Notes on Pam Grier: In Conversation with BFI Programmer Mia Mask

Notes on Pam Grier: In Conversation with BFI Programmer Mia Mask

To celebrate the ongoing BFI Southbank season Pam Grier: Foxy, Fierce and Fearless, contributor Christina Newland seeks out the woman we have to thank for it – programmer Mia Mask – to discuss beauty, Blaxploitation, and what she’d like to see in a Pam Grier biopic.

For veteran film programmer and scholar Mia Mask, programming a BFI season on ‘70s icon Pam Grier was a perfect fit. Mask, a PhD in film studies and professor of African American film at New York’s Vassar College, has written a number of books, including the insightful Divas on Screen: Black Women in American Film. In ongoing season at BFI Southbank Pam Grier: Foxy, Fierce, and Fearless, Mask has highlights not just the most famous of Grier’s blaxploitation work à la Coffy and Foxy Brown, but also her earliest films under the behest of schlock master Roger Corman, as well as Grier’s later work with Black filmmakers like Ernest Dickerson in the 2000s.

With a career spanning the second half of the 20th century, there was plenty of Grier to choose from for Mask. Girls on Tops sat down with her to chat about Pam Grier and reintroducing her to younger audiences. 

Girls on Tops: What distinguishes Pam Grier in terms of her presence onscreen and what she symbolises to people? 

Mia Mask: She represents a unique combination of mental strength, physical beauty, and unashamed sexuality. Grier had many contemporaries, all of whom were brilliant actors. But Grier was willing to be strong and wasn’t afraid of her sexuality. That was truly revolutionary. Keep in mind that she rose to prominence during the sexual revolution. It was during the second wave feminist movement, when women were burning their bras, having pre-marital sex, using birth control, and proud of their bodies. Grier had no qualms about inhabiting that intersectional space in the popular imagination.

If you think about it, even today that’s rare… or niche. We still don’t see women who are that liberated in the mainstream. Of course, society and culture have changed too. Americans and Britons are more conservative than they were in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when nudity and sexuality went together with political movements, anti-war protests, drug experimentation, Gay liberation, and the belief that “Black is Beautiful.”

Jackie Brown’s 25th anniversary is the centrepiece of the season. Why is that film so important for Pam Grier’s reputation and public persona? 

Jackie Brown epitomises what I describe as the “era of nostalgia.” It’s a film which cultivates nostalgia for her earlier (read: 1970s) screen persona. It is full of homages to previous films. For example, in The Big Doll House she sings the title song ‘Long Time Woman’ for the credit sequence. That song is used again in Jackie Brown when Jackie is sent to lock-up. Also, the colour palette, the locations, and the entire mise-en-scène evoke 1970s cinema.  So, the film is a throwback to Black action films generally, and to Pam Grier specifically. 

In addition to nostalgia, it’s also cult cinema. Jackie Brown is important because it utilises the best elements of her earlier films and rewards loyal spectators for their fandom by winking at them with these references. Spectators who are “in-the-know” appreciate that the movie is speaking to them almost like old friends and cult followers of the movies and their stars. Jackie Brown is a mainstream movie… but it’s also cult cinema.

Historically, blaxploitation or sexploitation films would have been unlikely to get much credit or screening time from major film institutions. What do you think has shifted in film culture that allows for a reconsideration of some of Grier’s films? 

There is greater recognition of structural and institutional inequality. People recognize it and are talking about it. Institutions are researching it. The African American Policy Forum is one example of a group of Critical Race Theorists (legal scholars) who produce webinars about structural inequality. The Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism is another organisation that has been researching inequality in popular movies for several years. Their reports are free and online. These organisations have produced greater awareness about inequality in society generally and in the film industry specifically. That recognition, or awareness, has made people realise how hard it has been for African Americans to work in elite fields and disciplines like the film industry. So, greater consciousness has motivated critics, scholars, historians, curators, and museums to re-examine the careers of those who have made an impact in these fields. 

Pam Grier and Mia Mask

There is also more scholarship about “alternative” cinemas than before. By alternative I don’t mean avant-garde, experimental, or arthouse cinema, those are highbrow and well recognised. By “alternative” I am also referring to midnight movies, cult cinema, campy cinema and even some queer cinema. Many of Grier’s early films are also campy – naively campy and deliberately campy. I mean this in the best sense of the term. I’m thinking about Susan Sontag’s seminal essay ‘Notes on Camp’. In the 1960s and ‘70s, queer audiences relied on camp for some forms of visibility. With the LGBTQIA movement growing broader and stronger today, the interest in queer representation is growing. Grier’s films pique curiosity more now than before.

Grier’s beauty was renowned in her time. Did anything about the way she presented herself physically shift the paradigm or feed into the narrative about Black women and beauty culture at that time?  

She presented herself with pride, dignity, composure, and confidence. These characteristics shifted the paradigm.

People like Harry Belafonte have been outspoken about blaxploitation. “I find them anti-Black, anti-woman, and demeaning,” he said at one point. How do you parse a statement like that today? 

Let’s try to be specific. Was Belafonte talking about Grier’s movies? To which films was he referring?   There were many people who felt the entire Black action cinema movement was Black exploitation. Many of the films were exploitation. They were quickly and cheaply made with few substantive characters or messages. But Grier’s star vehicles didn’t celebrate pimps and pushers, harlots and ‘hos.  They didn’t glorify crime; they didn’t celebrate drug dealers or misogyny. If you watch her movies, particularly the Black action films, she’s portraying characters who are trying to clean up drug infested communities. She’s playing community activists, and sometimes rogue vigilantes. But they are women who want to hold criminals accountable. They seek justice when the criminal justice system fails. Was Belafonte referring to Grier’s films? Or was he referring to other films that were anti-Black and anti-woman? It is important to address the films with specificity. 

That said, keep in mind, Belafonte and Poitier worked hard to represent middle-class values in their films and television work. They did this to be viewed as dignified men – which they were. But it was also a time when being Black and middle class was a political statement. It was an intervention. Take the 1968 documentary Still a Brother: The Negro Middle Class as a case in point. Whereas today, many young people have jettisoned – or at least questioned – middle-class values and lifestyles as “bougie,” or as unsustainable, they question the whole project of embourgeoisement. They question materialism. That’s what popular television shows like Atlanta and Blackish are about. 

But that’s not to mention that Blaxploitation helped Hollywood studios get out of receivership. The big studios were struggling financially for various reasons. But Blaxploitation was so profitable that it helped the studios get back on track financially. Read Ed Guerrero’s book Framing Blackness. He addresses this issue. People must look at these films more carefully… in light of industry history. 

Grier’s got a biopic in the works, not much information forthcoming except that it’s based on her memoir. What do you, from a film historian and programmer’s perspective, hope that a film about her would communicate to an audience? 

I hope it will bring her career to the attention of an even wider audience. There are many younger people who don’t know her films, her legacy. I hope it exposes them to the films. I was delighted when a biopic was made about another one of the divas in my book, Dorothy Dandridge. It is a good way of bringing these women to younger audiences. 

Pam Grier: Foxy, Fierce and Fearless continues at BFI Southbank until 4 October. The 25th anniversary release of Jackie Brown is in cinemas UK-wide now (from Friday 16). 

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