A few nights ago, I was fortunate enough to attend the opening of Denver’s Summerfest 2012 Film Festival. I heard on the local news that the premier night’s selection was to be Jackie Brown hosted by “Jackie Brown” herself, Pam Grier, so I immediately searched for ticket information and clicked on the VIP/cocktail party option. Come on, the money goes to a great cause, The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and honey, it’s Foxy Brown.
Now, I wouldn’t say I was nervous to meet Ms. Grier, but I did turn the wrong way down a one-way street. Hand to god true, but I have written before of my long-honed driving skills in small cars, so after a well-timed downshift, a sharp left, and a quick right, I was through the alley and parallel to the curb…there, on time, and no worse for wear.
Inside the Denver Art Gallery, I was received by a welcoming representative of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force with what I consider the universal greeting of sista-hood, a kind, warm smile, and a large glass of red wine. As I perused the gallery walls showcasing a local artist’s brilliant use of oils, light, and local subject, I was distracted by a sudden, energized atmosphere. In reactive intuition, I turned from the art to see the beauty, Pam Grier.
Dressed in ever-stylish black and a brilliant smile, the lady effortlessly commands a room. I remained in my place near the far wall not only staking my claim to a particular painting of depth and personal emotion, but also observing the special guest from afar. I recognized immediately that Pam Grier is a storyteller of the old school. Just like the ladies of my heritage and my youth, the scene is set and the audience it drawn into the tale as if personally reliving the experience in time and in space. She was expounding on an adventure with the late, great Richard Pryor. Richard owned a miniature pet horse that had been attacked and severely injured by his dogs. He was hysterical and out of control, running around in his bathrobe. Taking control of the situation, Pam did what any strong, confident woman would do…scooped up the ailing horse and put it in the back of her Jaguar. Pam laughed a deep, soulful laugh as she recalled the sight of a black couple, complete with era-large afros, speeding down the California freeway in a yellow Jag with a bleeding horse in the back. Even in 1976 Los Angeles, this was not a common occurrence.
At the insistence of a Task Force member, I joined the small group as Pam was speaking about the importance of horses in her life. Later on, she would tell the humorous tale of driving up to the hip, sophisticated set of The L Word towing a horse trailer, but this particular story was of how an equine angel saved her life. As revealed in her memoir, Foxy: My Life in Three Acts, Pam was raped at the age of six. Tonight she told the tale of a silent, incommunicable childhood that resulted from the that attack. The condition could be called traumatic autism, but that term didn’t exist in the rural vernacular of her family’s time (mine either for that matter). The descriptor, “touched” was applied. Fortunately for us, Pam eventually found her voice through the unconditional, therapeutic touch of her horse.
When conversing with Pam Grier, there is a general theme of service to the conversation. Don’t get me wrong, this is me after all, so topics of shoes, fashion, women, and again, shoes, were broached as well,
but no matter the genesis, the topic seemed to make its way back to service and empowerment. Pam is traveling around the country offering Jackie Brown (and her unique voice) to film festivals as a fund raiser for the National Gay and Lesbian Task force, an advocacy organization much more that a website, that has worked tirelessly for over three decades for LGBT rights and the inclusive voice of equality. From Miami to Los Angeles, Denver through the mid-west, Jackie Brown is again fighting the good fight.
For all those out there wondering if I asked about The L Word, of course I did. When I approached the subject that perhaps at the end of the run Eileen Chaiken was throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what stuck, Ms. Grier was extremely gracious in her support of the series and its creator. She took the role of Kit Porter, the tent pole character in the ground breaking Showtime series, out of a sense of inclusiveness, and she is extremely proud of what was accomplished in regard to representation. And she’s right; I remember Oprah Winfrey commenting once about what she felt upon seeing the likes of Diahann Carrol and Diana Ross on television. “That’s me,” she said. In a moment of solidarity, I remember feeling the same way about The L Word. At last, a serious, stand-alone, series about a confident, professional woman who wears feminine, yet powerful, suits and kick-ass, uncomfortable shoes…and oh yeah, she is a lesbian. Until that time in 2004, lesbian representation on American television was either non-existent, insultingly stereotypical, or was erroneously characterized as the steak knife wielding psychopath being chased by the special victims unit. A humorous aside to this conversation is that Pam told me, because of The L Word, she is often asked about her own sexuality. She is not a lesbian she remarks, as she believes you are sexually attracted to whom you dream when you sleep. Women who dream of women are probably lesbians…unfortunately, according to Grier, “I seem to have dreams about big, hairy men!”
I also discovered that in her spare time, between fund raising events for The Task Force, matching pilots with a friend’s group who airlifts and transports animals out of areas of natural disaster and neglect, raising awareness for a group placing service dogs with veterans, and the everyday work of running her Colorado farm, Grier is in pre-production, planning and casting of the movie adaption of her autobiography. Filming is to begin in January with locations in Los Angeles, Wyoming, and Colorado. And if that’s not enough, she and her incredible life story are also on their way to Broadway.
As you might imagine, I was reticent to let go of such an engaging conversation. I relented, however, as the film was about to begin with a scheduled pre-opening Q&A period with the star. I said good-bye to Ms. Grier, finished my wine, and told the showcased gallery artist that I would be back for that painting in the corner. I took my seat in the theater, and I listened. First, Pam said, “If I wake up in the morning and I’m breathing, I know it’s going to be a good day.” Then she gave advice to an aspiring young filmmaker anxious to walk in the shoes of a Tarantino. “Study,” she says, and then recounted a scene in Jackie Brown where Quentin forced her to rehearse the steps of a gun sequence for four hours until he was satisfied and she was fall-down exhausted. Then they shot the scene. She spoke of longevity and a career spanning 42 years on stage, screen, and television. And then she spoke of equality.
Pam was a military brat, and she remembered a road trip when she was a little girl from an Air Force base in Texas (or maybe it was Louisiana) to another base in North Carolina. Pam’s mother and a female friend were traveling together in the friend’s car, sharing the driving and looking after each of their kids. Near half way through their journey, Mrs. Grier was pulled over by a patrolman in Mississippi, not for speeding or breaking any other laws; she was stopped for driving black. You see, these were the times of Jim Crow in the deep south, and African Americans were not allowed to sit in the front seat with white people. Pam remembers her mother having to get out of the car and get into the back seat with her and her brother while the white friend and her child sat up front and drove.
Suddenly, I am struck, sitting in my seat, of this story of blatant discrimination and racial segregation juxtaposed to the one Pam told me earlier about driving with Richard Pryor down the Los Angeles freeway in a yellow Jaguar, with a wounded horse in the back. I have to smile at the mental image and the realization that change does come…slowly, yes, sometimes, but it does come.
With each passing generation we are empowered. As a woman, I find a little Foxy in me when I need it. As a professional and a lesbian, I find it’s never a bad thing to channel a little “Bette Porter” (Ok, honey, not the cheating part.) And as a vehicle of survival, change, and charity, I will never forget the inspirational hour I spent with Pam Grier.
Yes, Pam Grier IS “Jackie Brown”…
…and so much, much more.