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Tuesday 9 May 2023

Sheba, Baby (1975)

Director: William Girdler
Writers: William Girdler and David Sheldon
Stars: Pam Grier, Austin Stroker and D’Urville Martin

Index: The First Thirty.

“She’s kicking ass and taking names,” sings Barbara Mason in the movie’s opening theme song. It shouldn’t take much to figure out who. “Sheba, baby,” that’s who. And Sheba, baby is Pam Grier, of course, Sheba Shayne of Racker & Shayne, Private Investigators.

Now, this firm is in Chicago, but she’s called quickly back to her home town of Louisville, Kentucky, because her father, Andy Shayne of Shayne Loan Co., is being hassled there. He gives fair deals to customers but his partner Brick isn’t confident that they can continue to do that with the mob piling on the pressure.

“They’ll kill you,” he tells him and wanders off into the night on his own, the exact point we realise that either he’s in the mob’s pocket or the script needed a lot more work. Given that it’s Brick who promptly calls Sheba to fly back to help save the business and keep Andy alive, it should be clear that the script is going to hold this one back.

And, boy does it, with a whole slew of plot conveniences, continuity errors and good old fashioned goofs. Even the sound isn’t good and the whole film plays like a cheap knock-off of a bunch of Pam Grier’s earlier blaxploitation flicks but with worse dialogue. Even Pam feels a little awkward early on, but she finds herself soon enough and brings some serious power to scenes that show what this could have been in the right hands.

She’s needed, even though her dad thinks he can take care of things on his own. He lends her a car and it blows up. So she quits listening to him and starts helping. After all, the police won’t provide any protection. So she asks her questions with a gun and gets somewhere.

Rudy Challenger, who had a small role in Hit Man and a bigger one in Cool Breeze, has a more important one here as Andy, albeit only for a while because Brick’s prediction soon comes true. The mob hire a multicultural bunch of thugs to shoot up Shayne Loan with assault rifles. Sheba shoots back and kills three, but Andy catches a stray bullet in the crossfire and dies in hospital. Nobody was supposed to get hurt. So much for outsourcing, huh?

The initial face of the bad guys is D’Urville Martin, a veteran of blaxploitation movies in his first Pam Grier picture. He’s Pilot and he’s an idiot henchman with a bunch more idiot henchmen. There’s a scene that’s not meant to be funny where Sheba chases Pilot through a carnival. His goons chase her but he manages to shoot one of them himself. She catches him, of course, and he caves quickly. You want my boss? Here’s his number.

Ignoring the boss for the sake of avoiding at least some spoilers, that leaves Austin Stoker as Brick. He would do much better in his next film, John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 but he’s OK here. I think we’re supposed to notice charisma between the two stars but we don’t. Their scenes boil down to him wanting to find a better way and her not having the patience for it. She pleads far too much when arguing with him. It’s probably to suggest that she’s a good girl who can get tough when it’s needed, but she’s a black P.I. in Chicago. C’mon! She’s already tough and she doesn’t need anyone or anything to tell her it’s suddenly needed.

Watching Grier’s films in quick succession is an eye-opener because it’s easy to see any film that doesn’t fit the flow. This one should, after Coffy and Foxy Brown, but it feels off. It’s like the filmmakers wanted to cash in on those but didn’t understand what made them work. It’s not enough to hire the same star. They needed a good story too and they didn’t have one.

They simply gave her a reason to show up in Louisville and had someone fail to kill her off. She tracks down a snippet of information, not a difficult task for a P.I., and finds a henchman who talks. That puts her on the big boss’s boat via the old escort agency chestnut again, right down to the catight. Talk about working to an exact formula!

Oh, and the big boss’s boat happens to have more plot conveniences to bring to bear than you can shake a stick at. How many magically convenient speedboats can be moored by one yacht? One fewer than needed is the answer to that question, so prompting Sheba to borrow a magically convenient jetski instead.

Another disappointing aspect is that all the violence Sheba uses here is with guns, except, if I’m not very much mistaken, for one kick. In the wider film, there’s some more traditional violence, because Andy gets beaten up and, oh no, once receives an honest to goodness slap! Where’s the imagination that went into any of Grier’s previous five movies? Didn’t she prove herself over and over in those pictures? Give a Chicago P.I. something to do!

I’ve talked up a lot of negative aspects here and I could try to even that out with positivity but there’s not a lot of it to bring up.

Grier is good, as we might expect her to be, once she gets moving, as if she was waiting to be given something emphatic to do. When she gets it, she rocks, but it’s far from immediate. Stoker and Martin aren’t bad but the picture restrains them too and they don’t overcome it as quickly as Grier does.

Frankly, I only have one favourite scene and it’s between Sheba and a character I haven’t even mentioned yet, because he’s just a piece to a puzzle, a link in a chain and he shouldn’t stand out at all, except Christipher Joy nails it and Grier plays along.

Joy plays Walker, who goes by Number One, and he’s seriously styling in a truly outrageous blaxploitation outfit. He isn’t a pimp though, he’s a loan shark (10% interest per week) who runs a travelling pawn shop out of the boot of his car. He knows precisely how to strut but he knows how to run too. And when Sheba gets a gun on him inside his own car, he caves like a little bitch.

I knew many of these blaxploitation icons going into this project, not just Grier, but Joy hadn’t registered with me before, even though I’d seen him in his other blaxploitation films, Cleopatra Jones and Darktown Strutters. He was a fun joke character in both Cool Breeze and Hit Man and he’s even better here in the one good scene that’s going to stay with me.

But that’s about it. If Coffy was the best film Grier had done up until this point, then Sheba, Baby surely has to be the worst.

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