Gordon Parks’ Shaft (1971) is one of the most influential blaxploitation films. It emerged early in the years of the blaxploitation genre and influenced it immensely. The film’s signature style was a mix between gritty street drama, and some good old fashioned low budget cheese. The character of John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) became the archetype of how blaxploitation characters would act and speak.
The film follows a private investigator from Harlem by the name of John Shaft. As Shaft would put it: “He don’t play by the man’s rules and looks out for his fellow brotha.” He is the master of jive talk, and kicks a lot of ass while somehow avoiding trouble with the cops until he gets a job from the local crime boss, Bumpy. Bumpy’s daughters been kidnapped and he wants Shaft to retrieve her. Shaft feels that something ain’t right, and gets caught in the middle of a turf war between Bumpy and the Italian Mob.
The story is the classic tale of a P.I. who takes on a case for mobsters but gets pulled into a complicated dispute. I’ve seen it so many times that it should be boring, but Shaft’s music and style carry the film. The film utilizes location and the moral ambiguity of the characters to bring out the grit of the story, but it also has a bunch of really cheesy moments. Any time Shaft talks, and especially when he talks to his cop friend or black militant friend, the dialogue taps some deep, crazy jive. Shaft constantly ends his sentences with the insult of “honky” or “turkey.” The jive talk makes all the expositional scenes much more entertaining.
The film had an estimated budget of budget of $1,125,000 according to IMDb. $1,000,000 is a small budget for a film, and Gordon Parks did not make an extravagant crime epic. The atmosphere of New York City keeps the film gritty and natural. The gunfights are fairly small-scale, but effective. The acting is cheesy, but it works to make the film fun. Richard Roundtree is a bonafide Cool Cat, primarily because Isaac Hayes composes perfect tunes to underscore his actions.
Shaft is an enjoyable and, at the same time, seminal film. I can definitely see its influence in other blaxploitation films. If you want to see a cool black guy kick ass who somehow manages to endearingly insult people of all races for being “jive turkeys,” while hearing some sweet tunes, then check it out. Next week I’ll take a look at the soundtrack and see how it holds up in the film, and on its own.
Favorite Scene: The climax of Shaft involves a very intense and well executed rescue mission. This rescue mission, led by Shaft, is the only scene in the film that makes me believe that Shaft is actually credible at his job.
Written by Tyler Ducheneaux
Images from Shaft