As Pam Grier waxes over her groundbreaking career — touching on everything from Foxy Brown and Coffy to Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 love letter to Grier and the genre she built, Jackie Brown — she takes a moment to take stock of what it all represents.
“I hope I’ve given you a slice of what it’s like to be a woman in film,” says the gilded icon of Blaxploitation films during a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter. “From age 19 to me today, I’m in such gratitude and honor of all the people who taught me so much.”
While a library could be built around what’s been written about the Blaxploitation era and her role in it — the recent Netflix documentary Is that Black Enough for You?!? in part chronicles how the genre made her one of the highest-grossing film stars in the 1970s — these days, she’s focused on a new era of Black filmmaking, particularly in the streaming space. For her and one-time Blaxploitation co-star Antonio Fargas, they are finding a resurgence in Tubi Original films produced under Village Roadshow Pictures and Content Cartel’s new “Black Noir Cinema” slate in association with Fox Entertainment Studios.
She stars in their first project, Cinnamon, written and directed by Bryian Keith Montgomery Jr.; it premiered at the Tribeca Festival in June and is currently streaming on Tubi. Grier plays Mama, a hearing-impaired drug cartel matriarch on the hunt to trap a desperate young couple after a robbery goes wrong. They have unknowingly gotten entangled in Mama’s crosshairs and there’s nothing that Mama wants more than sweet revenge (sound familiar?).
“Hindsight is 20/20,” says Grier, speaking days before the SAG-AFTRA strike began. “Since 1970, when I first started, I had to develop an audience who accepted a woman in a dominant male role. I rode Jet Skis and I did martial arts and everything that women had not done or seen themselves doing on film. In the last five decades, our African American audience [has evolved]: We’ve been conservative, we’ve been bougie, we’ve been radical, we’ve been street, we’ve been hood, we’ve been homey. We’ve been so many different wonderful pop cultures that now we’re able to see it on this incredible platform called Tubi. Did you know they had over 5 billion streaming hours last year?”
Black Noir Cinema enlists another Blaxploitation-era star, Antonio Fargas (Across 110th Street, Cleopatra Jones), for its second Tubi original feature, the crime thriller Murder City. It’s a full-circle moment for Fargas and Grier, who both became a part of cinematic history when they appeared in Foxy Brown, one of the genre’s most iconic movies.
Although many audiences viewed Blaxploitation films with a sense of pride because they empowered Black characters battling racism and sexism on their own terms, other felt the movies were centered in “Black exploitation” and encouraged harmful stereotypes of African Americans as drug dealers, pimps, gang members and as hypersexual.
Both Fargas and Grier reject those criticisms.
“The whole idea of Blaxploitation wasn’t exploit, it was Black opportunity,” says Fargas. “The misconception was that we should not be proud of what we were doing. In the moment, it was hard to be proud of because we were just hungry. There was a hunger that said, you know what? We can express ourselves, we can talk subliminally through how we had to adjust to the world.”
Vargas credits his Blaxploitation roots for the opportunities still afforded to him, including Murder City. Veteran producer Oz Scott, who along with NBA Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett executive produced the movie (Garnett is behind Content Cartel Production Studios), made sure he reached out to both Grier and Fargas for the projects.
“They are very old, dear friends,” says Scott, who has directed series such as The Jeffersons, Soul Food, CSI: NY and Black Lightning. “It’s amazing how many icons, especially in the Black community, are ready to work, but have been passed over, or have been forgotten or ignored. For me to call Antonio and say, ‘Yo, will you do this?’ Antonio was wonderful. Pam Grier was wonderful. They are working. There’s other people who can come back and do stuff. Let’s not forget them, either.”
Garnett echoed those sentiments in a statement to THR: ”It was an honor and a privilege to work with Pam Grier and Antonio Fargas who are both trailblazers that created opportunities for a whole generation of actors and filmmakers that now follow in their footsteps.”
Added Garnett: “Cinnamon and Murder City — this is us showing the proper respect and paying homage.”
In Murder City, Fargas plays Graham, a criminally minded father who persuades his son, a dedicated cop and husband (Mike Colter), to help him score one last deal. Everything goes wrong and Neil, his son, must concoct a desperate plan to get back the life that his father caused him to lose.
Though he admits his character won’t be winning a father of the year contest, he insists “you cannot deny the humanity of Graham.”
“We never know what’s going on behind Graham’s doors or even with the character that Pam Grier played in her film. It’s the power of family,” said Fargas. “That’s what we touch on in these movies in terms of finding out the family part of Blaxploitation of Black film today. It is grounded in something universal,” he says. “We stumbled onto something, we found gold and we refined it and reworked it to continue to deliver.”