's what I did."
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