Movie News & Reviews

'Symbol of strength and independence': SLO film festival to honor Pam Grier

Pam Grier appears in a scene from the 1997 movie "Jackie Brown." Grier will be honored Saturday at the Fremont Theater in downtown San Luis Obispo as part of the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival.
Pam Grier appears in a scene from the 1997 movie "Jackie Brown." Grier will be honored Saturday at the Fremont Theater in downtown San Luis Obispo as part of the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival.

Movie icon Pam Grier, it seems, has always been a badass.

"Daddy Ray, my grandfather, taught us girls how to hunt, fish and shoot and be self-sufficient," said the "Jackie Brown" star, who's being honored Saturday by the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. "I brought that to film ... being fierce, being unafraid."

Grier, 68, will receive the King Vidor Award for Excellence in Filmmaking during a red-carpet gala at the Fremont Theater in downtown San Luis Obispo. The evening kicks off with the George Sidney Independent Film Awards and concludes with an after-party at two downtown locations: Luna Red restaurant and Mission Plaza.

Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz will present the award to Grier, then interview the actress onstage. That's followed by a screening of 1997's "Jackie Brown."

Actress Pam Grier will be honored Saturday at the Fremont Theater in San Luis Obispo as part of the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. Jacquelyn Martin Associated Press

Grier is the third woman to receive the festival’s highest honor — following Eva Marie Saint in 2004 and Ann-Margret in 2016 — and the first woman of color. Other past recipients of the King Vidor Award, named after the Oscar-winning director of “War and Peace,” include Josh Brolin and Morgan Freeman..

"King Vidor," my goodness," Grier crowed. "Shoot, I'm something now!"

"This year is the perfect one to honor Pam Grier," festival director Wendy Eidson wrote in an email. "To me, she is a symbol of strength and independence... She’s funny, sexy, talented and the perfect role model for young women today. "

Grier isn't the only woman being honored by the festival this year.

Oscar-nominated screenwriter, director and producer Robin Swicord, whose credits include "Memoirs of a Geisha" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," will receive the Spotlight Award on Sunday at the Fremont Theater. The award recognizes professionals working behind the scenes in the film industry.

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Pam Grier poses for a photo in 1973. The “Foxy Brown” star will be honored March 17 at the Fremont Theater in San Luis Obispo as part of the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. The Kobal Collection

The undisputed queen of the blaxploitation era, Grier revolutionized cinema in the early 1970s as the first female African-American action star — playing bold, brassy, assertive women in movies such as "Coffy," “Foxy Brown” and “Sheba, Baby.”

"I am very comfortable walking in a man’s shoes, being demonstrative, being a leader," said Grier, reached by phone at the Colorado ranch she's called home for 23 years. "This is what I grew up with."

Born in North Carolina, Grier — the cousin of pro football player-turned-actor Roosevelt "Rosey" Grier — spent her childhood on U.S. Air Force bases in England and the United States before her family settled in Denver.

Although she always wanted to work in movies, Grier originally envisioned a career behind the camera. “I didn’t think I was beautiful enough … or sophisticated enough to be in film,” she said, despite winning first runner-up in a Colorado beauty pageant.

It was at another pageant that Grier, then a pre-med student at Metropolitan State University of Denver, caught the eye of two Hollywood agents who encouraged her to give acting a try.

"The next thing you know, I was driving out to California with my aunt and a bucket of chicken and $33 in my pocket," recalled Grier, who arrived in Los Angeles in 1969.

Grier was working as a receptionist at APA, the Agency for the Performing Arts, when filmmaker Roger Corman approached her about appearing as a sexy prison inmate in 1971's "The Big Doll House." Although tempted by the prospect of a $600-a-week paycheck — "I'm working three jobs and I'm getting $50," she said — she initially turned him down.

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Then came a shocking incident: Grier was attacked by a family friend, a retired athlete she had considered a mentor.

"He didn't know I had been attacked twice (before)," said Grier, who had been raped at age 6 by a group of older students and sexually assaulted as an 18-year-old college student. "I just said, 'No, this is not going to happen again.' "

"So I fought off this man," she said, using the martial arts skills she had learned on an Air Force base. "I just beat him up."

"I walked out of that apartment, back to my job ... shredded," she added, "And I asked (APA agent) John Gaines, 'Is that job available? I want to take it. I want to get away from here.' "

Grier credits Gaines, who she called "the most wonderful human being in my life," with shepherding her as she made the transition from background babe to full-fledged leading lady.

Bruce Dern, right, and director Rob Nilsson flank Dern's co-star, Pam Grier, on the set of the movie "On The Edge," being filmed in Marin and Contra Costa counties, in 1983. Grier will be honored Saturday at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. Sal Veder Associated Press

While not all of her early movies would be considered high art today, Grier said she tried to raise the bar each time. "It wasn’t a B movie. This was Chekov in wet T-shirts in the jungle," she said with a laugh.

Fortunately, action came as naturally as acting.

"I had come from a rural background where ... (women) could drive heavy equipment. They could handle tools and still have a baby on their hip and cook dinner," she said. "A lot of the urban women didn't have that awareness or aggressiveness."

By being unabashedly badass, she added, "I knew I was bringing a balance to the imagery of women."

Grier has worked consistently since her 1970s heyday, appearing in movies including "Ghosts of Mars" and "Holy Smoke" and TV shows such as "The L Word," "Smallville" and "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

She earned a Golden Globe for her title turn in “Jackie Brown" as a flight attendant who gets caught up in a money smuggling scheme.

Academy Award-nominated actor Josh Brolin accepted the King Vidor Award for Excellence in Filmmaking at the Fremont Theatre in San Luis Obispo on Saturday, March 18, 2017. The award ceremony was part of the San Luis Obispo International Film Festi

Grier is full of anecdotes about her career: from her first experience with a stuntman while working on 1973's "Black Mama White Mama" — "They got this little short Filipino guy ... who came up to my nipple," she said — to the time she stuffed a zucchini down her leggings to audition for the role of Kurt Russell's transgender pal in 1996's "Escape from L.A."

"(Director) John (Carpenter) looked at me and he started laughing hysterically. He almost choked," Grier recalled with a chuckle.

She's equally open about her love affairs, including with professional basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who converted to Islam soon after they began dating.

"He wanted me to give up my freedom, become a Muslim woman and have all these children," Grier recalled. "I said, 'Oh my god, no.' ... We just got out of slavery."

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Actress Pam Grier arrives with date Kevin Evans for the premiere of Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown" in Los Angeles in 1997. Grier will be honored Saturday by the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. Michael Caulfield Associated Press

When Abdul-Jabbar gave her an ultimatum — embrace his religion and marry him or watch him wed another woman — Grier's response was diplomatic: "I said, 'Okay. Well, have a great life.' "

"With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, (actor) Freddie Prinze and (comedian) Richard Pryor, I walked away from three powerful men who I absolutely adored and could have married and could have had a family with.," Grier said. "But I love me first, and I would lose my self and my identity once I married them."

Given her candor, it's no surprise that Grier — who covered everything from her high-profile romances to her battle with stage-four cervical cancer in her 2010 autobiography, "Foxy: My Life in Three Acts" — is working on a biopic.

"The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" showrunner Bennie Richburg wrote the screenplay; "Saturday Night Live" alumnus Jay Pharaoh has signed up to play Pryor.

As she looks back on her career, Grier said she's thrilled to still be working in the industry she helped transform.

"If I wake up breathing, I’m going to have a good day," she said.

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Pam Grier

The King Vidor and Independent Film Awards start at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Fremont Theater, 1035 Monterey St. in San Luis Obispo. Tickets cost $20, or $15 for students and film society members. For more information, call 805-546-3456 or visit