Sheba, Baby

I’d guess that when Pam Grier assesses her long career, Sheba, Baby won’t be seen as a major highlight. She dismisses it in a couple of sentences in her autobiography Foxy: My Life in Three Acts.

So why bother posting about the movie? Well, it is Pam Grier. And it was the first blaxploitation movie I saw on the big screen. Yes, I came a very late to the party. Due to my age I should add.

Made by legendary independent American International Pictures and released in 1975, the film was one of many that Grier made for the company, the best of which were Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974).

But before Pam established herself as the queen of blaxploitation cinema, she had worked at AIP in a different capacity. She was a receptionist.

Pam Grier - Sheba, Baby x3

Here she plays Sheba Shayne, a Chicago based private eye who returns to her hometown of Louisville to help out her father. Andy Shayne is being pressurised by the local black mob into handing over the family’s loans company for a pittance. Or be killed.

And when I say loans company, don’t go thinking of some modern day payday loan rip-off merchants. This is an ethically run business on a quiet street corner with a staff of just two. They provide low-interest loans to ordinary members of the community. A true financial friend as they advertise themselves.

Three henchmen beat the poor fella up badly. Is this enough of a warning? ‘My company is not for sale,’ Andy declares the next day when phoned again by a gangster called Pilot. ‘Not Now. Not ever!’

Pops urges Sheba to leave him to face his own problems but predictably she doesn’t listen to what he has to say.

The local police advise Sheba against seeking retribution but predictably she doesn’t listen to what they have to say.

Her father’s business partner Brick warns Sheba that they’re not equipped to fight a ruthless crime organisation by themselves but guess what? Predictably she doesn’t listen to what he has to say.

After the beating, the hoods decide to escalate the pressure on Andy and in the words of a popular song of the time, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. They’re prepared to go to just about any lengths to take over this modest business from car bombings to opening machine gun fire inside the office.

Will Sheba possibly be able to wreak revenge on these lowlife criminals led by one dimensional generic bad guy Shark Merrill?

What do you think?

Pam Grier taking aim in Sheba, Baby

By 1975, when Sheba, Baby first hit cinema screens, blaxploitation was beginning to look a little stale. And Sheba, Baby looked a little tame. One contemporary advert might have claimed that she was hotter than Coffy and meaner than Foxy but the copywriter who came up with that line clearly hadn’t watched the film.

Compared to her two blaxploitation classics, Sheba, Baby can’t help looking like a retread but with more action and less violence – it was even given a PG rating (Parental guidance suggested).

Sometimes for Pam fans, you almost experience deja vu – such as when Coffy – sorry – Sheba infiltrates a party thrown by the crime kingpin by posing as an escort and then starts an attention seeking catfight.

It’s a good enough performance by Pam, displaying her usual charisma but sometimes her takes look a little rushed. On the plus side, unlike many modern-day women who take on action roles, Pam looks like she knew what she was doing. I bet she could kick the butts of all three of the latest batch of Charlie’s Angels without breaking sweat. Even today at 70.

Sheba and Pilot

The film has the feel of a speedily written script. Obviously, director and co-writer William Girdler was no slacker. In total, he chalked up a run of nine movies in six years during the 1970s. These included blaxploitation horror Abby, a blatant Exorcist cash-in and Grizzly, said to be the highest grossing independent film of 1976.

From Louisville himself, Girdler makes a pretty good fist of this, and he certainly knows how to film an explosion. It would have been interesting to see what he was capable of while working on a much bigger budget, but he sadly died in a helicopter accident in The Philippines in 1978, while scouting locations for what was to have been his next movie.

I wanted to like it more, but Sheba, Baby is entertaining though formulaic fun. An action romp with some comedic moments, such as the spectacularly over the top performance of Christopher Jay as a jive-talking, pimp suited hawker, and with a little romance – a subplot involving Sheba and old flame Brick.

Brick? Shark? Pilot? What is it with the names here?

Make sure to swallow your suspension of disbelief tablets beforehand or questions like where did Sheba manage to find a wetsuit at that time of night, might spoil the fun.

Saxophonist Monk Higgins supplies a very decent score and there’s a couple of tunes sung by Philly singer Barbara Mason, although I prefer her more Northern Soul sounding tracks like Keep Him and Don’t Ever Want to Lose Your Love.

The soundtrack album was released on Buddah and here is the title track: