Movies Against Whitey - Shaft (1971)
Maybe I’m just an east coast kind of guy.
See, with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song [SSBS], all the action happened on the west coast, hence the dash to the Mexican border. When it comes to the next film in the MAW, there’s nowhere you can run, nowhere you can hide from the black fighter dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks:
You’re damn right.
While there are some similarities between the two films, Shaft is probably the best example of Blaxploitation and the formula that most films of the genre tend to emulate. Sure, SSBS gets points for being raw and avant-garde, but at times it also felt amateurish with its questionable acting and underlit cinematography. In all fairness, that’s most likely due to the fact that it was a privately funded independent feature. With Shaft, the Hollywood polish is present from the second the film opens: the way the movie looks, feels and sounds. We’ll get into all that in a second, but first, let me tell you about Shaft to see if you’re gonna dig it:
A turf war is brewing. As the Mafia look to make inroads into Harlem, they kidnap a local crimelord’s daughter to show they mean business and ensure they get a piece of the action. But they didn’t count on one man: John Shaft, a private investigator with ties to both the police and the Revolution…and doesn’t take shit from either. With the crimelord’s money and the Revolution’s army, Shaft’ll get the girl back…and make damn sure whitey doesn’t get in his way!
Oh man, there’s so many things to love about this movie…so it’s no wonder that between this and SSBS, this is the one that most Blaxploitation filmmakers chose to follow, whether being serious or a parody, as somewhat recently demonstrated in 2009’s Black Dynamite. [A favorite here at the Cat! – Ed.] Why don’t we start with the man himself: Richard Roundtree as John Shaft, after all, the film opens on him roaming the streets of New York City. And even in these silent scenes, with nothing but the iconic theme from Isaac Hayes going in the background, you get the gist of who this guy is, but even if you somehow miss it, you’ll definitely catch on within the first 5 minutes: an independent brother that doesn’t take any crap from anyone. And holy heck does Roundtree personify this to a tee. Throughout the film, whether it’s crimelord Bumpy Jonas and his goons, revolutionary Ben Buford, Mafia stooges or, naturally, the white police, Roundtree makes it clear that he doesn’t have time for your shit, you’re on his time and his time is money. And if you don’t have money, he’s gonna take it out of your ass. Look, cinema has plenty of badasses, some of them can pull it off well, some of them can pull it off to a legendary level…and others try but utterly fail. Just in this one performance, I gotta say that Roundtree hits legendary. There’s never a moment where you don’t think this man wouldn’t whip your ass if he were so inclined.
Roundtree’s performance isn’t the only thing that gives Shaft his cool though. One also has to appreciate the way the character is constructed, from the writing, how he’s dressed and his surroundings, in particular his apartment and his office. To get the easy one out of the way first, his office isn’t someplace we spend a lot of time in, and given its spartan nature, it’s pretty clear he’s not there very often either. What is present though does tip its hat to the private detectives made popular by film noir and Mickey Spillane novels. His apartment, however, is the very opposite of this, lush, comfortable and downright cool. Two floors with an open floor plan, hardwood floors and one corner that looks like the ultimate 70s hi-fi heaven, it’s clearly a hell of a place to hang out. Now, when we move on to talk about costumes, well, whether or not they look dated is up to the eye of the beholder. You can definitely see the 70s vibe that’s going on, to be sure…but in all fairness, I’ll be damned if the right person couldn’t pull off that attire now too and still look sharp. That might just be me though. All that said, given where society was in the timeframe of the early 70s, it’s likely not a stretch to say that Shaft and the things he’s chosen to surround himself with end up giving this film a heavy slice of wish-fulfillment. Ask yourself, honestly, is there any moment of this picture where you wouldn’t want to be Shaft? [I’d prefer not to be shot, thanks! Even if it is just in the arm. – Ed.]
Another superlative that I have to comment on is how the city itself is a character in this movie. Throughout the running time, you never forget you’re in the Big Apple. You can feel the grit of it. Sure, this isn’t the poster child of urban decay that NYC would become in the late 70s and early 80s, but you can see it starting to happen which, in and of itself, gives the city some character. For me though, that stroll through the city during the opening credits, walking past all the movie theaters that would eventually become infamous as 42nd street…ah, it’s hard to describe, but I swear, the way that it’s shot, you can almost smell the air in the scene. And that’s a credit to the director, Gordon Parks. Not only the veteran of 5 films prior to Shaft, he was also a photographer not only for the US government during World War II, but also for Vogue and Life magazines as well as his own artistic expression. While sure, not every still from the movie is going to be a masterpiece, each scene is composed with a clear vision, instead of the sometimes more visually challenging shots presented in SSBS.
Speaking of Parks as well as this film’s place within the Blaxploitation genre, we do have to touch on the social commentary present within. Now, while being Hollywood funded, it’s not as direct and on the sleeve as SSBS, but it is present, in ways both subtle and not-so-subtle. For example, while yeah, Shaft has no love for the fuzz or the honkies that serve within it, there is a bare minimum of respect, as he uses them for information and he realizes that in order to get, sometimes he has to give too. But, he does make damn sure to establish the fact that the relationship’s terms are dictated by him, not the other way around. And by the end of the film, given the joking around, you can tell there might even be a glimmer of friendship between him and Police Lieutenant Vic Androzzi, played by Charles Cioffi. In an instance of subtle-but-obvious, we have the scene where Shaft is trying to flag down a cab…and nearly gets one, until a white fare emerges just a little bit down the street. The cab pulls away while his hand is on the door to pick up this seemingly ‘less threatening’ passenger. Also in this vein is the proliferation of the term ‘boy’ when any white person addresses either him or other persons of color in the film. If we switch to the not-so-subtle…well, just about any of Shaft’s interactions with the Mafia fit this bill nicely. All in all, I have to confess, I do tend to appreciate this approach more than SSBS’s. Weird to say it, but the Hollywood funded example, showing gradations of relationships between a black man and whitey, ends up being a bit more realistic than the independent ‘all whiteys are the devil’ approach of SSBS.
Of course, you can’t talk about Shaft without talking about Isaac Hayes’ music. Classic for it’s funk and main theme, it truly does compliment the film in the way that the best scores usually do. Just the theme alone, whether in the context of the film or just listening to it while out and about…man, if that doesn’t get you moving, check your pulse because you might be dead. Fond college memory alert: my friends and I would always listen to this while prepping for our intramural hockey games. Weird to think about that juxtaposition: playing the funkiest of music while prepping to play one of the whitest of sports.
Look, I could gush on and on about the film, I really could. It’s weird, I’ve watched Shaft before, but it was only while sitting down to watch it again for this review did I remember how much I really dig this movie. At 100 minutes, it’s a well-paced flick with action, social commentary and sex scenes that won’t make you cringe! There’s a reason why this franchise still pops its head up in modern times, to say nothing of the countless imitators that have issued forth since its release. Still very much a classic film, it’s very much worth your while to check this out if you haven’t already!
TLDR: There’s a reason why this film is credited with helping to found the Blaxploitation genre! As this film enters its 51st year, it’s still as much a classic now as it ever has been. If you haven’t seen it, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you allow that to continue any longer! This film is one bad mother...[Shut yo' mouth! - Ed.] and well worth our highest grade, the Hypno Cat!