There's a funny schizophrenia occurring in the 1975 Pam Grier vehicle Sheba, Baby. It was the final film on Grier's original contract with American International Pictures (AIP), the company that had helped make her a star with Coffy and Foxy Brown, but Grier was getting tired of playing revenge-seeking pseudo-prostitutes, no matter how badass. And so, to make their big name happy, AIP made Sheba, Baby PG-rated and offered Grier the role of private detective Sheba Shayne. But here's where the schizophrenia first comes in: Sheba, Baby is still incredibly violent for a PG flick and Sheba spends more time seeking revenge (like her previous characters) than doing any real private detective stuff.
Producer David Sheldon and director William Girdler, who allegedly churned out the script for Sheba, Baby together in a night, put their heroine on the trail of a barely coherent scheme to buy out all the easy-loan places in the black areas of Louisville, Kentucky. Sheba's dad Andy Shane (Rudy Challenger), who sweetly calls our heroine "Little Andy," runs one of these loan spots, and he's getting pressured by gangsters to sell. Andy refuses, so both he and his shop end up shot full of holes. Sheba goes out on the warpath, sometimes helped and sometimes hindered by her father's partner Brick (Assault on Precinct 13's Austin Stoker). After roughing up some low-level dudes, she finds out that the head gangster is a weasel named Pilot (Dolemite's D'Urville Martin) and goes after him. After Pilot men's attempt to ambush her, she eventually corners the big man at the Kentucky State Fair (production value!). Jamming Pilot's neck up against the tracks of a roller coaster, Sheba manages to get him to confess that the real Big Bad is a yacht-owning white dude nicknamed Shark (Dick Merrifield). All that's left for Sheba to do is to get on that boat and get that father-killing mutha.
Even though it's arguable whether or not any of the flicks Pam Grier headlined for AIP are actually good movies -- Coffy has its inventive moments certainly, but Foxy Brown drags more than it should* -- Sheba, Baby is easily the least of the run. William Girdler lacks the panache of Grier's prior collaborator Jack Hill, either with a pen or a camera, and the majority of the dialogue, performances, and visuals lay flat. The action scenes are pretty peppy -- Girdler's not inept, just not particularly clever -- and character actor Christipher Joy adds some pizzazz and humor to his brief turn as a "walking pawn shop" in a pimp coat who gets interrogated by Sheba inside a car wash. (Watch out for that hot wax!)
Even with its weaknesses, I still mostly enjoyed my time watching Sheba, Baby. Pam Grier is stunning as always, and the flick moves at a good clip to prevent too much extended boredom. If you haven't seen any of Grier's '70s-era flicks, I would not start here. If you're already in the fan club, jump right in.
*I haven't seen Friday Foster, so I can't properly weigh in on that one.