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Should I Watch..? 'Shaft' (1971)

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the big deal?

Shaft is an action crime drama film released in 1971 and is based on the novel of the same name by Ernest Tidyman, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Directed by Gordon Parks for his directorial debut, the film follows a black private detective in Harlem hired by mobsters to rescue a young woman kidnapped by Italian gangsters. The film stars Richard Roundtree in his film debut, Moses Gunn, Charles Cioffi, Christopher St John and Gwenn Mitchell. The film arguably helped kick off the Blaxploitation subgenre of cinema, focusing on African-American characters and stories in a way that conventional Hollywood traditionally eschews, and helped make Roundtree an icon. The film is also notable for its soundtrack composed by Isaac Hayes, which won numerous awards including an Oscar. The film was followed by two further sequels with Roundtree reprising in the lead in 1972 and 1973 before the character was revived in 2000 with Samuel L Jackson in the lead before another sequel in 2019. In 2000, the film was selected for preservation at the US National Film Registry for its historical, cultural and aesthetic significance.

Enjoyable

Shaft's opening scene & theme

What's it about?

John Shaft is a successful private investigator operating in New York in early 1971. Informed by one of his street informants that he is being sought by two gangsters, Shaft instead meets his police contact Lt. Vic Androzzi who attempts to identify those tailing Shaft. However, Shaft is his own man and returns to his office where the gangsters are waiting for him. Overcoming them with relative ease (sending one of them through a window, killing him), Shaft is told that local crime boss Bumpy Jonas is wanting to have a meeting with him. Dismissing the police investigation into the dead gangster outside his office, Shaft meets with Bumpy who hires him to rescue his daughter who has been kidnapped by the Italian-American Mafiosi.

Escaping an attempt on his life, Shaft discovers that tensions in New York are rising due to a forthcoming conflict between the Mafia operating downtown and the uptown hoods working for Bumpy. As far as the general population are concerned, it looks like a possible race war is coming. Caught between both sides, Shaft finds himself the target for both groups and knows he's gonna have to play rough in order to survive.

Main Cast

ActorRole

Richard Roundtree

John Shaft

Moses Gunn

Bumpy Jonas

Charles Cioffi

Lt. Vic Androzzi

Christopher St John

Ben Buford

Gwenn Mitchell

Ellie Moore

Lawrence Pressman

Tom Hannon

Antonio Fargas

Bunky

Technical Info

*based on the novel by Ernest Tidyman

DirectorGordon Parks

Screenplay

Ernest Tidyman & John D.F. Black*

Running Time

100 minutes

Release Date (US)

25th June, 1971

Rating

15 (1986 re-rating)

Genre

Action, Crime, Thriller

Academy Awards

Best Original Song

Academy Award Nominations

Best Original Score

The film's gritty realism and Roundtree's (left) performance elevate this standard cop drama into something iconic.

The film's gritty realism and Roundtree's (left) performance elevate this standard cop drama into something iconic.

What's to like?

Before the term Blaxploitation became associated with films like Super Fly and Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Shaft helped establish the genre by providing a gritty and authentic look at life for African American citizens in New York. In Shaft himself, it showed audiences a black man who had risen above oppression and made his life a success - the first time any audience had seen such a thing. Watching it these days, it is almost feels like it's trying too hard to appeal to black audiences but there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, audiences had been crying out for a film to do this for years. As a lead, Roundtree is the perfect fit for this near-mythical character - softly spoken and a powerfully attractive ladies man but brimming with violent potential and menace. It's no wonder that he was still playing the role of John Shaft in 2019's misfiring Shaft.

Filmed on location and using a largely unknown cast (these days, anyway) with the exception of a young Antonio Fargas, the film feels suitably atmospheric and genuine. The attitudes and language being used don't help the film much (although there is much less racist language than something like, say Training Day or Django Unchained) but it's unfortunate that the film deals with these issues at a time when they have sadly resurfaced. Sure, the fashions and hairstyles have aged about as well as the sequin-embellished cape jumpsuit but if you can get past that, what you'll find is a old-fashioned detective thriller that is well paced, well written and has some decent old-school action that feels more brutal than the CG-enhanced explosions and wirework we tend to see these days. It's good stuff.

Fun Facts

  • The character of John Shaft in Tidyman's original script was white (although in the novel, the character was black) but with Roundtree cast in the role, the film's entire dynamic was changed. In a sense, the film itself became a story as tales of the black crew behind the scenes were also used as part of the film's marketing. However, the film proved to be popular with both black and white audiences with US earnings of more than $12 million.
  • Isaac Hayes auditioned for the lead role but lost out to Roundtree. However, he impressed the filmmakers so much that they asked him to contribute to the soundtrack. Hayes' "Theme from Shaft" became his signature tune and made him the first African-American to win any non-acting category of Oscar in history.
  • In addition to the film marking the debuts of Roundtree and director Parks, the film also marked the on-screen debuts of Gwenn Mitchell, Rex Robbins (Rollie) and Drew Bundini Brown (Willy) and the only film credit for Sherri Brewer who played Bumpy's daughter Marcy.
  • Three generations of Shaft would appear on screen together for the 2019 version. Roundtree's John Shaft is the uncle of Samuel L Jackson's version of the character from 2000 and he in turn is the father of Jessie Usher's version of John Shaft in the 2019 film.

What's not to like?

Considering the film's importance and legacy, it's perhaps surprising how low budget Shaft feels when you first watch it - indie, almost. Made for just $500'000, the film looks as grubby and gritty as its urban jungle setting but lacks much of the studio spit-and-polish seen in another New York-based cop film from 1971, The French Connection. The film also lacks any genuine stand-out moments beyond the opening scene, which plays out alongside Hayes' iconic theme tune. When you think of The French Connection, you may recall the chase scene between Hackman in his car following an over-ground train on the New York Metro. There is nothing in Shaft that comes to mind other than the soundtrack - the closest the film gets to an exciting action scene is the explosive shootout finale, which isn't the most well-shot and is somewhat incoherent.

Curiously for a thriller, the film feels like a slow burner instead of grabbing you from the off. As undeniably cool as Shaft himself is, the language makes following the film's narrative tricky in parts to follow (remember that I am the whitest guy imaginable and one who grew up in rural Norfolk in the other side of the Atlantic). Like a good film noir, the film really comes together the longer you stick with it. But this is one film that has not aged that well, possibly due to being so closely associated with the Blaxploitation genre and their Seventies heyday. The fashions and styles, language and atmosphere keep the film rooted so strongly in that time period that it is unlikely to really appeal to modern viewers who are somehow unaware of this film's significance. Having said this, this film is markedly better than any of its follow-ups and sequels which have the difficult task of matching this film's intensity without looking like a pale imitation.

For the first time, cinema had a black hero who was successful in life and his work - the character became a sensation overnight and inspiration for millions.

For the first time, cinema had a black hero who was successful in life and his work - the character became a sensation overnight and inspiration for millions.

Should I watch it?

For what is actually a fairly average production, there is something that is genuinely exciting watching Shaft which has such a swagger and confidence to it that is infectious. With Isaac Hayes' timeless soundtrack and Roundtree's charismatic ladies man at the helm, the film becomes something more than the sum of its parts. But more than anything else, the film should be celebrated for opening so many doors to people of colour in the film industry - the film was not the first Blaxploitation film but it did establish the benchmark that countless other films have strived for ever since.

Great For: African-American audiences and aspiring filmmakers, Isaac Hayes, breaking down barriers

Not So Great For: so-called 'snowflakes', anyone unfamiliar with the Seventies, any of the misfiring sequels

What else should I watch?

The aforementioned Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is credited as being the first true Blaxploitation film, a film largely produced by Mario Van Peebles who also wrote, directed and starred in it. Although not widely praised at the time, the film's impact was huge and influenced generations of filmmakers such as Spike Lee who has previously hailed the film's importance. But if Shaft is the film that defines the genre then Pam Grier is arguably the star who defines it thanks to her star-making turns in films like Coffy and Foxy Brown. If you're just looking for films with amazing soundtracks to accompany the action then you're spoilt for choice. Super Fly with tunes by Curtis Mayfield is a great place to start but you could do worse than Across 110th Street and its theme tune by Bobby Womack or even Trouble Man and its wonderful score by Marvin Gaye. And while it might not be considered a proper Blaxploitation film, Live And Let Die sees James Bond get involved with drug dealers in Harlem and the despotic ruler of a Caribbean island played by Yaphet Kotto.

As for the rest of the Shaft family, I'm afraid that it's pretty slim pickings. The 2000 version of Shaft sees the lead played by the only man suitable for such a role - Samuel L Jackson as the nephew of Roundtree's character. But the film is a fairly forgettable tribute to the original film despite Jackson's performance and Christian Bale appearing as a slimy, racist murder suspect. However, the ill-advised 2019 version of Shaft is a light-hearted comedic parody that offers little in the way of laughs or originality. As for the original sequels, 1972's Shaft's Big Score! is a more polished affair that still won over critics and audiences alike while Shaft In Africa burst the bubble, failing to find much of a response. After this, the character would be banished to a short-lived TV series before the character was revived by Jackson and director John Singleton.

© 2021 Benjamin Cox

Soap Box

Pat Mills from East Chicago, Indiana on March 10, 2021:

Before Shaft, Parks made The Learning Tree in 1969. It is also in the National Film Registry.

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