By the end of her career as a leading lady for American International Pictures, the company had Pam Grier trying a few different things. She took an ensemble role rather than a solo lead in Bucktown and tried a more cosmopolitan adventure in Friday Foster, a comic strip adaptation with a cast full of African American stars. Sheba Baby was also released in 1975 and it was perhaps the most atypical of the bunch in that it had a PG rating, downplaying the hard-edged grindhouse appeal of her earlier for a more general audience-friendly style.
As you might imagine, Grier plays the title role in Sheba Baby, a private detective who returns home to Louisville, Kentucky when her father Andy (Rudy Challenger), owner of a loan company, is being threatened by crooks trying to get him to sell his business. When the crooks get violent, Sheba teams up with old flame Brick (Austin Stoker) to get the people responsible. The immediate threat is local kingpin Pilot (D’Urville Martin) but Sheba will discover he’s just the front for a secret threat that is much more insidious.
Sheba Baby gets a hard time from blaxploitation fans for its PG rating. Truth be told, it’s a ‘70s-style PG rating so the violence still packs a kick, including a few bloody squibs in some shootouts, though the nudity and profanity are suitably downplayed. The bigger issue with Sheba Baby is that it is as generic as a blaxploitation flick can get: every plot turn is predictable, right down to the reveal of the “Mr. Big”-style villain, and the direction by regional exploitation vet William Girdler plays it safe with a style that feels like a boilerplate mid-70s cop or detective t.v. show with slightly more violence.
That said, Sheba Baby is never less than efficient. The script by Girdler and producer David Sheldon hits all the necessary marks in a timely fashion and Kentucky native Girdler does an effective job of exploiting the production value of his unique Louisville setting. Grier is a reliably strong lead (she handles a dramatic scene in a hospital quite well) and Stoker and Challenger give solid support. Best of all, there’s a fairly lavish orchestrated jazz/funk score by Monk Higgins and Alex Brown that gives the film a nice, soulful flair.
In short, Sheba Baby is strictly mid-tier stuff as far as blaxploitation goes — but Grier remains charismatic and the film is professional enough to be worth a look for her fans.
Blu-Ray Notes: Sheba Baby recently made its blu-ray debut via a blu-ray/DVD set. The blu-ray offers an impressive transfer full of crisp details and a handsome rendering of the film’s earthy ‘70s color scheme. The LPCM presentation of the mono mix is similarly strong and makes excellent use of the film’s musical score.
Arrow has also added in array of extras. Things start with two commentaries. The first pairs producer/co-writer David Sheldon with Mondo Digital wizard Nathaniel Thompson. Sheldon is free with his memories, getting deep into his working relationship with Girdler, his experiences as an executive at A.I.P. and plentiful memories of the shoot. Thompson keeps the comments flowing with good questions. The second is a solo track with Girdler expert Patty Breen, who splits the difference between historical trivia and wry fan-style commentary on the film’s ups and downs.
Two featurettes have also been created for this release. The first is a chat with Sheldon (15 min.), who offers a concise version of the material he covers in his commentary. The second is a thumbnail history of Grier’s A.I.P. years (12 min.) by Temple Of Schlock’s Chris Poggiali. His fast-paced comments are witty and knowledgeable, closing with an interesting insight about how low-budget films were a better venue for Grier as a lead actress rather than studio films. A funky trailer and a quick image gallery wrap things up.
Full Disclosure: this review was done using a check-disc blu-ray provided by Arrow Video U.S.A. The disc used for the review reflects what buyers will see in the finished blu-ray.