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Shaft (1971)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

SHAFT (1971)

Starring: Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn, Charles Cioffi, Christopher St. John

Written By: Ernest Tidyman (also novel), John D.F. Black Directed By: Gordon Parks

The Shot

This classic standard bearer of the blaxploitation era may have its fair share of flaws, but it’s still a damn cool gangster flick that takes an incredible snapshot of its era and serves it up with dynamite attitude.  Shaft – you can dig it!

The Highball

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


On the surface, it’s black and it’s got bite.  Inside, it may have a bunch of holes in it, but it sure is tasty anyway.

Pairs Well With...

COLT 45.

Right on!  (Might as well get into the full spirit of things!)

“Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?”


“You’re damn right!”

So go the opening lyrics to the soul/funk classic that is Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning theme song for Shaft, which is, if one were to be honest, the main thing most people remember about this flick forty-five years on.  And that’s fine; it’s a great tune.  But… there’s way more to Shaft than cool music.  (And there’s way more to the cool music than just the theme, for that matter.  Give the whole movie a listen.)

For those who think of Shaft beyond the music, it is generally remembered as a classic of the “blaxploitation” movement (which was not entirely about exploitation, given that it did allow an avenue for black artists and technical professionals to find work telling their own stories, even if working for the studios usually meant “working for the man”), which it most certainly is, but…  When presented with the opportunity by some suits at MGM to direct this adaptation of Ernest Tidyman’s novel, Gordon Parks gave them something much more than a “black” action flick with a modest budget to cash in on a hot niche.  What more?  We’ll get there, but first, we’ve got to take a tour of Harlem, circa 1971.

It’s a Harlem that Parks and his Cinematographer and the rest of his assembled team want the audience to be fully immersed in, which is why they make sure that said audience spends a lot of time looking at urban montages backed up by the soulful rhythms of the aforementioned Mr. Hayes.  How much time?  Enough for someone to fully cook a modest dinner in the time that it takes John Shaft (played by the inimitable Richard Roundtree) to walk to his office, and then eat it before the movie actually gets to what some storytelling snobs might call “the actual story.”  Items like these, combined with a frankly needless subplot that takes up most of the second act and a final reckoning that is inordinately overcomplicated and much longer than it needs to be, might cause the casual (and/or contextually blind) viewer to dismiss Shaft outright as overdone, overrated cheese.  But considering Shaft so simply, especially four and a half decades on, is to miss the forest for the trees, because even though Parks and company do intend to transcend the simple label of “blaxploitation,” they nonetheless own the nature of the story they’re telling and the characters that make it go.

And so, they take the time to establish a setting that may only be a few blocks from Manhattan on a map but which in the general Hollywood culture experience of the era might as well have been on another planet.  For many, it was a revelation; for others, one of the first real, honest representations of their day-to-day world.  And that honesty is important, for while Shaft does often go for the quick exploitive stereotype when the fruit hangs low (“Up yours!”), it doesn’t stop there.  Shaft is a character, not a caricature.  He’s no cat’s fool and doesn’t take shit from The Man – any man, be he a white cop or a “wop” mobster or the boss of the most powerful black gang in Harlem – but he also makes no excuses for his socioeconomic circumstance (“born poor and black”) and refuses to count himself as a victim of anyone or anything.  He’s all too happy to literally throw an enforcer out the window just for refusing to knock, but he’s also got the smarts to trade places with a bartender and get a new set of adversaries drunk while waiting for the cops he’s slyly called to come pick them up.  He’s a “playa” who’s got at least two (black) ladies stashed in apartments who are at his beck and call for on camera sex and other domestic duties, and he’s more than happy to pick himself up a (white) woman at bar and get busy with some more on camera sex, but – okay, looks like at least one demographic really is getting exploited in this flick.  (The only other female character of note is a kidnap victim.)  Sorry, ladies.  Looks like we only get progress in steps.

With that said, watching Shaft, the observant viewer will soon come to realize that this private dick’s steps started all the way back at Sam Spade’s office a few decades before.  For just beneath the “blaxploitation” surface, Gordon Parks and company have actually made an old-fashioned film noir gangster flick.  Switch out Harlem for San Francisco, flip rough tenement settings for Market Street hotels, trade out “Close the door, baby.” / “Close it yourself, Shitty!” for “You go too far, Marlowe.” / “Those are harsh words to throw at a man, especially when he’s walking out of your bedroom.” …really, it’s not that far a stretch at all.  Old techniques, new neighborhood; a meeting of two cinematic styles heavily reliant upon atmosphere to work.  This attention to craft, I think, is just as important to this movie’s longevity as the music of Isaac Hayes.  Sure, the story of Shaft could have been told in half the time or less, and the climax could have been handled with much more excitement and efficiency, but doing things that way would have completely bypassed the point.

Trees, behold the forest.  And that is why people remember Shaft as the poster flick for the blaxploitation movement, and tend to forget the actual pioneer picture of the genre.  (I’ll let you look it up.)

The trailer for Shaft may overstep a little bit when it declares the title character to be “hotter than Bond” (easy there, cowboy), though there can be an argument made for “cooler than Bullitt.”  (Depends if you prefer guys who drive themselves or guys who walk and take taxicabs.)  But in any case, “If you wanna see Shaft,” you don’t need to “ask yo mama.”  Just go ahead and do it.  Because even forty-five years on, he’s still one baaaaaad mutha –

Hey, I’m talkin’ ‘bout Shaft.  And you can dig it.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, February, 2016

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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