Tough Enough

Given her screen image, Pam Grier is a natural for a new show about women in law enforcement. And with the most officers featured in the show, Baltimore is the natural place for her to kick off the series

January 23, 2002|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

The Afro is long gone. It's been years since she opted to step out in her bell-bottomed '70s regalia.

And that determined, wronged-woman snarl that she flashed decades ago while bashing away baddies in the action movies that made her famous is missing from her face - at this moment anyway.

But when Pam Grier strides into a room, it's clear she's still not one to mess with.

Statuesque, confident and strikingly beautiful almost 30 years since she first hit the big-time with her string of femme-fatale roles, Grier entered an elegant hotel suite yesterday morning, sharply scanned her surroundings and declared, "How come I didn't get a room like this?"

She's joking, of course. But for just a moment, she's got that Foxy Brown twinkle in her eye. That flinty air of a headstrong woman who knows what she deserves - and doesn't think twice about telling you how to give it to her.

The 52-year-old Grier came to Baltimore to launch the new Oxygen network program she's the host of, Women & The Badge. The 13- episode series profiles 22 women in law enforcement, and the season kicks off Sunday night with a show that follows a rookie Baltimore police officer as she navigates her first days on the beat. The series is in the vein of Fox's reality show Cops but with a rah-rah, girl-power slant.

Grier's new gig championing and showcasing female power isn't surprising given the career she's had and the hurdles she's had to overcome.

Grier, who almost died from abdominal cancer but has been in remission since 1988, catapulted to fame in the early '70s in starring turns as heroines fighting for justice in "blaxploitation" films, a genre of campy African-American movies heavy on sex and violence. In the 1974 classic Foxy Brown, for example, she kicked and battered her way through battalions of men and women to avenge the death of her boyfriend and destroy a drug gang - a feat that she capped with the gory castration of the ring-leader.

Even after blaxploitation films faded from the big-screen in the late '70s, Grier continued to choose strong female roles that showed, above all, that women could do pretty much whatever they set their minds on. She's taken on quietly heroic roles in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown (1997) and last year's Bones with Snoop Dogg.

Grier said she leaped at being a part of a new series that follows tough, female officers as they investigate homicides, examine crime scenes or search for drug activity in houses, inching from room to room with guns drawn.

Grier, who never married, said the show resonates with her, having grown up female and African-American in Winston-Salem, N.C., before the civil rights and women's movements.

"I have family members who, because of the color of their skin, the only job they could get was in law enforcement," said Grier, pausing occasionally to carefully brush her jet black hair away from her perfectly made-up face. "If you had the gift and the physical attributes that would allow you to be a police person, those were the best jobs that you could get at the time."

But the tough job that female police officers have didn't strike her until 1973, when her uncle - a detective with the Denver Police Department - took her to work one day as she began researching her role for Foxy Brown.

"That was when I first saw female police officers and detectives," she said. "They were in very nice suits - they were in pastel suits because they were very feminine but they were very strong women. And they were capable in a way that they had to be competitive with the men, and, of course, at the time men hadn't really grasped the fact that their sexism would have to be minimized - their comments, their jokes, their harassment.

"At the time, I didn't think of women as detectives ... Why did I not expect it? That's what I was conditioned to believe," she added. "But you could see the movement emerging. Walls were crumbling, and women weren't all in the kitchen - barefoot. We were on the police force."

In Baltimore, where the number of female police officers has increased in recent years, the Police Department endorsed the Oxygen show by giving cameras access to its officers and detectives over several weeks in the fall. Of the 22 officers profiled, seven are from Baltimore. Oxygen picked Baltimore as the show's launch site because the Police Department has the most number of officers profiled in the series. The network is available on satellite television in the Baltimore area.

"This not only showcases the best female officers we have, it showcases the department," said Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris. "We've got women in very critical jobs, and this shows women the careers they can have in police departments."

And some of the women profiled in the show said Grier had been a role model for them in their formative years.

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