The opening credits of Sheba, Baby feature Sheba (Pam Grier) walking through the streets of Chicago, on her way to a nearby office where she works as a private investigator. The sequence is notable for director William Girdler’s interest in maximizing the city location for its visual appeal while also, of course, placing Grier at the frame’s center, as her walk imparts more about her character’s residual “foxy”-ness than a more tempting callback line or catchphrase possibly could.
Yet the city of Chicago calls equal attention to itself merely through Girdler’s camera, as a mixture of wide shots and close-ups suggests an insightful relationship between the differing cinematic representations of cities and the archetypal figures that occupy them. Put another way, if Point Blank is actually about the logic of previous filmmakers’ use of San Francisco as an oneiric, sublime cityscape, then Sheba, Baby casts its narrative of inner-city corruption for a more practical sociological purpose, existing between cities that house black struggle—specifically, Chicago and Louisville.
In fact, Sheba, Baby’s release coincided with the busing riots of 1975, where protesters (largely white) took issue with the implementing of a cross-district busing system in order to equalize the city’s racial composition. Though Sheba, Baby never explicitly mentions these riots or issues of segregation, the very fact of Girdler’s on-location shoot entails a gesture to those circumstances, if only because the pulse of racial tension quickens as the film wears on, as Andy (Rudy Challenger), Sheba’s father, becomes the target of a local black gangster, Pilot (D’Urville Martin), who pressures him to give up his insurance business…or else. The “or else” is actually the film’s opening, as a trio of “ruthless men” infiltrate Andy’s office and smash the place up, while Andy tries to fend them off.
The broad narrative of forced integration serves as a thin excuse to stage Sheba’s eventual kicking-of-ass, but the film’s reversal of the real-world terms, where bids for continued segregation remain the refuge for racists unwilling to recognize their own fascistic confusion between privilege and power, acutely implicates the film’s real villain, Shark (Dick Merrifield), a wealthy, white businessman who’s been using Pilot as a patsy for his mission to place the entire city under his monetary thumb. While it would be a stretch to explain Sheba, Baby as an allegory for Louisville’s segregation disputes, the film’s racial (and thematic) terms nevertheless situate these very questions at its center, though Girdler and co-writer David Sheldon ultimately care little about constructing insights regarding these developments, as the film’s final third devolves into routine chase-and-punch sequences that could be snipped from any comparable genre film.
As pulp, Sheba, Baby adds little terrain to the Blaxploitation cycle that more ferocious efforts like White Mama, Black Mama, Coffy, and Foxy Brown hadn’t already trekked, especially considering the film boasts a PG rather than R rating, though bloodshed and partial nudity still figure into the mix. Grier’s reputed desire to play a leading woman who couldn’t be reduced to her physical attributes takes initial shape in her role as a PI, but eventually Sheba is simply another angel of vengeance, with a tag-along named Brick (Austin Stoker) for a sidekick.
Girdler has a fine eye for drawing laughs from execution over punchlines, as in shots that linger on one of Pilot’s blue-suited yes-men, played by Maurice Downes, a beat too long, emphasizing the scene’s interest in milking stock scenes for their comedic potential. The same could be said of an early scene where Pilot is in bed talking on the phone, with three women pawing at him. The scene’s implications are simply racist (and sexist) caricature, but Girdler acknowledges the depiction’s status as stereotypical by laying the scene bare and not attempting to imbue it, or rationalize it, through a narrative development. In other words, if Sheba, Baby’s dealings with ethnicity, sexuality, and gender are often crude and underdeveloped, it’s because of these very flaws, and constraints, that its intriguing elements are allowed to emerge.
The high-definition transfer on Arrow Video’s new Blu-ray impresses throughout for its clarity and absence of visible flaw or defect, though the restoration lacks the precision and depth of field that a more dynamic 2K refurbishing could yield. Few are likely to pout over the difference, however, especially since each scene and frame appear to have been given an overhaul, meaning the image remains consistent throughout, without drastic changes in quality. Such stability is comparable, to a slightly lesser extent, on the audio track, which is certainly serviceable, but sounds a bit distorted in louder moments, as the monaural mix struggles to handle and balance sound effects, score, and dialogue at once. As a document of two cities during times of turmoil and transition, this presentation successfully rescues Sheba, Baby from MGM’s previous, shabby DVD release.
As supplements go, Arrow rivals the best home-video distributors in the world, and Sheba, Baby, with two audio commentaries, a new interview, and a featurette, conforms to their high-level work, albeit perhaps in quantity over quality, if only because the commentaries are rather weak in their insights and tempo. In the first, critic Nathaniel Thompson interviews screenwriter David Sheldon about his work on the film, which mostly consists of reminiscences about the film’s production that will be of interest only to those who obsess over such things. There’s a great line, though, when Sheldon affectionately refers to Maurice Downes, who plays one of Pilot’s henchmen, as "a well-known real-life gangster, but a sweet guy." Such a moment captures the inclusive and unique spirit of many low-budget productions. A second commentary, this one by Patty Breen, the webmaster for williamgirdler.com, meanders in continuity errors and fan trivia about the film’s production. An interview with Sheldon explains the role of American Independent Pictures (AIP) in making Sheba, Baby, as does a featurette that explores Pam Grier’s films with AIP. A trailer and stills gallery round out the disc.
Often neglected for its impressive use of on-location shooting, but rightly denigrated as subpar pulp, Sheba, Baby receives a foxy new Blu-ray from Arrow Video.