Most audiences today know Pam Grier from Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown or the Showtime series The L Word, but she first burst on the scene as an icon of the “blaxploitation” cycle of low-budget urban action movies. Amazon Prime has three of her defining films.
Grier took her first leading role in Coffy (1973), playing a nurse turned nocturnal angel of vengeance who hunts drug dealers after her 11-year-old sister ODs on bad smack, and followed it up with Foxy Brown (1974), where she declares war on the criminal organization that murdered her undercover cop lover. Jack Hill directs these down and dirty urban action pictures, which are at times slapdash and sloppy but carry a visceral punch at their best: Coffy starts with Grier blasting open the skull of a sleazy drug pusher like a watermelon and shooting up his junkie assistant with an overdose of heroin. There’s plenty of sex, a catty girl-fight that leaves the losers topless, and car chases and shoot-outs galore, but what makes it a blaxploitation classic is Grier’s Amazon presence and fiery charisma and Hill’s gritty low budget action scenes marked by visceral, wincing violence. Hill had previously directed Grier in The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage. Their next and last picture together, Foxy Brown, was originally written as the sequel to Coffy and practically plays that way. Grier carries them both with charisma, self-confidence, and drive.
Arthur Marks directs Grier in Friday Foster (1975), adapted from the newspaper comic strip about a photographer’s assistant at a glamour magazine. She transforms into an investigative reporter when a routine assignment erupts into an attempted assassination and she digs up a conspiracy that reaches to Washington D.C. The script feels more like a comic book than a movie, with Grier playing Friday as a plucky, resourceful amateur, stealing cars and stalking killers armed with nothing but a fully loaded camera. The cast, however, is great: Yaphet Kotto as a good-natured PI she drags along as a sidekick and bodyguard, Eartha Kitt as a sassy, flamboyant fashion designer, Scatman Crothers as a lascivious but good-at-heart minister, Thalmus Rasula as a reclusive black millionaire, plus Jim Backus as a wheelchair-ridden racist millionaire and Godfrey Cambridge as a flamboyantly gay conspirator.