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MOVIES : She's Back and Badder Than Ever : Pam Grier's '70s blaxploitation films are a big kick again, making the star a hot retro hero. (And you thought Foxy Brown was finished.)

August 27, 1995|Greg Braxton | Greg Braxton is a Times staff writer

BERKELEY — There she was, winking knowingly into the camera as she karate-kicked in her superbaaaaad leather outfit, every hair in her boulder-sized Afro in place.

Those in the overflow audience at the University Art Museum Pacific Film Archive at UC Berkeley could hardly contain themselves as they watched her on screen, battling the villains and romancing the good guys.

The silky announcer on the trailer they were viewing for the 1974 blaxploitation epic "Foxy Brown" gave added punch to her punches.

"She's a chick with drive that don't take no jive," he purred while the thumping percussion thundered her every move. "Brown sugar with a touch of spice. She won't budge when she carries a grudge. There ain't no hope for dudes who deal in dope."

Finally, the kicker: "Never fear. Pam Grier is here."

The screen went dark, the lights came up, and Pam Grier was there. The actress, a.k.a. Foxy Brown, a.k.a. Friday Foster, a.k.a. Coffy, a.k.a. Sheba Baby, smiled at the crowd.

The audience, composed mostly of college students and twentysomethings, erupted, momentarily overwhelming Grier, attired in a fashionable straw hat that barely shielded her eyes and a flowered dress with an ornate net-like pattern subtly hiding her midriff.

She finally stepped up to the microphone and said, almost incredulously, "Boy, wasn't I a hot little firecracker 20 years ago?"

It has been two decades since Grier's last starring role in a motion picture, when the combination of her statuesque beauty, smoldering sexuality and lethal physical prowess in films such as "Foxy Brown," "Coffy" and "Sheba Baby" made her the undisputed queen of the so-called blaxploitation movies.

While her post-'70s life and career have been something of a roller coaster, Grier's firecracker days seem to be far from over. In fact, several prominent filmmakers, rappers and poets are aiming to make Grier hotter than ever.

Quentin Tarantino and the Hudlin brothers of "House Party" and "Boomerang" fame have written or are developing works for Grier. She has met recently with other filmmakers, including Tim Burton.

She has achieved icon status among the rap community and young people, with recent guest shots on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and "Martin." Her cameo last year as the head-bopping girlfriend of Dr. Dre in the video of Snoop Doggy Dogg's "It's a Doggy Dogg World" further solidified her standing with young audiences.

The 40-ish Grier spends much of her time living in an isolated rural area of Colorado with her English field spaniels Magic Johnson and Buckwheat. She will make a rare local public appearance Monday night at the House of Blues, co-hosting "Roni'z Bakstreeet Poetri," an evening of poetry with an urban rap flavor.

"Even in those movies, when there were stereotypes, Pam still represented a strong and physically beautiful black woman," said Roni Walter, a local poet who is organizing the event. "She faced all these difficult tasks and still has to be strong. When you mention 'Foxy Brown,' people go crazy. Black youth love her now just as much as they loved her in the '70s. I sell memorabilia from that period, and her photos sell the most."

Indeed, at the Berkeley tribute in July, she was surrounded by dozens of young people, prompting archive officials to drag her away after the crowd kept on seeking autographs, pictures and hugs.

"She is large," said Warrington Hudlin, who is now shopping around a script that would feature Grier in an action drama bringing her '70s persona into the '90s. "Those films didn't show what an accomplished actress she is."

Grier is clearly delighted with the retro movement that has brought her back into the spotlight. Unlike others in the genre, she has embraced her work, and is not totally surprised by its revived popularity.

"I'm a little surprised, but I understand it," said Grier as she relaxed during a leisurely lunch at a Berkeley hotel. "There's certain movements that are cyclical, and people like to reminisce. There's a comfort zone about that time that was interesting. It had everything--it had an energy, a creativity, politics. I can't wait to see the world in bell bottoms and hip-huggers again. But I'm not doing that again. Those platform shoes broke my ankle!"

Grier does not seem far removed from the 1970s, at least physically. The Afro is gone in favor of flowing shoulder-length hair, and her face expresses more maturity, but her features are even softer and prettier than they were in "Foxy Brown." She retains a delicate cat-like smile that projects a knowing confidence, even though she insists that she has never considered herself attractive or pretty.

Explaining her personality, Grier, who has never been married, said, "I'm a loner. A recluse. But I love people. I like to go into my little hole, and then I like to get out my power tools and build houses with hundreds of people for Habitat for Humanity."

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