Release Date(s)1975 (February 9, 2016)
Studio(s)MGM (Arrow Video)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B+
Exploitation master William Girdler’s 1975 crime film Sheba, Baby is worthwhile viewing for a number of reasons, not the least of which being its historical import as a transitional film for 1970s black cinema icon Pam Grier. Following her star-making turns in Coffy and Foxy Brown, Sheba, Baby is a slightly more restrained and “respectable” affair, a turn in the direction toward respectability that would lead to the less exploitative Friday Foster and supporting roles in A-list films like Fort Apache, The Bronx and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Ironically, just as Grier was shedding her Blaxploitation image in favor of more traditional leading lady parts, the industry changed in a way that relegated her to smaller and smaller parts until Quentin Tarantino revived her career with Jackie Brown in 1997. Unfortunately, it was a revival that began and ended with that film – Grier immediately returned to small parts in big movies and big parts in small ones.
Admittedly, she was never the world’s greatest actress, but her screen presence was and is undeniable – and it’s on full display in Sheba, Baby. Grier plays the title character, a Chicago private investigator who returns home to Louisville, Kentucky to take on mobsters out to destroy her dad’s loan business. Although this superficial description might lead one to expect a Coffy-esque orgy of foul-mouthed ass-kicking, Sheba, Baby is a softer, more mainstream film in its way; the first of Grier’s vehicles to be rated PG, it’s more of a straight-ahead action flick in which glimmers of the caffeinated sex and violence from her previous work occasionally appear. What remains, however, is still an awful lot of fun (and a clear influence on Tarantino, who lifted several things from the film – including its main title font – for his 1997 masterpiece starring Grier. The movie is packed with dynamic action sequences helmed by Girdler, a low-budget auteur who helmed cult classics like Abby and The Manitou before dying tragically young in a helicopter crash while scouting locations in the Philippines. The pre-CGI stunts and practical effects are terrific, as is the film’s anthropological study of Kentucky in the 1970s – the physical details, from Grier’s wardrobe to the period cars and architecture, are consistently appealing to the eye.
For fans like myself who are used to seeing Sheba, Baby in revival houses on scratchy, faded 35mm prints, Arrow’s new Blu-ray transfer is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Flawless on every level – color, contrast, brightness, clarity – it’s a revelation in its presentation of Girdler’s eye-popping palette, most vividly exhibited in the terrific period costumes and décor. The mono sound mix is stunning as well, surprisingly robust and the perfect way to experience Monk Higgins and Alex Brown’s deliriously funky score. The transfer alone would make Sheba, Baby worth a purchase, but luckily there are also some excellent supplements here. One of the best is also the shortest, an eleven-minute crash course in the golden age of Pam Grier by film historian Chris Poggiali. There’s also an enlightening fifteen-minute interview with screenwriter David Sheldon, who gives a general overview of his career. Sheldon provides information more specific to Sheba, Baby in a fine commentary track moderated by critic Nathaniel Thompson. A second commentary track by Girdler scholar Patty Breen is more dispensable, as she spends too much time on irrelevant asides (mostly having to do with continuity errors and what she sees as lapses in realism – something about as pertinent here as the lack of musical numbers in Vertigo) and a weird obsession with continuity errors. Breen supplies a far more informative commentary on the film via her liner notes for the enclosed booklet, which one can read and then skip over the audio track. A trailer and gallery of publicity images round out this wonderful package.
- Jim Hemphill