Reviewed Jun 22, 2012
Robert Cettl’s review:
This was the film that star Pam Grier made to finish her contract with studio American International Pictures (AIP). Grier had by now become one of the biggest Afro-American screen presences, even if her films had not received serious critical attention. Nevertheless, even influential journal Variety had by now taken notice, comparing Grier to Raquel Welch. Grier was full of ambition on leaving AIP but the flowering of blaxploitation cinema was slowly petering out and after Sheba, Baby Grier’s career floundered and she rarely had leading actress roles again until her contribution was acknowledged by her role in Quentin Tarantino’s tribute to Grier and Jack Hill, Jackie Brown. While director Hill would justly receive much critical attention even beyond a cult following, the same could not be said of Sheba, Baby director William Girdler who rose in the 1970s with a series of impressive B-movie horror rip-offs (Abby, Grizzly, and The Manitou) but passed away perhaps before he could extend his talents into the next decade. He seems oddly to have been both intimidated by, and dismissive of, Grier and the genre and Sheba, Baby is the most unusually restrained of Grier’s violent vigilante roles: some have even referred to the film as tentative and have attributed this to the increasing hostility amongst critics even within the black community to the emphasis on violence in the genre.
Sheba, Baby follows a plot line familiar from Grier’s previous movies. She stars here as a city private detective who returns to her hometown to find that her father is in trouble. He owns a loan business serving the black community and is in danger of takeover and worse by organized crime elements. When Grier is almost killed in a car bomb meant for her stubborn father (who refuses to “sell out or be killed”), she goes to the police only to realize that they are powerless to help her. She vows revenge and is aided by her hopeful lover (Austin Stoker) in efforts to expose and crush the Mob. In response, the Mob enters into a kind of tit-for-tat intimidation and retribution culminating in her father being seriously injured and in hospital. Grier returns to her investigation with renewed vigor, intending to expose the real crime bosses. She is so much of a threat that the white police consider her something of a dangerous loose cannon. Grier learns of the identity of the boss and so decides to pose as a call girl in order to get close enough to him to exact her revenge. There she finds a world of pampered opulence in great contrast to the struggles of the ordinary people served by her father. The white villain however may soon become aware of her real identity and she is in danger of discovery.
There is an understated notion in Sheba, Baby of the need to resist the lure of easy criminality that was arguably celebrated in many ghetto-oriented films of the time, flirting with a moral stance in its vigilantism. With Sheba, Baby however this has become a self-consciously ritualistic and cathartic social purging of the white threat to black organization and independence. It is without nuance or more than token conflict. The white authority is afraid of the repercussions of Grier’s feminist and racial vigilantism, afraid in essence of losing their authority. Still the film is fearful of the almost anarchic challenge that the Grier persona poses to the so-called establishment of (usually white) oppression, so much so that it reduces this to bland narrative formula and even tries to incorporate her into a familiar patriarchal system to nullify her symbolic threat. Perhaps more so than in her other vigilante films, Grier’s character here is more confidently (as opposed to self-deceptively as was the ambiguous case in the Jack Hill films) aware of her sexuality as her primary weapon but Girdler devotes only compromised attention to Grier’s threat to male systems of power. Yet the film is torn apart by his theme, resolving it in racial and sexual terms by now familiar to Grier’s fans. Rather than break through the formula film, Grier was in Sheba, Baby in danger of being swamped by it. Over-familiarity reduces this film to mediocrity.
What remains intriguing is the film’s equation of black myths of potency with criminality (the black villain thus having three women around him) and the symbolic male order which Grier is yet again in a position to threaten. Again thus, Grier develops the persona of a woman sexually excited by violence (though this is barely acknowledged here) who gradually usurps this male potency through the course of the movie. Grier plays a woman in charge of her sexual and social destiny who accepts the righteous consequences of her actions. However, significantly, she here has to be re-incorporated into Patriarchy as the film is careful to reveal that it is her sense of justice for the wronged father, the “good man” that ultimately impels her actions, rather than her own psychological issues – in this, the film avoids and even denies the complexity of the Jack Hill films. What is undermined by this over-riding Patriarchal justification is Grier’s identity as active as opposed to reactive. The threat that Grier posed to myths of male potency and supremacy made her the most significant Afro-American heroine of the period. But Sheba, Baby can only follow the trends initiated in previous films. It is not without its pleasures, but they seem tired. This is a somewhat sad end to Grier’s AIP films for it showed that they ultimately had no idea how to develop her persona.