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BFI Southbank celebrate iconic legend of 1970s Black action cinema actor Pam Grier with new season of films

BFI Southbank celebrate iconic legend of 1970s Black action cinema actor Pam Grier with new season of films

The BFI announce the programme for PAM GRIER: FOXY, FIERCE AND FEARLESS, a major new retrospective dedicated to one of the legends of 1970s Black action cinema; programmed by film scholar Mia Mask, the season will run at BFI Southbank from 1 September – 4 October. The centrepiece of the season will be PAM GRIER IN CONVERSATION on 9 September, where the iconic star will take to the BFI Southbank stage to discuss her incredible career, as well as a special screening of FOXY BROWN (Jack Hill, 1974) on 10 September, which will be followed by a Q&A with Grier. Pam Grier will also take part in Q&As at Ritzy Picturehouse and MAC on 10 September and 11 September respectively, with both cinemas showing key films from her career as well.

Season programmer, Mia Mask, has commented that: “Grier rose to prominence as the merciless, coffee-coloured, avenging femme fatale in sexploitation and Blaxploitation movies of the 1970s. These were campy and irreverent films in which women confronted the iron cage of patriarchy, and Black women challenged gender, race and class hierarchies. Grier became an icon because she represented activists working in the “real” world; her characters were powerful women who symbolised figures like politician Shirley Chisholm, scholar Angela Davis, and Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver, all of whom continue to resonate with contemporary political struggles.”

This 14-film retrospective presents three stages of Grier’s unorthodox career – firstly, the early ‘Sexploitation start-up’ phase, characterised by women-in-prison pictures such as THE BIG DOLL HOUSE (Jack Hill, 1971) and BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA (Eddie Romero, 1973). Next, the Blaxploitation cult classics such as COFFY (Jack Hill, 1973), FOXY BROWN (Jack Hill, 1974) and SHEBA, BABY (William Girdler, 1975), in which women were finally depicted as active narrative agents. Finally, the later nostalgia phase in which Grier leant her gravitas to films like IN TOO DEEP (Michael Rymer, 1999), BONES (Ernest Dickerson, 2001) and Quentin Tarantino’s reverential JACKIE BROWN (1997), the latter of which will be re-released by Park Circus on 16 September to mark its 25th anniversary.

Season programmer Mia Mask will give a richly illustrated talk, PAM GRIER: ICON AND TRAILBLAZER,on 8 September; the talk will explore Grier’s career and introduce the films in the season. This season introduction also includes a discussion with guest speakers offering different approaches to Grier’s star persona as well as her influence in cinema and popular culture. BFI Southbank’s regular PHILOSOPHICAL SCREENS event series, which explores cinema through a philosophical lens, will focus on JACKIE BROWN (Quentin Tarantino, 1997) on 20 September. Regular film philosophers Lucy Bolton and Catherine Wheatley, as well as guest speaker John Ó Maoilearca, will consider the film’s homage to Grier and her place in cinema history.


Please be advised: some films contain offensive content including sexual assault, racist language and violence against women.


Grier’s early ‘Sexploitation start-up’ phase is characterised by women-in-prison pictures that were thinly veiled excuses for staging homoerotic tension:

–          The first of three deliberately campy, women-in-prison sexploitation pictures is set on a tropical Pacific Island, THE BIG DOLL HOUSE (Jack Hill, 1971), proved to be a career breakthrough for Grier.

–          In WOMEN IN CAGES (Gerardo de León, 1971) innocent Carol, played by Grier, is falsely convicted for drug trafficking and sentenced to confinement at Carcel del Infierno, a deplorable prison in the heart of a tropical jungle. While there, Carol contends with a motley crew of hostile but beautiful cellmates, abusive guards and sadistic punishments.

–          THE BIG BIRD CAGE (Jack Hill, 1972) sees Blossom (Grier) and her armed comrades rob a tropical Philippine nightclub to support their revolutionary cause. When Blossom and her female co-conspirators are caught by police, they’re imprisoned at a government work camp outside Manila.

–          Grier portrays Lee Daniels alongside Margaret Markov’s Karen Brent in BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA (Eddie Romero, 1973), an homage to Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in THE DEFIANT ONES. Racial tensions erupt between Grier and Markov, shackled fugitives on the lam somewhere in a Latin American island republic. As they attempt to escape, the women must first survive each other.

–          After the commercial triumph of BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA, filmmakers sought to recreate its box office success. Shot on location in Italy and set in ancient Rome, THE ARENA (Steve Carver, 1973) seed Grier and Markov’s errant characters captured and sold into servitude as gladiatrix.


Women were finally depicted as active narrative agents in Blaxploitation classics of the 1970s, while later Black action films represented a shift in tone in Grier’s career:

–          Nurse by day and vigilante by night, Pam Grier’s eponymous COFFY (Jack Hill, 1973) is always tough. Now, she’s got a score to settle: avenge her eleven-year-old sister by punishing the dope pushers and drug kingpins responsible for poor LuBelle’s addiction.

–          Made as a follow-up to the successful COFFY, Grier once again finds herself in the role of an avenging archangel battling predatory drug dealers who prey on urban African Americans in FOXY BROWN (Jack Hill, 1974). Drug kingpin Steve Elias is the slick villain responsible for the murder of Foxy’s undercover narcotics agent boyfriend Michael and her brother Link, seeking revenge, Foxy goes undercover to infiltrate Elias’ cartel.

–          In SHEBA, BABY (William Girdler, 1975), Sheba Shayne, one of Chicago’s leading private investigators, is summoned home to Louisville, Kentucky, to help stop racketeers from acquiring her father’s loan company. When her father is killed by gangsters, she joins forces with his former partner to bring down gangland boss the Shark.

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–          Based on the eponymous Chicago Tribune/New York New syndicated adventure comic strip, FRIDAY FOSTER (Arthur Marks, 1975) cast Yaphet Kotto as an intrepid private eye and Grier as a high-fashion model-turned-investigative photographer. No longer the gun-toting, dashiki-wearing, voluptuous vigilante, Grier’s Friday is a camera-wielding, fully dressed, carefully coiffed PI.

–          Richard Pryor and Grier team up for GREASED LIGHTNING (Michael Schultz, 1977), biopic, loosely based on the life story of Wendell Scott, the first African American NASCAR race winner and 2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee. In 1930’s Virginia, Wendell has made a name for himself as one of the fastest drivers. After a stint in the army, he returns home, marries Mary Jones (Grier) and tries to settle down. But a brush with the law finds him returning to the track and soon proves himself the best.


Grier lends her gravitas to films like Quentin Tarantino’s JACKIE BROWN, along with IN TOO DEEP and BONES in the late 90s and early 00s:

–          ORIGINAL GANGSTAS (Larry Cohen, 1996) places Fred Williamson at the helm of a reunited mod-squad that includes Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Richard Roundtree and Ron O’Neal. Like SHEBA, BABY, John Bookman returns home after a gang war shooting wounds his father. The attack prompts John, a pro football coach and ex-gang member, to find the shooter and clean up John’s old neighbourhood.

–          Tarantino’s thrilling homage to the Blaxploitation films of the 70’s JACKIE BROWN (Quentin Tarantino, 1997) introduced Pam Grier to a new generation as well as cementing her place in film history as cinema’s first female action star.

–          IN TOO DEEP (Michael Rymer, 1999) follows a recent police academy graduate who aspires to work undercover. His wish comes true when he’s assigned to take down an infamous crack cocaine dealer, but somewhere along the way he loses himself in his alias – or so his superior officers fear. Grier offers fine support as a veteran detective in this inner-city crime thriller.

–          Ernest Dickerson’s chiller BONES (2001) is an homage to Blaxploitation horror starring Snoop Dogg and Pam as glamorous gangster ghosts Jimmy Bones and Pearl, intent on wreaking revenge two decades after corrupt cops murder Bones.

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