Foxy: My Life in Three Acts

by Pam Grier with Andrea Cagan

Reviewed by Loretta H. Campbell

pam grier

Most Becoming Legend

What makes a woman a legend? Is it beauty? Is it brains? Should she be multi-lingual? What about sexy? Suppose she’s Pam Grier, and she’s all these things and more? The answers are in the questions. Grier, queen of, and a survivor from the blaxploitation film era, continues to be one of the most gifted actresses of her generation. Yet her talents have been barely tapped. In Foxy: My Life in Three Acts, A Memoir, she outlines the gifts that brought her fame.

It begins with humor about what could have been a fatal accident involving the infant Pam Grier and her entire family. “…our Buick flipped over three times and came to a stop at the side of the [New Jersey] turnpike, its wheels beneath it. …That was my first stunt.” While she admits the story was recounted to her, her tongue in cheek humor comes across. Her commitment to family is also evident early in the book. Grier was an army kid because her father was a life-long soldier. He moved his family from bases around the country and the world. As a result, Pam picked up various European languages and a love of many peoples and cultures. Her parents were of multi-racial backgrounds and raised their children to be unbiased and accepting of others.

In some ways, this attitude made Grier a target. She describes her love of books and learning. Clearly a bright child, she was also curious and trusting. When asked to come into a room where some of her male cousins were playing, she went. Her cousins raped her. She was six. As she explains later in the book, this was the first time she was raped. There is a disclaimer at the beginning that speaks to this: “I have modified the identities and certain details about some of the individuals described in this book.”

This is a chilling statement. Clearly, it was designed to protect the family from the kind of shame brought on by young boys like this. Years later, when she was 18, Grier was raped again. This time it was by a boy called Brian on a prom date. He is described as a kind of “church boy,” meaning he had deceived people into believing he was a good kid

Although the trauma of both rapes made her a stutterer, she never lost her love and trust of those who were worthy of both. In her descriptions of everything from the men in her life to her career, Grier comes across as forgiving and spiritual. As she outlines it, her way of coping with trauma was to befriend animals. In particular, she developed a love of horses.

Because Grier’s maternal grandparents owned a farm, she often rode the horses there. One horse in particular helped ease her pain after the first assault. He was too big for most of the adults to ride, yet Grier felt a kinship with him. One day, she climbed up on a fence and mounted the horse as he grazed on the family’s property. “Big Horse walked over to a massive oak tree and stopped there beside a small pond. I was amazed when I looked into the water and saw my reflection—a tiny girl on top of a huge horse that stood at least eighteen hands.” Think of a dinner plate on top of a refrigerator, and you’ll get the picture.

Nearly 20 years later, her love of animals stood her in good stead. Fortunately, Grier has worked as a stunt woman with and without animals. In the Italian movie The Arena (aka, The Naked Warriors), she accidentally rode another horse of near mythic proportions. For reasons never made clear, a handler caused the horse to gallop almost to his death and to take Grier with him. Because of her work with animals and her martial arts training, she was able to “tuck and roll” when the horse threw her.

Renowned director Federico Fellini was filming a movie nearby and saw her galloping over various movie sets. He was impressed with Grier’s riding ability. The two promised to talk about making a film, but the discussion never happened.

Although it was not to be, Grier had nothing to worry about in terms of career opportunities. To begin with, she sings and plays the piano. In the chapter “Going Gospel,” Grier talks about her love of gospel music and the racist teachers who refused to teach her to read music, sing, or dance. She learned all three skills despite them.

After her parents’ divorced, Grier, her mother, and younger brother struggled with financial and racial obstacles. The small family settled in Denver. Mrs. Grier, a nurse, was determined that her children get the things they deserved. She attempted to enroll Grier in horseback riding lessons, but the teacher refused to teach her. Luckily, Grier had already learned from her grandparents.

Still, when it came to piano lessons, the problem of finding a teacher seemed insurmountable, until a woman named Mrs. Heinemann stepped in. According to Grier, Mrs. Heinemann overheard one teacher refuse to teach Pam because she was Black. “I’ll give your daughter private lessons,” she told Grier’s mother, “if you can get hold of a piano.” Grier’s grandfather, a semi-pro musician, owned a piano. Thus began her private piano lessons.

She describes Mrs. Heinemann as an accomplished musician and a respected teacher who often arranged for recitals for her students. When she tried to arrange recitals for Grier, they were refused. Grier was talented enough, but white bigots didn’t want to hear a Black child play the piano. Happily, Grier’s mother was undeterred again. She got her daughter involved with gospel music. This led to singing and playing gospel and later to touring with a gospel choir.

Years later, her singing skills earned her a place as a backup singer for Sly and the Family Stone and as part of Wonderlove, Stevie Wonder’s backup group.

Whether singing or working clerical jobs, Grier’s work ethic was strong as this book testifies. She proudly explains her willingness to work at whatever job she could to support herself and to attend college.

Her initial career goal was to be a veterinarian. Without money, she had little chance of achieving her dream, or so she thought. Consequently, she often worked two or three jobs at once to save money. Finally, she followed a suggestion to enter a beauty pageant because she would earn enough for college. She won. In some respects that pageant changed the course of her life.

She eventually went to Los Angeles, still in pursuit of college, and landed a job working as a receptionist for a Hollywood agent. One day, another agent stopped by her desk and suggested she audition for Roger Corman, the head of New World Pictures.

“I walked into the audition room shyly and said a quiet “Hello” to Roger, Jack, and a few people who were assisting them. Then I read the words on the page they handed me. …Roger offered me the role on the spot.” This was the early 1970s and the beginning of her movie career. Her two most famous movies from that period, Coffy and Foxy Brown are considered classics of the genre. Numerous movies, plays, television shows, and stunts were to follow in rapid and regular succession.

As her career was on the upswing, her love life was on the downswing. She describes in detail the rise and fall of her relationships with Kareem Abdul Jabar, Freddie Prinze, and the most horrific, with Richard Pryor. In the chapter, “An Unlikely Couple,” she talks about the man behind the celebrity. Pryor was also raped at age six and molested often in the whore house in which he was raised. Because he only went as far as the sixth grade, she tells us, Pryor was nearly illiterate. Yet, he was a comedic genius. Sadly, he was also a drug addict. So strong was his addiction to cocaine that he carried it in his sperm.

In the chapter, “The C Word,” Grier shares about her battle with cervical cancer. The chapter implies that Pryor’s semen caused this illness. She never blames him. He was a victim who never recovered, and Grier helps us to pity him. Because of her resources, financial and spiritual, Grier was able to embark on a healing program that saved her life. Her strongest support came from her mother and a network of friends. Part of the healing process was her incredible ability to not be bitter.

On the mend, she continued to act, receiving nominations and awards from the NAACP, Golden Globes, and others. Her take on the blaxploitation films that fostered her accolades is moving. “To me, what really stood out in the genre were women of color acting like heroes rather than depicting nannies or maids. We were redefining heroes as school teachers, nurses, mothers, and street smart women who were proud of who they were.”

Now, cancer free, her career moves at a steady clip. She is a mainstay on award winning television shows and regularly works in film and theatre. Hers is a remarkable life. Yet, throughout Foxy she is humble and grateful. She thanks the friends who have made her life full. She appreciates her mother’s love. She looks forward to each new adventure. In many ways, the book is a testament to the rewards of being a decent human being. There are good times and bad, but life is to be lived. Grier does so with gusto. That may be why she has achieved the status that she has.

Loretta H. Campbell is a writer, teacher and activist with the New York office of the National Writer’s Union.

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