Pam Grier Looks Back In New Book

Pam Grier, the actress that defined the black female action star in films such as Foxy Brown and Coffy chats with guest host Allison Keyes about her new memoir, Foxy: My Life in Three Acts.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

Before actress Angelina Jolie immortalized the character of Lara Croft as a hero, before Halle Berry became an X-man, or a Linda Hamilton brought down a terminator, there was the original "Foxy Brown."

(Soundbite of movie, "Foxy Brown")

Ms. PAM GRIER (Actress): (as Foxy Brown) It could be you brother, too, or your sister or your children. I want justice for all of them. And I want justice for all the other people whose lives are bought and sold, so that a few big shots can climb up on their backs and laugh at the law, and laugh at human decency.

KEYES: The iconic character Foxy Brown defines the era of black female blaxploitation in the 1970s: proud, sexy, hip and strong. Actress Pam Grier in her roles as "Foxy Brown" and "Coffy" showed us that black, in all its strength and power, was beautiful, indeed.

But in real life, Pam Grier is a survivor. Her new book, "Foxy: My Life in Three Acts," takes us inside her world of grit and triumph. And if being an author weren't enough, she's also in the new movie "Just Wright," starring actors/musicians Common and Queen Latifah. The author and actress is here with us now. Welcome, Ms. Grier.

Ms. GRIER: Welcome is what you think. I'm in shock. I was listening to my voice back in that scene.

KEYES: What should...

Ms. GRIER: Thank you for the invitation. It just took me back. It was quite emotional.

KEYES: Well...

Ms. GRIER: I remember doing that scene and it resonated to a lot of my community and things that I'd seen and happened, and I was really feeling every word.

KEYES: It resonated in what way?

Ms. GRIER: My mom was Coffy and my aunt was Foxy Brown. And in my community, in Denver, there were certain areas that were quite deprived and angry. And you could see the people preying upon one another, victimizing one another and it was very harsh. And my mom was always, to some of her friends, the mediator, trying to stop the fights, trying to stop the madness, and she was always taking care of people. And it was just - and it just moved me. Just moved me to hear me give that dialogue.

KEYES: Well, in that case, we're going to move you again. Because now I've got a play a clip from "Coffy," your other iconic role.

Ms. GRIER: Oh, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GRIER: It's torture.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of movie, "Coffy")

Ms. GRIER: (as Coffy) Come on now. Look, I ain't going to shoot you.

Unidentified Man: Please, don't shoot. Don't shoot. I'll tell you anything, a million dollars, whatever you want.

Ms. GRIER: (as Coffy) Okay, a million dollars. You got a deal. I won't kill you. But your friend Brunswick, I want any way. Where is he?

Unidentified Man: He left. He went to his house at the beach.

Ms. GRIER: (As Coffy) Yeah, I know the place. Thanks.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: Ah, do you still terrify some men in this day and age?

Ms. GRIER: I think they may wonder if I'm still going hunting and, but I don't think I intimidate men today. I've been meeting quite a few men and what they say is they're proud of how I interact with them, and that they want their ladies, their girlfriends, their daughters to be assertive and intelligent. And when you are, I think men respect you more.

KEYES: You've been identified so deeply with the feminist movement and that is a big part of your book - how much that has meant to you. Do you think that the roles that you have played have changed or affected the way people viewed women in our community and women in general?

Ms. GRIER: I have a small part. But I think the outcome or even the general spreading of the word was that women need to be, at some point, independent -not co-dependent - so that they can be a partner, have equanimity in a relationship. Not necessarily wear the pants or take the man's role, but be a real partner to make men feel confident.

And it was about empowering women, because we may not be accepted by a man. We may not become married. We may be an independent woman forever, for life, and we need to be self-sufficient.

My grandfather wanted me to be that way. He said - we went hunting and fishing. He said you need to bring the boat in; you need to know how to drive the tractor; you need to know how to do things - it really works in the city. And it might intimidate some men - men my generation, perhaps, but not younger men.

KEYES: I remember - and don't be mad at me for saying this. But when I was growing up there was some drama going on in parts of the community as to whether those films were creating a bad stereotype for black people. You know, the "Superfly," the "Coffy," the "Foxy Brown." Did you catch any, shall we say, pushback from the African-American community?

Ms. GRIER: It could have been. My focus was on getting a woman into a leadership role in the films, the one as a heroine who was courageous and strong. And what I wanted to do in the community was show our ills. Instead of sweeping them under the rug, let's address them. So that was my focus.

And there were quite a few films done before mine. They weren't called blaxploitation, not until a woman did it and I had stepped into the roles of the shoes of a man. Now it's blaxploitation because here's a woman posturing as a man, laughing and joking and being powerful and strong like a man. And all of a sudden there's an issue.

Well, to me, it wasn't an issue. To me, it was letting our community see what was going on.

KEYES: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes and I'm talking with actress Pam Grier about her new memoir, "Foxy: My Life in Three Acts."

Ms. Grier, I want to actually talk to you about some points you made in your book. You were talking about your mom and the way you grew up. And she taught not to look at color at a time where black people weren't even allowed to try on clothes in stores. How did she go about doing that, and how do you think that changed you?

Ms. GRIER: There were times where we would go into department stores and, you know, we were coming into an era of busing and desegregation. We were going through social turmoil. And in some of the department stores, we could not try on clothing. And when I went out to Los Angeles I was so amazed. A shopping -not even a shopping spree - I was going to find something to wear to work on one of my five jobs that I had. And it was in Century City, West Los Angeles, very progressive city, and when I went into the store the sales girl was so hi, how are you? What are you looking for? Can I help you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GRIER: And she started handing me these blouses - several of them and skirts. And good. Try them on. Let me know if you need. She was so friendly and open. I was stunned. I had to call my mother that evening. I said, mom, I got to try on some clothing at the store and they just, you know, were so liberal and kind to me. I was taken aback by that.

And she said something, well baby, that's how it should be and it will be even more so. And I said, mom, you're going to come out here and I wish you could experience that. And I brought her out and she was just so amazed. For all the marching that her generation had suffered so much and my grandmother and my great grandmother. And I said, mom, I wish we could tell everyone how wonderful this feels. And I don't think many people would understand that today, not knowing that what we had to go through was something so profound and humiliating every day that my mother went through.

KEYES: I need to ask you about something else sad, and I'm sorry about this, but you wrote that you were assaulted when you were just six years old and again when you were 18, and it cost you to kind of stutter and stop talking for a while. I wonder how you survived that and how it has affected the woman you are now.

Ms. GRIER: When you talk about surviving, you really don't know how you will survive each year. There are times were when I'm frightened and I feel uncertain, my stutter returns and I have a mechanism that controls it.

KEYES: Still?

Ms. GRIER: Yes. It returns. And I don't know if you ever get over or survive. Some people do. I can't speak for them. I know what my difficulties are and I am able to understand them. I've had discussions about them. The third attempt was the time when I decided I'm fighting back. It is not going to happen once more. And I remember fighting so with desperation, with all of my might to not allow this to happen a third time.

KEYES: Wow.

Ms. GRIER: So, I just don't want others to experience what I had, and I see it. I see dysfunctional behavior, abusive behavior in families passed on from generation to generation to generation. You see it every day and you don't always get over it. You might split, you might hide, you might repress emotions but it's something that will be with you forever.

KEYES: But still, you write about a Jewish Talmud verse that's special to you that says: Every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it and whispers: Grow, grow.

Ms. GRIER: Yes.

KEYES: I mean you're able to come back from that to that positive thought.

Ms. GRIER: I get to a positive thought. Could it be better? Possibly. But I have so many angels, so many people in my career from Tim and Daphne Reid to Quentin Tarantino, who invested two years of his life to write "Jackie Brown" for me. I've been fortunate.

The life lines of, you know, from doing film and having producers and directors still interested in my work, you know, it keeps me occupied. It keeps me from thinking about things that would take that positivity away from me.

KEYES: Let me ask you about the movie that you're working on now.

Ms. GRIER: I'm working on a movie with Tom Hanks right now, and I play Julia Roberts's best friend. It's called "Larry Crowne," in Los Angeles.

KEYES: Wait. This makes me laugh a little bit because a couple of months ago there were people talking about how there was the whole black best friend thing. So really? You're Julia Roberts's best friend in the next movie?

Ms. GRIER: Yes. Yes.

KEYES: What's it about?

Ms. GRIER: Well, Tom Hanks character loses his job at a major store that he had been with for a long time and he was the exemplary employee and he didn't have a college education. He has to go back to school - a city college - where he meets Julia and myself, and he reinvents himself, and it's a wonderful movie.

KEYES: I have to ask you, what do you want your legacy to be? I mean you're obviously still working. It's not like you're retired or anything but what is it that...

Ms. GRIER: Artists don't retire.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GRIER: We don't retire. What's my legacy? I survived cancer. I was given a second life. There's nothing more important than your health. And you always maintain balance in your life, which I share in "Foxy: My Life in Three Acts."

KEYES: Pam Grier is the author "Foxy: My Life in Three Acts." She joined us from our bureau in Culver City. Ms. Grier, thank you so much.

Ms. GRIER: Allison, I'm weeping.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GRIER: You've taken back to these places. Thank you. I really enjoyed it. Thank you very much for your invitation.

KEYES: The book, by the way, is available in most major bookstores. You can find out more at our website, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

KEYES: That's our program for today. I'm Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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