Sucker Punch recently opened to big box office and divided reviews. The critics couldn’t seem to decide whether writer/director Zack Snyder’s lurid epic of barely legal babes swordfighting with zombie robots—while wearing naughty-schoolgirl outfits—constituted actual fanboy service. Or if it was a contemptuous parody of same, subversively keying into the pulped-out imagery that the boys in his audience think they crave, then force-feeding it to them ’til they puke. These young women, kicking asses while flashing their own—are they being celebrated, or objectified, or both?
We’ve been here before. We heard the same questions in the early 1970s, when the crowd being courted was the urban African-American audience. And Pam Grier lived through (and with) the question of empowerment vs. exploitation, as recounted in her memoir Foxy: My Life in Three Acts, with Andrea Cagan.
Like gangsta rap decades later, blaxploitation cinema—racy ghetto melodramas aimed at an African-American audience—was the subject of moralistic hand-wringing in its time. With its outlaw heroes pitted against corrupt white authority, the argument went, blaxploitation glamorized illegal behavior while trafficking in harmful stereotypes. The counter-argument was that the films represented to audiences an empowering catharsis in reaction against conditions as they already existed in the ’hood, and that their violent and sexual content begged consideration in context.
Whatever else blaxploitation did, it made Grier a movie star. Bringing a striking beauty and self-possession to the title roles in Coffy, Friday Foster and Foxy Brown—all genre-defining hits—she was a film pioneer, one of the first female action stars, black or white. A survivor, both of the institutionalized racism of the 1950s and of sexual violence (two rapes before she turned 18), she nonetheless approached the blaxploitation genre from an outsider’s perspective. A clean-living athlete, military brat and self-professed country girl, she couldn’t have been less like her ghetto-bound characters—or the target audience for her films.
Perhaps because she’s unwilling to pass judgment on that audience, Grier has surprisingly little to say about the blaxploitation movement. There’s a lot of family history in Foxy, and the requisite backstage stories—but Grier acknowledges only obliquely that “there were a lot of opinions about this [blaxploitation] genre,” without ever offering an opinion of her own. “It’s difficult to define something when you’re at the center of it,” she writes—as if the intervening decades (and, indeed, the very process of writing a book) have not offered ample time for reflection.
One area where Grier does not let herself off the hook is her romantic entanglements. Again and again she finds herself drawn to partners who try to dominate or use her. She writes movingly of her long relationship with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, for whom she could not reconcile the demands of his Islamic practice with her feminist ideals. The regret still burns through as she recounts her failed struggle to carve out a space for herself between her love for Abdul-Jabbar and his love for God.
In later chapters about her affairs with Freddie Prinze and Richard Pryor, she writes unsparingly of the addictions that derailed both men’s lives. The Pryor segment, in particular, is rife with dirt, culminating in a comic-horrible annual exam; Grier’s gynecologist finds cocaine residue in her cervix, and raises the possibility that it could have been introduced through intercourse. When Grier reveals that she’s dating Pryor, the doctor immediately responds, “We have a serious problem here.”
When you lay out the particulars of Grier’s life, it’s a kind of dilettante fairy tale. Without ever particularly planning to, she’s fallen into stints as a beauty queen, singer, club DJ, actress and now writer. But she approaches every twist in circumstance with respect, determined not just to savor the experience but to do the job well. There’s a gonzo innocence to the image of Grier shooting a women-in-prison cheapie with Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares under her arm. “I had no concept of A, B, or C movies,” she writes. “A movie was a movie, and I was determined to deliver an A performance, no matter what anybody else did.” It’s that loopy integrity that makes her such an endearing voice, grounded in humility about her craft.
Foxy isn’t a wholly satisfying read. The prose is functional, but it shows the weaknesses of an as-told-to, mostly in its reliance on conversational cliché. Dates and locations are often vague, and the shoddy fact-checking allows for various anachronisms; in one howler, Grier mentions playing the Average White Band as a DJ—four years before the band’s debut was released. And the focus seems askew, at least to the casual fan. The period of Grier’s greatest stardom actually receives the least attention; long chapters are devoted to her preparation for a supporting role in Fort Apache, The Bronx, while starring turns in Sheba, Baby and Friday Foster merit one sentence apiece. And there’s rather a lot about the Chinese traditional medicine that helped her beat cancer—fascinating only for a specialized audience.
Still, the foremost goal of any celebrity memoir is to capture the personality of its subject, and this Foxy does. The wide-eyed dignity of its voice is that of Pam Grier, and the book, like her, is not only inspiring—which we knew already—but immensely lovable, as well. Talk about your sucker punch.
Jack Feerick is the cat who won’t cop out when there’s danger all about, and also critic-at-large for Popdose.