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Pam Grier loves her past — and looks forward

The film legend on gray hair, ‘Jet,’ black pop culture and her right to be picky

The “lede” of an article is supposed to pull you in. It’s supposed to make you, the reader, stop everything else and continue reading. If you pull off the lede in just the right way, your story will be legendary.

Here’s mine: Pam Grier is fine as hell.

Actress Pam Grier poses for a publicity photo for her movie 'Hit Man' circa 1972 in Los Angeles, California.

Actress Pam Grier poses for a publicity photo for her movie ‘Hit Man‘ circa 1972 in Los Angeles.

Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

Known in the 1970s as The Queen of blaxploitation, the Winston-Salem, North Carolina, native starred in a staggering 14 movies between 1971 and 1975 — whether it’s Coffy, Foxy Brown or Sheba Baby, everyone knows exactly who you mean. From the coffee-colored skin to that distinguished nose to that Afro that made you want to buy a black fist hair pick to the bell-bottoms and the Hustle, Grier’s characters had the kind of confidence and composure — she’s 6-foot-3 in pumps — more common to male roles. While most of the films were campy, hyperstereotypical and underfinanced (most of Grier’s films were made for less than $1 million), they influenced film, fashion, hair and music. Grier stands out as one of the few stars from that era to earn mainstream recognition, appearing in films such as 1981’s Fort Apache The Bronx, in episodes of Miami Vice and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and nabbing a Golden Globe best actress nomination in 1998 for her role in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, nearly three decades after her first starring role. Today, she continues to riding a wave of nostalgia via Brown Sugar, a streaming service (a subsidiary of Bounce TV) focusing on blaxploitation-era films. Grier spoke with The Undefeated from Los Angeles.

You’re writing a new screenplay for Foxy Brown.

It’s not for Foxy Brown, it’s for Foxy: My Life in Three Acts — my autobiography.

When do you expect the project to be complete?

Oh, we have no idea. If I don’t have a heart attack … The first question people ask is, ‘Well, who do you want to play you?’ I don’t know. We don’t know what actor can revisit all the incidents in my life. We did have a table read of the script in Colorado, and actors flew in and we used local theater actors to read at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, and it was extraordinary to hear the words and the dialogue for the first time.

If there were a remake of Foxy Brown or Coffy or Sheba, Baby, who would best embody those characters?

It’s such a difficult question for me to answer, because I don’t know who is going to … walk in and bring it. I just don’t know who’s going to breathe the characters. I know of some, but I don’t know what they’ll do in that moment. I love Taraji [P. Henson], I love Vivica Fox, I love Sanaa Lathan, I love Nia Long. There are so many who embody a lot of the fierceness, the competence, if you will, the confidence. And who’s going to play Richard Pryor? Freddie Prinze? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Federico Fellini?

You dated Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain.

Well, the thing with Wilt, I never dated him. I was too country. He was so sophisticated … attracted to women who were educated and sophisticated, and I was a starving college student. I wore Levi’s and Timberlands. I wasn’t his type. But I think he respected me because of my last name, assuming that I was a cousin of [former NFL player and singer] Rosey Grier. I think that’s what protected me. Although we are not related, [Rosey and I] could be distant cousins, but he was never at our Thanksgiving dinners.

You were a Jet Beauty of the Week.

Did you see my baggy bikini? It wasn’t even mine. I never had one. And they had me taking this picture, my hair wasn’t done, I had on no makeup, I had no eyelashes on. And the bottom of the bikini was all baggy.

How did that happen?

I think it was just after I finished Black Mama White Mama, and things were starting to blow up, and they said, ‘You’ve got to do Jet and EBONY.’ You can see I am so rough. I just seemed not like the beauties of today: toned and tanned and shiny. I was ashy, no makeup, my hair was all over the place. I didn’t even have polish on my toenails or my fingernails, c’mon.

You auditioned for 1985’s Color Purple and 1993’s What’s Love Got To Do With It. Neither came to fruition.

With Color Purple, it was to play Shug, and I’d written a song for Steven Spielberg, and I played it because I play keyboard and been playing in the gospel group, and they loved it. And basically it was between myself and — I don’t know the other actresses — I know Margaret Avery got the role. I’ll never know. It’s a question you would [have to] ask them. But I was doing Something Wicked This Way Comes over on the Disney lot, and I came over and auditioned for Steven — played for him and sang. I wanted to work with Whoopi [Goldberg] and Oprah [Winfrey]. They were my idols. Now with What’s Love Got To Do With It, I was doing Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune in San Diego, and when they called me to test, I said, ‘Well, who’s playing Ike?’ They said Laurence Fishburne. I said, ‘How tall is he?’ And they said 6-foot-2. I said, ‘If I put on 4-inch heels, he’ll have to rest his head on my shoulder.’ So I passed.

Now a role that you did take was Jackie Brown — that director Quentin Tarantino wrote for you. It was billed as a comeback.

You never go away. An artist never goes away. Sometimes you have to step back … to wait for the right role. Or you have a baby. Or you have cancer. But you never go away … And when people tell me, ‘Why don’t you do more?’ There aren’t any more. If I’m not doing them, then maybe Kerry [Washington] can do them. Maybe Vivica, or Viola Davis. We all have our limitations … how we look and breathe and act and what works and what doesn’t work, and what we agree to do and what we don’t agree to do. We try to find the work that we can do our best at … There are times when I turned down … series … and several movies because they weren’t right. And I may not work next year either. And it doesn’t mean that I went away and one movie is my comeback. Last year, I did a movie with Florence Henderson, the Brady Bunch mom who just passed away on Thanksgiving. We played the Grandmothers Murder Club, and I wear my gray hair. It’s a hoot. We’re killing and shooting and smoking and cussing. It was wonderful to have that freedom to do that, because in our industry, a lot of people aren’t accepting and embracing gray hair for their markets. Everyone’s still dyeing their hair and they’re in their 50s. But I’m comfortable with my gray. I want to play a great-grandmother. I want to do the ‘Madear.’ They call it ‘Madea,’ but, no, it’s really ‘Madear,’ Mother Dear. The Tyler Perry grandma — but I’m a real one.

You’re a spokesperson for the new Brown Sugar streaming service.

Well, it’s an honor to be alive to talk about it … My mom and [I] went on a Brown Sugar binge. She hadn’t seen Car Wash, and she was finger-popping and bobbing her head and laughing … She’s 87 — and to see her enjoy the movie, it evoked so much … I’ve always wanted a … real network that would explore our pop culture. You can’t learn it in the books in high school or junior high. Possibly in college … in an African-American studies class, but this is pop culture that you can watch and learn decades of information [about] music and history and politics and gender issues and religion and clothes and Afros. There’s so much.

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"