By Gaby Germanos, HCWC Intern
When it came time to pick this week’s #WCW, I immediately thought of one woman: Blaxploitation icon and badass action heroine Pam Grier. It seemed fitting, given that she just received the 2016 Du Bois Medal from the Hutchins Center at Harvard University, an honor awarded to those who have made outstanding contributions to African American culture. As someone who loves 70s Blaxploitation films, it blew my mind that there were people on this campus who had never heard of Pam Grier, and I hope that writing about her as this week’s #WCW will inspire fans and newbies alike to check out her work!
I was first introduced to Grier’s films after watching some of the more mainstream famous Blaxploitation movies, such as Shaft (1971) and Superfly (1972). These types of blaxploitation films were often set in poor urban neighborhoods and depicted a tough Black dude (the good guy) taking down a less-tough white male crime boss, police officer, etc. (the bad guy). The Good Guy was smart, deceptive, knew how to use a gun, and got all the ladies. In fact, the only women in sight were the Good Guy’s lovers, featured predominantly in sex scenes. Don’t get me wrong; as pretty much the first major films in which Black men weren’t depicted as the bad guys, Blaxploitation films were (and remain) incredibly valuable, not to mention entertaining! But I wondered where the badass Black women were in these movies.
In came Pam Grier. In movies such as Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974), and Sheba Baby (1975), Grier played Black female protagonists who were everything I had hoped for: strong, smart, athletic, deceptive, and just as violent as the male protagonists in other Blaxploitation films. In my favorite of her films, Coffy, Grier plays a nurse bent on destroying the system of drug cartels and mafia bosses that led to her sister’s drug addiction. Throughout the film, she pretends to be a sex worker to take down a pimp, ditches her loser traitor boyfriend, and kills a bunch of people. Of course, she’s not perfect, and innocents suffer along the way. But that’s the beauty of it – the male protagonists in Blaxpoitation films aren’t angels, and neither is she.
Decades later, Grier still makes waves in the acting world, starring in incredibly diverse roles. In 1998, she was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress for her role in Quentin Tarantino’s Blaxploitation-inspired movie Jackie Brown. From 2004-2009, she starred as one of the leads in the hit Showtime series The L Word. She even worked on an animated children’s series on HBO called Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child, securing an Emmy for her performance in 2000. Beyond that, she has worked on tons of TV shows and movies, far too many to name here. Of course, for much of her fan base, she remains most memorable for her work in the Blaxploitation genre, carving out a space for female action stars in all genres. When she’s not in the limelight, Grier lives on a Colorado ranch full of animals, dedicating her time to helping rescue horses and running a therapeutic horse-riding program. (As an animal lover and animal rights activist, this makes me love her even more!)
As a member of the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College, I had the honor of singing at the Du Bois Medal Ceremony last week, standing less than 10 feet from her on stage. It truly made my day (*cough* life) to help honor such a groundbreaking performer that has meant so much to me and so many other fans over the years. I’m excited to name her as this week’s #WCW, and I can’t wait to see what she does next!