Saturday, February 22, 2014

Sheba, Baby

In honor of Black History Month I wanted to once again review some blaxploitation films, as I find it to be one of the most vibrant and interesting of exploitation subgenres and that usually even the mediocre films are worth discussing.

First up in the discussion, the Pam Grier starring, William Girdler directed, Sheba, Baby (1975).

-Count the commas in this post and win a prize!*
Up front I have to tell you that this is a lesser Pam Grier blaxploitation film.  Despite what the tagline claims, Sheba, Baby is not as strong when compared to her previous classics Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), as it tones down the sex, violence, and even the swearing that fans of Ms. Grier's previous efforts had come to expect.  The action scenes are also less dynamic, coming off a little flat and maybe even a bit goofy (especially the hand-to-hand, fist-fight stuff).

This would be one of Grier's final blaxploitation films (it was actually her last film under contract with AIP) and you get the sense that she was sort of done playing these types of roles.  You can see her just going through the motions in a couple scenes and her dialogue doesn't have much punch to it, but maybe that's just due to the way it was written..

Despite it's flaws, I did find Sheba, Baby to be a fun, rainy afternoon watch (which it was).  It has some memorable moments and supporting characters and the location shooting in Louisville and Chicago are interesting if you're from the Midwest (which I am) or maybe even if you're not.

The plot of Sheba, Baby goes like this:  Young, female Chicago detective Sheba Shayne (Grier) is called back to her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky to help her father, a local businessman who is being threatened by the mob.  Sheba has to put her detective skills to use and bust some heads as she works her way up the ladder of the crime syndicate.  Along the way she romances an old acquaintance and her father's current business partner, Brick Williams (Austin Stoker).
Stoker is good in this, he's sort of casually cool, with a bit of squareness in there, but he doesn't really amount to much more than "romantic interest" in the movie.  It's what you would expect from a guy named 'Brick.'  I like the guy though; Stoker was in John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and also Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), not to mention a couple earlier films with director William Girdler, one of which was Abby (1974), otherwise known as The Blaxorcist (check out my review here).
The bad guys seem to be very typical of blaxploitation movies, but they're good and serviceable.  D'Urville Martin, who is always good and memorable, plays the mid-level, local crime boss Pilot, and he does it big and bold.  He of course plays it a bit more subdued when he's around the big villain/his boss, a white businessman named Shark (Dick Merrifield).  Shark is a slimy land developer or something…I don't remember.  He's a real jerk though, cold, cruel, and a bit smug.

Other than Sheba, Baby, Dick Merrifield's only other claim to fame would be a pair of supporting roles in movies featured on MST3k, The Hellcats (1968) and The Sidehackers (1969), both of which are motorcycle flicks.

Like I said, D'Urville Martin is always good and he had a nice career in blaxploitation films; the same year as Sheba, Baby he played Willie Green in Dolemite.  Interestingly, one of Martin's earliest roles was Diego, the elevator operator in Rosemary's Baby (1968).

Maybe the most memorable supporting character, and easily my favorite, is Walker the pimp (Christopher Joy), who might not be a literal pimp, but I can't help but refer to him as such.  He runs a pawn shop out of his car and pretty much single handedly fills the movie's jive-talk quotient.  Sheba leans on him for information and while he's cocky at first, he proves to be a coward and gives up the info.

Joy is a lot of fun in the role; he's what you think of when you think "70s movie pimp" and he is a highlight of the movie.  He would play Curtis the pimp, virtually the same character, in Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke (1978).

Backing up a minute, I also gotta mention Pilot's right hand man, Killer (Maurice Downs).  He doesn't do much really, other than be stern faced and appear to be without the capacity for joy, but there is this one scene where Pilot is giving a speech in front of his goons (and his ladies too, for some reason), addressing the Sheba situation, and this Killer guy is sitting behind Pilot chiming in with a "that's right" every two seconds.  It's funny and weird that there was emphasis put on this character quirk.  I like it.
"That's right."
The original musical soundtrack is pretty good, maybe not as iconic as the scores from Coffy or Foxy Brown (by Roy Ayers and Willie Hutch, respectively), but still solid.  The music was composed and recored by Monk Higgens, legendary Chicago saxophonist.  I like it.  It's funky.  Check it:

This was writer/director William Girdler's fifth feature film and, following the relative success of Abby, this was the first time he had a decent budget to work with.  Girdler never made big budget movies, but this is definitely when his career took a step up the quality B-movie ladder.  Sheba, Baby is not overly exciting visually, but the movie looks okay and there are some noteworthy sequences, namely the boat chase during the climax.  Pam Grier in that wetsuit and riding around on that old school jet ski is something to see too.
There's another memorable scene where Sheba is chased by Pilot's goons through the grounds of the Kentucky State Fair.  The rides and the people are interesting to look at, especially since the people in the background are mostly looking directly at the camera.  This happens in another scene too, when Brick and Sheba are having a nice romantic walk together.  It's like the people in Louisville freeze when faced with a camera.
I had mentioned that the action scenes aren't all that exciting, but there is one stunt that I thought looked kind of dangerous.  During this scene, Sheba is running up a grassy hill when a car full of bay guys comes driving over the top and looks like it comes very close to hitting her.  Could just be the camera angle, still looked dangerous to me.
Overall I would say that Sheba, Baby is a minor work and that anybody new to the blaxploitation genre should start with another movie.  Also though, I would say that if you are familiar or a fan of the genre and you haven't seen Sheba, Baby, I would suggest checking it out.  It's like a cleaner, Saturday afternoon version of a blaxploitation movie, but taken on its own terms, it's not bad and can be an enjoyable watch.  Dig it.

*No prize for counting commas.

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