The blaxploitation movies —Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974), Sheba, Baby (1975) and Friday Foster (1975)—in which Pam Grier starred, are a mix of the gritty naturalism of Superfly (1972), socially-relevant crime stories like Shaft (1971), high camp (she had a bit part in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, 1970), and outright Z-grade, no-brow trash.
The exploitation film, the low-budget genre that sensationalized social issues of the day, like teenage runaways, drug addiction, prostitution, biker gangs, and homosexuality, had been making money at drive-ins since the 1930s.Reefer Madness (1937) is, perhaps, the locus classicus. Films like The Wild One (1953), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and Easy Rider (1969) are all exploitation films to some extent.
The big studios took notice when Shaft (1971) proved that low-budget films with all-black casts, reflecting current, African-American interests, concerns and realities could be big cross-over box office hits. There were, however no similar projects in development, so unproduced exploitation and crime scripts by white screenwriters with white characters were quickly reworked into vehicles with African-American characters and cultural references and acted by African-American casts. Thus, the blaxploitation genre was born.
In the hands of an African-American director Melvin Van Peebles, the exploitation material could be appropriated to address serious issues and be elevated to a cinéaste meditation on popular film genres, as was the case with Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song (1971). However, many of the blaxploitation movies, including Grier’s, had white directors and were backed by studios more interested in cleavage and guns than social injustice and le cinema.
Grier had a special ability to be in and above her films at the same time. Her hair-raising signature stunt, a Houdini-like escape performed in Foxy Brown and recapitulated in Escape from New York (1981), involving a razor hidden in her mouth and then wielded by her tongue to cut ropes that bound her wrists—fits right in to the trashy mayhem. And yet throughout the revenge castrations, bitch brawls, shoot-outs, and kick-boxing, Grier maintains an uncanny poise, finishing each movie with her dignity intact, standing apart from the material, without ever condescending to it. This polite aloofness allowed her to be taken seriously as an actress and celebrity while her movies were not. This is why Quentin Tarantino cast her as the lead in Jackie Brown—both Grier and James Ellroy both inhabited and transcended the pulp medium in which they worked.