Shaft (1971)

Director: Gordon Parks

One of the relatively few films on the Drive-In Delirium list that also appears on the 1001 Movies list, but then it is a pretty important one, pretty much birthing the blaxploitation trend. Maybe not quite the first of its kind as such, but the defining example of it nonetheless, and an epic hit (something like $13m box office returns on a $500,000 budget) that ensured a whole lot more of this sort of thing would (and did) follow in its wake. And though black audiences were no doubt the primary target, white audiences seem to have responded to it just as strongly. Cos damn, who, black or white, wouldn’t want to be as cool as Shaft? Rocking a mean trenchcoat, getting laid with conspicuous ease, unfazed by and unafraid of anything, all the things I can barely even aspire to… It apparently did cop some criticism in the day for basically just being a fairly classical crime thriller, only with a black detective hero—presumably on the thesis that all stories about black people should be about the problems they face, because black people are problems more than they are people—but surely that was kind of the point of it, i.e. to show a black person as a success, not just a menial figure or comic relief, and lording it over white authority to boot… And even though the plot—one group of crooks muscling in on another’s territory and the complications that ensue therefrom—goes back to the 30s gangster films, the potential race war that could result from the white Mafia going up against black hoods is a lot more of its time and the classic gangster film would hardly have gone near it. Anyway—the story is hardly the point; the point of Shaft is Shaft himself, this being of effortless cool embodied so splendidly by Richard Roundtree with magnetism to spare. It really is one of those films where a lesser central performance could harm the film badly, and yet Roundtree just nails it somehow; not bad for what was effectively a debut film role. And the Isaac Hayes score is just the icing on the cake, isn’t it, also perfectly right for the images it accompanies. Terrific entertainment.

2 thoughts on “Shaft (1971)

  1. SJHoneywell June 23, 2014 at 1:51 am

    I like Shaft a lot because it’s a lot smarter than people give it credit for being. If it were a typical film of this genre, it would be all about black vs. white. The moment in the film that turns it for me is when one of the cops, explaining the situation, says that it’s about money but that people will see it as black vs. white–that the perception is important because that perception is different from the reality. It’s a nice bit of awareness that shows this film wants to be more than just exploitative.

    And on top of this, the title track is arguably the greatest movie title song in history. And we learn everything we need to know about John Shaft by watching him walk through his city before a word is spoken.

  2. Thom Hickey June 23, 2014 at 4:00 am

    Thanks. Pleased to have discovered your blog. Lots to read. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox (give it a spin)

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