Oh, the ’70s, back when a jive turkey was the last thing you wanted to be but being called a brick house was a compliment.
If there’s one woman who knows all about the colorful era, it’s Pam Grier, the former screen siren known for playing strong, sexy, street-smart protagonists in popular black films like Foxy Brown, Coffy and Sheba Baby.
“It was a movement,” Grier, 67, now says of the films in her heyday. “Characters like Foxy and Coffy showed how a woman could be a lady and still be able to defend herself. We were trying to be expressive and progressive.”
And unapologetically sexy!
“I was part of Gloria Steinem’s woman’s movement that said don’t be sexy for others, be sexy for yourself,” says Grier. Still, her sultry posters, like those of Farrah Fawcett, hung immortalized in many a high school locker. As for her pinup days, she says, “A woman’s body is not a mystery. Own your sexuality!”
This month Grier is being immortalized once again, with the launch of Bounce TV’s new video streaming service Brown Sugar, which features an extensive library of iconic black movies, unedited and commercial-free.
PEOPLE caught up with the actress, who dished on everything from ’70s stardom and women’s rights to how she’s happily single and ready to mingle.
Are you excited about bringing your movies to a whole new generation now with Brown Sugar?
I can’t begin to tell you how excited! People can revisit or be introduced to my work all over again. And not just me, some of my best friends like Eddie Murphy, you can see his films like Harlem Nights. Or those of actors who aren’t here any more like Eartha Kitt. It’s a phenomenal thing.
Your most famous characters were tough-as-nails women on a mission. How much of your own personality went into the roles?
Those were the messages that I grew up with. My mom’s family is from the underground railroad. They homesteaded in Wyoming and my grandmother was a sugar beet farmer. She was an entrepreneur. I brought her spirit to film.
How do you feel about critics who feel your early films used themes of violence and crime to exploit black culture rather than enrich it, hence the nickname “blaxploitation” films?
That’s part of it, sure. You had adult content, guns, violence, sexuality, profanity. You add a culture to it and that’s exploitation. But I can’t say what is good or what is oppressive. For me they were about being a leader, stepping into a man’s shoes and not being taken care of.
What’s one of your fondest memories from filming in the ’70s?
I had created such a successful narrative with Coffy and Foxy that Kawasaki wanted to introduce their first watercraft in my next film Sheba Baby. They ask my agent “Can she swim?” I was a scuba diver! But I got on it and thought, “If I fall I’m gon’ die! I’m gonna stay on this sucker.” After the movie hit theaters, those jet skis sold through the roof!
What was it like knowing so many people had a crush on you?
Well, I never heard from them! Although I did get some jewelry. I was hoping to get a horse or a car, but I didn’t. No, I kept a lot of my fan mail from the ’70s, some from men who were incarcerated who had seen my films and said I had changed their minds about being abusive to women, changed how they thought of women and didn’t value them.
Was it hard having relationships while being so sought after?
I never wanted to settle for finding a husband in college. There was Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Richard Pryor and actor Freddie Prinze. All three of these men I loved deeply, but you can’t always be with the one you love. I ended up loving myself more.
Decades later you made a big comeback, starring in Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 film Jackie Brown, an homage to your hit Foxy Brown. What was that like?
That was my personal favorite. It was so memorable and challenging. Quentin Tarantino is very inclusive. He’s always playing music on set and busting a move, but you have to do the work. I got to work so closely, with not only him and his magic, but also Samuel L Jackson, who was a hoot. Oh God, if he wasn’t married!
Do you think the societal issues depicted in your movies are still relevant today?
It’s different. I remember one time my mom was driving down south and her friend who’s white was sitting in the front seat. I was in the back with my white friends. A highway patroller stopped us, made my mom get out of the car and get in the back and made the white kids sit in the front. He said, “There’s no segregation in this state.” Until you live through that you don’t know… how you have to walk away with your dignity every day. So [these days] I think it’s gonna be okay. We’re gonna rise above. We’re woke now!
So what’s life like for you nowadays?
I live in Colorado, I’m a cancer survivor, and I do a lot of volunteer work advocating for children and animals. I also just did a film called Grandmother’s Murder Club with Florence Henderson. They got The Brady Bunch mom and Foxy Brown together! It’s gonna be funny. After I get off of this phone call, I have to go out and cut a tree that fell across the road with my chainsaw. Everyone always asks if I still have my guns from the movies. I say “Don’t worry about my guns, worry about my chainsaw!”
Inquiring minds want to know, how are things in the romance department?
I’m still single, so everyone’s introducing me to people. For date nights I love going to concerts like John Legend or Beyoncé, or a Broncos game. I love cooking and playing my guitar. If someone is an introvert, it’s not a good date. Actually, a good date would be to pour some wine and stream old movies on Brown Sugar.
Today they’d call that #brownsugarandchill.
Bounce TV’s new service Brown Sugar is available on your streaming device. For more information visit http://www.brownsugar.com.