The Revolutionary Power of Pam Grier's 'Foxy Brown'

"Foxy Brown" pioneered the female action hero and subverted genre tropes—and made Grier a bankable star in an age where few black women landed leading roles.

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Jan 18 2018, 5:38pm

Photos courtesy of American International Pictures

Welcome to "Reel Women," a new column highlighting important women in the world of cinema, from on-screen characters to real-life filmmakers.

Pam Grier is not only the godmother of kickass female action heroes, she revolutionized the concept.

Initially a receptionist at American International Pictures, the studio that put out B-movies in the 1950s – 1970s, it wasn’t long until Grier's made-for-the-silver-screen charisma was discovered by film producer Roger Corman, who cast her in '70s blaxploitation films. Grier soon teamed up with Jack Hill and landed starring roles in two sister films, Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974). The latter became one of Grier's most iconic turns, inspiring the title of her memoir (Foxy: My Life in Three Acts), the moniker of the rapper Foxy Brown, and an homage from Beyoncé in Austin Powers in Goldmember (her character was named Foxxy Cleopatra, which also honored Tamara Dobson’s Cleopatra Jones). In 1997, Quentin Tarantino made Jackie Brown just for Grier, reviving her career as a lead actress two decades after her string of blaxploitation films.

Just this week, Pam Grier announced that she's currently working on a biopic of herself tentatively titled Pam, with a script by Bennie Richburg and SNL star Jay Pharoah slated to play the comedian Richard Pryor, with whom Grier had a tumultuous relationship. On February 3, Brooklyn’s BAM theater is showing Foxy Brown on 35mm as part of its Black Superheroes series honoring the release of Black Panther (out February 16).

Grier's Foxy Brown wears no cape and has no supernatural powers, but she's essential to this repertory series because she will forever exist as an icon of black female empowerment. She was strong, sexy, outspoken, funny, and far superior to her seedy male counterparts.

With female action heroes, it's easy to default to a tomboy look a la Ellen Ripley in Alien or that beige-gray tank top worn by the likes of Angelina Jolie and Alicia Vikander (Tomb Raider), Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road), and Katherine Waterston (Alien: Covenant), but Foxy Brown is just as remembered for her style as she is for her ass-kicking. The slinky dresses and colorful crop tops she sports are some of the best movie costumes from the '70s era. Like her name, she is very foxy, but she's never merely a sexual object; she subverts her role at every turn in a genre that often cast women as characters who were either sexy props or victims of brutalization.

Foxy Brown, like Coffy before it, is a tale of an avenging angel, and it is as cathartic as it is entertaining. After the unjust murder of her boyfriend, a narcotics agent, Foxy infiltrates a prostitution ring and goes undercover as a hooker to avenge his death. She’s quick on her feet and uses her smarts to get out of tough situations, but it’s her biting words—which she delivers with wit and sass—that leave audiences cheering. In one instance, Foxy looks down scornfully at a sleazy judge client and tells him, "I’ve heard of a meat shortage but this is just ridiculous." And from there, she keeps going, telling him she "just can’t find it," and mockingly charging him with "assault with a very un-deadly weapon." It’s shockingly funny.

Other times, it’s admittedly difficult to be completely on board with this film. As Foxy Brown also occupies the sexploitation genre, there's a lot of nudity that feels gratuitous (later in the film, Foxy is tied up by the bad guys with her breasts completely exposed). And in one scene, Foxy's famous retorts include a homophobic slur that doesn't sit well. But what works for Foxy Brown is that she uses her sexuality to expose corruption and exact revenge on her terms. What was most revolutionary about Foxy Brown, though, was that it made Pam Grier a black leading lady with box office draw. The following year, she starred in two main roles with William Girdler’s Sheba, Baby and Arthur Marks’ Friday Foster. But that was it for Grier’s turn as the lead until Jackie Brown.

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Though Grier is an everlasting symbol of black female power, she’s had to deal with constant racism in her life as well as sexual assault and harassment, which she’s detailed in her memoir and a recent Deadline interview. She's suffered tragedy and heartbreak (she had relationships with Pryor and Freddie Prinze, both comedians who battled drug addiction). Much of these details will likely be featured in her biopic, with Pharoah calling her story "heartbreaking, raw, honest, and beautiful."

What feels regretful is that her star power died down between her string of blaxploitation films and Jackie Brown. Still, Grier is the hero to thank for kicking down so many doors for women—black women especially.