#449) Shaft (1971)
OR “Stop! Or This Mother Will Shoot”
Directed by Gordon Parks
Written by Ernest Tidyman and John D.F. Black. Based on the novel by Tidyman.
Class of 2000
The Plot: Richard Roundtree is John Shaft, the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks. Shaft is summoned to the office of Harlam’s organized crime boss Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn), who hires Shaft to track down his kidnapped daughter Marcy (Sherri Brewer). Shaft uses his connections with the police department as well as with other gangs to track down the kindappers, learning in the process about an all-out race war the local Mafiosi is planning. Luckily, Shaft is the cat that won’t cop out when there’s danger all about.
Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film’s “vibrant life”, highlighting Gordon Parks, Richard Roundtree, and composer Isaac Hayes.
But Does It Really?: It’s far from a perfect movie, and the blaxploitation genre is a tricky one to discuss through a modern lens, but if you’re willing to go along with it, “Shaft” manages to still be a fun ride 50 years later. In an era dominated by anti-heroes and racial oppression, Shaft tows the line as a strong African-American lead who talks back to the white establishment, solves the mystery, and gets the girl (several girls, actually). Everything about “Shaft” has remained iconic after all these years, from Richard Roundtree’s performance to Isaac Hayes’ unforgettable opening number. No argument here for the inclusion of “Shaft” on the NFR.
Everybody Gets One: Richard Roundtree was one of the first members of New York’s Negro Ensemble Company, and “Shaft” was his first starring role in a movie, and only his second film! Although he will always be John Shaft, Roundtree has spent the last 50 years working in both film and television.
Wow, That’s Dated: “Shaft” is one of several NFR entries that highlight the gritty, dirty New York of the 1970s, to say nothing of the complex race relations of the immediate post-Civil Rights era.
Title Track: Isaac Hayes auditioned to write the score for “Shaft” by composing the opening sequence. The producers loved Hayes’ submission, and he got the job. The opening theme was originally an instrumental, and MGM requested that Hayes write some lyrics. Hayes jotted down the lyrics in 20 minutes, and the rest is history.
Seriously, Oscars?: “Shaft” was an unexpected hit, and saved MGM from bankruptcy (for the time being). Isaac Hayes received two Oscar nominations for the film; he lost Original Score to Michel Legrand for “Summer of ‘42” (seriously, Oscars?), but “Theme from Shaft” won Best Song, making Hayes the first African-American to win the award. Hayes’ performance of the song on the Oscar telecast is still considered one of the best musical numbers in Oscar history (low bar, but still…).
- “Shaft” is a total 180 from Gordon Parks’ other NFR entry; the gentle coming-of-age drama “The Learning Tree“. Parks said he chose “Shaft” as his next film to prove to studio heads that he could direct a wide variety of films. Parks’ single greatest artistic choice was casting a black actor as Shaft (the character was white in the original novel). This was a conscious effort by Parks to “appeal to a black urban audience, along with contiguous white youths.”
- What can I say about that opening? Roundtree makes the simple act of walking look impossibly cool, and Hayes’ song amps everything up. Side Note: Look for a copy of Essence Magazine in the newspaper stand. The magazine was co-founded by…Gordon Parks! Man, he had a finger in every pie!
- Speaking of, Parks’ former life as a photographer comes through in the film’s distinctive but never distracting cinematography, courtesy of cinematographer Urs Furrer. Like Hayes’ score, Furrer’s camera always presents Shaft as a man on the move.
- Shoutout to Off-Broadway legend Moses Gunn, giving a nice noir touch to Bumpy Jonas.
- This movie does not shy away from the complexity of Shaft working within a predominantly white police force. Part of Shaft’s relatability is his outsider status to everyone in this movie: the black characters feel he’s sold out to the white characters, and the white characters refuse to see him as their equal. It’s a tricky line to walk, but Roundtree covers it without evoking false sympathy for the character.
- Stage actor Rex Robbins plays Rollie, one of the first openly gay characters in a mainstream movie. Sure, he’s a one note stereotype, but in the age of “The Boys in the Band” this is as good as it gets.
- The rescue mission finale may be a bit extreme, but it’s also a lot of fun. You’ve spent all this time with Shaft and seen what he’s up against, and this all culminates in a very satisfying ending.
- While not the first blaxploitation movie (Hey there, “Sweet Sweetback”), “Shaft” was the first to have crossover success, and greatly influenced the genre. Many will look to the work of Pam Grier and Melvin Van Peebles, but I, as always, will single out “Blacula”. It’s the King of Cartoons, you guys!
- “Shaft” received two immediate follow-ups, both with Roundtree reprising his role. Like many a sequel to a classic movie, “Shaft’s Big Score!” and “Shaft in Africa” saw diminishing returns compared to the original.
- Richard Roundtree also returned to play Shaft in the 1973 TV series of the same name. The subject matter was toned down for primetime CBS, and the series was cancelled after seven episodes.
- “Shaft” has had not one, but two soft reboots. The 2000 update (also called “Shaft”) saw Samuel L. Jackson as the nephew of Richard Roundtree’s Shaft. The 2019 update (also called “Shaft”) saw Jesse T. Usher as the son of Samuel L. Jackson’s Shaft, and the grandson of Richard Roundtree’s Shaft (retconning their relation in the 2000 film). Neither of these reboots caught on with moviegoers.
- And of course, Isaac Hayes’ career skyrocketed following the success of “Shaft”, and while he had an over 30 year run as a composer and musician, he is probably best remembered as Chef from “South Park”.
Listen To This: Unsurprisingly, the original soundtrack of “Shaft” is on the National Recording Registry. The Registry’s write up calls the album “as innovative and exciting as the film”, and includes an essay by Blaxploitation expert Josiah Howard. Right on.
Further Viewing/Listen To This, Too!: Gordon Parks’ son, Gordon Parks Jr., also made a popular, influential blaxploitation film: 1972’s “Super Fly”. The film itself has yet to make the Registry, but its soundtrack made the National Recording Registry in 2018.