Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Sheba, Baby (1975)

In all likelihood, the first place I ever saw Pam Grier was on The Love Boat (1977–1987). I watched that show every Saturday night when I was a kid. I wouldn’t have had any idea who Pam Grier was at that point, but it was probably my first glimpse of her. Flash forward a few years and I rented a movie called Women in Cages (1971). This could have been the first time I saw Pam Grier knowing that she was Pam Grier, but I’m not sure. The movie that I remember specifically renting because Pam Grier was starring in it was Coffy (1973). Coffy was the first of what could be called the Big Four Pam Grier Blacksploitation Pictures: Coffy, Foxy Brown (1974), Friday Foster (1975) and Sheba, Baby (1975). All four of the movies were named after the character that Grier played in the movie, and all four were available to rent in matching VHS boxes. I don’t think I realized that Coffy was the first one in the series. Somehow it just found its way into my hand on that day and I took it home. 

I enjoyed Coffy very much, and I eventually bought a copy on VHS that looked exactly like the one pictured to the left. I rented Foxy Brown and Friday Foster fairly quickly after watching Coffy, but I did not rent Sheba, Baby. This is because I had read reviews that suggested that Sheba, Baby was the weakest of the Big Four Pam Grier movies. In fact, I had read reviews that said Sheba, Baby was downright bad. I guess I didn’t want to tarnish the experience of the other three movies by watching this one. 

Years later, I found a copy of Sheba, Baby for sale in a bargain bin. I had already collected the other three movies, as well as The Big Doll House (1971), Women in CagesThe Big Bird Cage (1972), Scream Blacula Scream (1973) and Bucktown (1975). As a completist, I figured that I had to have Sheba, Baby in my collection as well – even if it was a disappointment – so, I bought it and took it home. 

When I finally watched it, I was pleasantly surprised. Maybe my expectations were so low that I had perfectly prepared myself for this movie. It was the weakest of the Big Four in a lot of ways, but it struck me as a darn entertaining movie. Sure, it was basically a PG film rather than the hard R-rated fare that we had come to expect from Pam Grier. Sure, the violence was majorly toned down. Sure, there was only a brief glimpse of partial nudity instead of the eye-popping exploitation on display in many of the other films. Truth be told, Sheba, Baby was actually pretty tasteful – which is why some appreciators of the other three Big Four movies dismissed it. But I watched it KNOWING all that stuff and I was prepared to hate it… but somehow I just couldn’t.

From the very first frame of the film I knew I was in for a good time. The music, by Monk Higgins & Alex Brown, instantly grabbed my ears and held on tight. By the time we got to the opening titles of the film, and Barbara Mason began to sing, I knew that I had to have this soundtrack in my collection. Since then, I have listened to it countless times as I walk around the city streets wearing my iPod – much the way Pam Grier walks around the streets of Chicago during the opening credits of Sheba, Baby. (minus the iPod, of course). It’s a simple sequence in the movie, but for some reason it really spoke to me. And now I tell anyone who’ll listen that the soundtrack of Sheba, Baby is the perfect walking music. 

I also loved the fact that Pam Grier plays a private detective in this movie. I’ve always been partial to private detective stories; movies like The Maltese Falcon (1941), of course, but also the TV shows of my youth, like Remington Steele (1982–1987). Remington Steele is about a brilliant female private detective who has to create a fake male detective boss in order to get hired. Surprisingly, Sheba Shayne also has a male detective partner/colleague, and he seems to be the less competent member of the team. We don’t learn very much about him, because Sheba almost instantly finds herself travelling to Louisville to help her father, who has run afoul of some nasty gangsters.

Sheba’s father’s business associate is played by Austen Stoker, whom I have liked since first seeing him in Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). And since he is in the opening scene of Sheba, Baby, this might be another reason that I found myself instantly enjoying the movie. We eventually learn that Stoker’s character, Brick Williams, shares a bit of a romantic history with Sheba – and the two of them wind up working together to defeat the bad guys.

There is plenty of action in Sheba, Baby. It’s just not the edgy, extremely violent kind of action that is present in films like Coffy. I suspect that the producers must have been interested in reaching a more general audience with this film. I’m not sure if it worked. Some have suggested that this movie marked the end of Pam Grier’s reign as Queen of Blaxploitation movies – even going so far as to blame this movie for ruining the winning formula (extreme violence and exploitation). I’m not sure that the filmmakers made the right choice in toning things down for Sheba, Baby, but I have found that the movie has grown on me more and more every time I watch it. In fact, I may have watched it more times than any of the other Big Four Pam Grier films. Not because I think it’s the best. Objectively, I know that it’s not the best. But somehow I find it irresistible. 

Sheba, Baby was directed by William Girdler, who is best known for making Grizzly (1976) and The Manitou (1978). He also made another not quite classic Blaxploitation film called Abby (1974) – and probably could have gone on to make many more cinematic delights –  but, sadly, he died two years after completing Sheba, Baby, at age 30. 

D’Urville Martin plays Pilot, one of the main bad guys. He was in many great Blaxploitation films, such as Black Caesar (1973), Five on the Black Hand Side (1973), and the legendary Dolemite (1975). Sadly, he died in 1984 at the age of 45.

Sheba, Baby (1975) is not the greatest Blaxploitation film; it’s not the greatest Pam Grier film. It’s probably not even the greatest William Girdler film. But for some reason, it’s one of my personal favourites. It’s the kind of #NotQuiteClassicCinema that I could watch – and enjoy -on any #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Trick Baby (1972)

I did not see Trick Baby (1972) back in the 1970s or even the 1980s. It was not the first so called Blaxploitation film – or even the second or the third – that I ever saw. I had never even heard of it until I stumbled upon a VHS copy back in the early 2000s. Of course I immediately bought it, as I’d long before discovered that I had an appreciation for these somewhat forgotten pieces of 1970s cinema. And I was not disappointed with this particular example of the genre.

If you are unfamiliar with the term Blaxploitation, you can read detailed explanations on Wikipedia or Encyclopaedia Britannica. 

It is generally accepted that the two movies that started the genre proper were Shaft (1971) and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), so Trick Baby (1972) was a relatively early entry in what quickly became an overcrowded competition for box office dollars. According to Wikipedia, the film cost about $600,000 to make and it grossed $11,000,000 – a considerable profit. So how is it that I’d never heard of it before?

I suppose one reason might be that it didn’t lead to sequels, like Shaft did. Nor did it spark a bunch of similar films starring the same actor(s), a la Pam Grier with Coffy (1973). But I suppose none of this really matters. The fact is that Trick Baby is an excellent crime film. It’s clever, suspenseful, and features a few twists and turns that keep you interested in finding out what’s going to happen. Most importantly, you care about the characters. 

When we first meet ‘Folks and Blue (played by Kiel Martin and Mel Stewart), they are in the midst or ripping someone off. But we are instantly sympathetic to them, because the person they are ripping off is a bad guy (racist, selfish – and in fact he believes that he is ripping off Blue). So, in a sense, the ‘victim’ of the con is getting exactly what he deserves. Not to mention that we can admire the skill, intelligence, and charisma that ‘Folks and Blue possess. They may technically be criminals, but they are kind of like Robin Hood (stealing from rich racists and giving to the poor – namely themselves).

I can think of a few modern films that feature main characters who are killing people (!), who don’t deserve to die, for incredibly selfish reasons – and the filmmakers seem to be asking us to sympathize with the killers! Or to at least to find them interesting for 90 minutes. I find many of those films hard to get through – and I certainly don’t care what happens to the main characters. In fact, I find myself rooting for their victims (and getting no satisfaction, unfortunately). John Waters knew how to make it work in Serial Mom (1994), and Larry Yust, and presumably Iceberg Slim (who wrote the novel), knew how to make it work in Trick Baby. ‘Folks and Blue aren’t even killing people, but they could have been unsympathetic in the hands of less competent writers and directors. The makers of certain modern films should have watched Trick Baby before they put pen to paper, or hit the record button on their cameras. 

I’m purposely not naming any of the offending films or filmmakers because I’m not here to trash other people’s work. And I’m sure that some people LIKE those recent films that I believe are failures. To each their own, as the saying goes. But I would watch Trick Baby a thousand times before I would re-watch any of them. 

Trick Baby (1972) is a #NotQuiteClassicCinema favourite. It has a sense of humour, but it also manages to generate suspense from its earliest moments and then slowly increase the tension over the course of the entire film. A rare feat, in my opinion. You know it’s going to be a memorable #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn when Trick Baby is on the marquee.