Black Directors Feature #1 – Shaft (1971)

ShaftShaft (1971)
Directed by: Gordon Parks
Written by: Ernest Tidyman, John D.F. Black (Based on Shaft by Ernest Tidyman)
Starring: Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn, Charles Cioffi, Christopher St. John

Gordon Parks’ Shaft is perhaps one of the most important and revolutionary modern African-American films, regardless of what your personal opinion may be of the film.  Some see it as a goofy example of why the blaxploitation genre was allowed to flourish in 1970’s America, and others see it as the classic and highly influential – but flawed – action-crime film that it is.  Prior to directing an adaptation of Ernest Tidyman’s novel, Gordon Parks had a great many professions.  Parks found his calling in both professional, commercial, and government photography throughout the 1940’s, having enormous success.  His most notable success came with his iconic take on Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting, titled American Gothic, Washington, D.C.  With a number of famous pieces in Life magazine, which detailed everyday struggles for African-Americans in the Southern states during the 1950’s, as well as consulting on a number of Hollywood films throughout the decade, it’s clear that Gordon Parks knew his way around a camera.  After a number of documentaries about black life in America, Parks got his first major break in the form of The Learning Tree, an autobiographical film (and novel) about growing up and dealing with discrimination in rural Kansas.  After the success of The Learning Tree, Parks was ready for the big time.  Sporting one of the most widely recognized movie soundtracks of the era, Shaft came in guns blazing in the summer of 1971.  The film was made on a shoestring budget of just $500,000, and made more than $13 million at the box office by the end of its theater life.  The success of the film spawned six more novels, two sequels, a sequel/reboot in 2000, and a television series.  The film won the Academy Award for Best Original Song for Isaac Hayes’ famed “Theme from Shaft”, and also gave Hayes a nomination for Best Original Score.

Shaft (1)

The film starts by immediately introducing our lead character, private detective John Shaft (Richard Roundtree).  Shaft is no-nonsense, tough, cool, and knows the streets like the back of his hand.  After finding out that he’s being looked for by two gangsters, Shaft tracks them down and finds out that Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn), the leader of a famous Harlem crime family, wanted the detective brought to him for a face-to-face meeting.  Without the permission of his superiors, John Shaft arranges to meet alone with Bumpy.  It’s soon revealed that Bumpy’s daughter Marcy (Sherri Brewer) has gone missing, and Bumpy wants to hire the services of detective Shaft in order to track her down and bring her home alive.  After a shootout targeted at John Shaft, the detective learns from Lieutenant Vic Androzzi (Charles Cioffi) about an ongoing conspiracy that could turn into an all-out race war in the streets of Harlem.  After some sleuthing from the wizened P.I., Shaft and Ben Buford (Christopher St. John) track down Marcy Jonas, but rescuing her won’t be easy.  Can John Shaft and his few allies rescue the young girl and return her to her powerful father, or will it all be too much for even the famed detective to overcome?  You’ll have to check out Shaft to find out.  Can you dig it?

Parks’ Shaft is a film I went into with extremely low expectations.  I had seen the attempted reboot a couple of times as a kid, and saw the character parodied countless times over the years.  These things had undoubtedly warped my perception of the film into a fairly negative viewpoint.  To say that I my expectations were far exceeded would be an understated, as Shaft is a film that completely took me by surprise.  Having only some idea of the movie’s reputation before seeing it, I was completely floored with just how “cool” the film felt, even more than forty years after the fact.  This sense is definitely helped by Richard Roundtree’s excellent portrayal of the John Shaft character.  Roundtree is completely unblinking and serious throughout the entire film, almost never showing his weak or comedic side to those around him – even when in the process of cracking wise.  He’s charismatic as hell, can charm any woman into going to bed with him, and can make even the toughest of foes feel small and powerless in his wake.  There’s no wonder why John Shaft quickly became one of the most influential black characters in American film history – the guy is just so damn cool.  He’s somebody that almost anybody out there would like to resemble, even in some small way.  He may not be a perfect picture of a sound set of morals and ethics, but he’s just so cool!  Adding to the film’s groovy atmosphere is Isaac Hayes’ incredible soundtrack, which never feels overbearing and never overstays its welcome.  Every piece of music suits the film’s time period and setting, and sounds meticulously composed and laid out for the film.  Shaft’s general story-line never feels unbelievable or over-the-top, and never falls into the overly complicated pitfalls of some of its contemporaries.  The bad guys are despicable, and you want nothing but for John Shaft and his comrades to give them an ass-whooping they’ll never forget.  It’s everything an action film should be, and I feel like a lot of modern films could learn from its general plot structure.

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Shaft is a terrific piece of African American film making from a period not too far removed from the time of the Malcolm X’s and Martin Luther King’s of 1960’s America.  It’s a triumph for the community, as it never falls into stereotypes or an overly-preachy message.  Gordon Park’s success with the film paved the way for generations of black filmmakers in Hollywood, and Shaft’s influence is still being felt to this very day.  It features an effortlessly charismatic performance by Richard Roundtree, one of cinema’s all-time great scores by Isaac Hayes, some terrific action set pieces, and very resourceful use of its minuscule budget.  Shaft is cool as hell, and I hope everybody reading this gives it a chance.  It’s highly recommended.

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