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The Blaxploitation Queen: how Pam Grier drove a dialogue of oppression and empowerment, and broke women into the action genre.

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Blaxploitation emerged as a subgenre of American cinema during the early 1970s. Thought the genre received backlash for its use of stereotypical Black characters, these films were nonetheless one of the first instances in which Black characters and their culture could be the heroes of their own narratives, rather than serving simply as victims, sidekicks or other low status characters in someone else’s story.

Though controversial, Blaxploitation allowed for a rethinking of racial relations in the United States. Films like Gordon Parks’ 1971 Shaft brought the Black experience to the forefront of social consciousness, allowing for political and social issues relating to African-American communities to be explored in ways it hadn’t before.  

One of the foremost stars of this movement was Pam Grier. Her iconic roles in many such films, from Coffy to Foxy Brown, saw Grier hailed as the Queen of Blaxploitation. Not only was the genre primed to diversify the big screen, Pam Grier’s arrival would also redefine how Hollywood presented all women.

At a time when the only roles available to women of colour were, in her words, “practically invisible, or painfully stereotypical”, Grier took B-movie roles and used her authoritative screen presence and talent to lend a strength and psychological depth to her characters that not even the films’ directors had anticipated.

As the first ever woman to star in an action film, let alone the first woman of colour, she subverted the male-led action movie norm in a two-pronged attack. “I had to bump heads with a lot of men in the industry,” Grier recalls in a 2011 The Guardian article. “They were not comfortable with showing a progressive black female in an action role. As a strong woman, I was seen as a threat.

“There was a fear that women would mimic me in real life. I remember certain people saying: ‘Oh, she’s taking our jobs, she’s castrating men’ – as far as I was concerned, I thought: ‘We don’t need to walk behind you, we should walk beside you.’”

It’s true that Grier’s filmography exposes a disturbingly blurred line between empowerment and exploitation. The interlinking genres of Blaxploitation and sexploitation were a perpetual battle between revolutionary female powerhouses and oppressive men intent on quashing women’s subversions. Casually-made jokes about rape and man’s control of women are repeatedly juxtaposed with genuine feminist assertions.

Despite this, Grier’s career managed to create a captivating and complex narrative of oppression and empowerment, and it is the strength and humanity with which Grier told her characters’ stories that make these divisive films worth discussing. It was Pam Grier who first carved out a space in the industry for Black women in action films, and thus Black liberation and feminist empowerment walked hand-in-hand with Grier’s work.

Arguably Pam Grier was both the first and the last well-known Black woman to star as an action hero, to proudly display her heritage and culture, and to do so within the context of her community. It would be decades before the likes of Halle Berry and Zoe Saldana emerged in action films and even then, the narrative largely ignored their Blackness.

Grier paved the way for women in general to become action heroines. Sigourney Weaver in Alien, Linda Hamilton as Terminator’s Sarah Connor, Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft, all the way to today’s host of professional women badasses, all have Pam Grier to thank for proving to Hollywood that a female-headlined action film is bankable.

It is much thanks to Pam Grier’s Blaxploitation career that opened the door for both women in general, and specifically Black women, to enter the action genre and to lead their own stories. They could be outspoken about inequality and oppression, could make feminist declarations and could celebrate their heritage, all in the public eye.




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