Pam Grier talks about her book, surviving abuse, and the race divide in film.

By: Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

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TORONTO - Film star Pam Grier says there's still a lack of opportunities for African-American actors in Hollywood and it's partly due to marginalized audiences.

Film investors are looking to make the widest profit margins possible and build upon "brands" (such as actors or franchises) that can "keep the industry going," explains the "Foxy Brown" screen siren.

And if they do invest in a marginalized brand, the budget will likely be small and sometimes the target audience won't even support it, she notes.

"We have conservative African-Americans who will not see certain films, will only see Tyler Perry but will not see Spike Lee," Grier, 62, said in an interview ahead of her appearance at the Canadian Film Centre's celebration of Black History Month in Toronto.

"I know a lot of African-American women that didn't want to see 'The Help' because they had lived it as little girls and it was a circumstance that shouldn't have been and it was so problematic for them. It brought back horrible memories and they couldn't see it, nor will they read the book."

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Grier, of course, has helped blaze a trail for African-American women in Hollywood by portraying a slew of fearless female characters, from the voluptuous villain hunter in "Foxy Brown," to the private detective in "Sheba, Baby," to the vigilante in "Coffy." In 1998, she was nominated for the best-actress Golden Globe for playing a fierce flight attendant in "Jackie Brown" — a role Quentin Tarantino wrote with Grier in mind.

Though she's often referred to as an icon of the '70s classic blaxploitation films, Grier isn't comfortable with the title.

"It was just basically a moniker that described a black action film," said the age-defying Grier, looking stunning in a black pantsuit and scarf, her hair in an elegant updo.

"There were several films done before me by male actors — Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Isaac Hayes — a lot of black, male-lead films. But when I stepped into the role, now it's 'exploitation,' and the conservatives hated the fact that I was walking in their shoes."
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Grier began her empowering career path on the big screen after a lifetime of abuse, she said, noting she was raped twice — first at age six, by children in the neighbourhood, and again at age 18. She said she was also a victim of an attempted rape, at age 21, in Los Angeles by a family friend who was supposed to mentor her.

"That's what made me fight. The two rapes and the attack
," said Grier.

"The last time, that's when I said, 'OK, now you're going to see it on-screen.'"

That's when B-movie honcho Roger Corman cast Grier in the female prison flick "The Big Doll House," which was shot in the Philippines.

"I said, 'I have to go, I want to get away, I want to see who I am as an independent woman,'" said Grier. "'If I can go away to the other side of the world, do something I've never done before and do it successfully, than this was all worth it.'

"And so that's how I was really transformed and started bringing my strength to the screen, and I just said, 'I've got to fight back.'"

Grier runs down her life story in her 2010 memoir, "Foxy: My Life in Three Acts," which she says is being adapted for the big screen (she won't reveal whom she wants to play her).

The book dishes on everything from the men she's dated — including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Freddie Prinze Sr. and Richard Pryor — to her job as a receptionist at the American International Pictures Company, and how she was a timid child because of the rape she endured.

"I was traumatized and I had to retreat and my family actually thought I was autistic, and they would bring me animals and ducks and chickens and things because I couldn't talk," she said. "I was afraid to speak, I was afraid to tell, not knowing what to say to whom."

Her grandfather helped her break out of her shell, though.

"He was the first feminist in my life that really wanted all the girls to be equal to boys
, go hunting and fishing and shooting and driving and be around animals," said Grier.

"I wouldn't have been able to have a 40-year career without him because I brought that rural sensibility of independence and strength to films, which was new to the urban audience. They were like, 'Oh my God, she's jumping and shooting and fighting and wrestling. Oh my God — we can do that.'"

These days, Grier lives on a farm in Colorado, where she lets impoverished children ride her four horses for free. She and her sister also knit hats for U.S. military soldiers to wear under their helmets and for chemotherapy patients.

Grier battled cervical cancer at age 39 and the battle forced her to take a break from acting. It sent her on a life-long journey for alternative and holistic therapies, including Chinese medicine and herbs. Now, she's physically, spiritually and mentally a different person who's found her yin and yang, she said.

She also knows every Chinatown in every city she's visited.

"All across Canada I know where the Chinatown is," Grier said with a laugh.

In fact, Grier considers herself part Canadian after shooting several films here, including "The Adventures of Pluto Nash" in Montreal, "In Too Deep" in Toronto, and "Snow Day" in Calgary. She also had recurring roles on TV's "Smallville" and "The L Word," which were shot in Vancouver.

"I'm a Canuck, I'm a Canadian," said Grier.

"I worked there for 12 years and I feel like I'm Canadian."