Director: Gordon Parks
Production: MGM, Shaft Productions Ltd.; distributed by MGMUA; color, 35mm; running time: 98 minutes. Released July 1971, USA. Cost: $1.5 million.
Producers: Joel Freeman, David Golden (associate); screenplay: Ernest Tidyman, John D. F. Black; cinematography: Urs Furrer; editor: Hugh Robertson; sound: Lee Bost, Hal Watkins; art director: Emanuel Gerard; costume designer: Joseph Aulisi; original music: Isaac Hayes; makeup: Martin Bell; casting: Judith Lamb.
Cast: Richard Roundtree ( John Shaft ); Moses Gunn ( Bumpy Jonas ); Charles Cioffi ( Lieutenant Victor Androzzi ); Christopher St. John
Oscar Award for Best Music, Song (Isaac Hayes), 1972; Golden Globe Award
for Best Original Score (Isaac Hayes), 1972; Grammy Award for Best
Original Score written for a Motion Picture (Isaac Hayes), 1972; MTV Movie
Award for Lifetime Achievement (Richard Roundtree), 1994.
Tidyman, Ernest, Shaft , New York, 1971.
Parish, James, Black Action Films , Jefferson, North Carolina, 1989; revised, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1993.
Guerrero, Ed, Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film , Philadelphia, 1993.
Belton, John, American Cinema/American Culture , New York, 1994.
James, Darius (a.k.a. Dr. Snakeskin), That's Blaxploitation! Roots of the Baadasssss 'Tude (Rated X by an All-Whyte Jury) , New York, 1995.
Martinez, Gerald, Diana Martinez, and Andres Chavez, What It Is. . . What It Was! The Black Film Explosion of the 70s in Words and Pictures , New York, 1998.
Bannon, Barbara, "What's Happening to Ernest Tidyman's ' Shaft ' On the Way to the Screen," in Publishers Weekly , April 1971.
Canby, Vincent, "' Shaft '—At Last, a Good Saturday Night Movie," in New York Times , 11 July 1971.
Oberbeck, S. K, "Black Eye," in Newsweek , 19 July 1971.
Riley, Clayton, "A Black Movie for White Audiences?" in New York Times , 25 July 1971.
Elson, John T, "Black Moses," in Time , 20 December 1971.
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"He's cool and tough. He's a black private dick who's a sex machine with all the chicks. He doesn't take orders from anybody, black or white, but he'd risk his neck for his brother man. I'm talkin' about Shaft. Can you dig it?" These lines, from Isaac Hayes' Oscar Award-winning "Theme from Shaft ," serves as a good introduction to Richard Roundtree's African American hero/rebel/icon John Shaft, eponymous star of the wildly successful 1971 feature film directed by Gordon Parks. One of the first entries to fall under the controversial heading of "blaxploitation" cinema, Shaft followed directly on the heels of Martin Van Peeble's Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song (1971), and is widely acknowledged as the film which initiated the black film explosion of the 1970s (along with Superfly , directed by Parks' son, and released one year later).
Shaft 's screenplay was written by Ernest Tidyman, author of a series of popular detective novels featuring the film's protagonist. (Tidyman would go on to win an Oscar for Best Screenplay in 1972 for his work on William Friedkin's The French Connection. ) After the success of Sweetback , MGM gave Parks the go-ahead—and a modest (even for the time) $1.5 million budget—for a project which would hopefully capitalize on the fast-emerging black market. Parks was already an extremely accomplished individual, having a reputation as one of America's preeminent still photographers of African descent (his work appeared in Life magazine from the 1940s through the late 1960s), as well as being an esteemed author, composer, and filmmaker. In 1969, Parks became the first African American to direct a major studio production, the autobiographical The Learning Tree. Parks wanted a fresh face to play the lead role in his new film, and found exactly what he was looking for in Roundtree, a former Ebony model and occasional theatre actor whose looks, ability, and physical presence provided just the right combination of machismo, virility, and confidence for the part.
Shaft 's convoluted plot is actually fairly standard hard-boiled detective fare. After inadvertently causing the death of a gangster who showed up at his office for some unexplained reason, John Shaft is coerced by a pair of white police inspectors to help them gather information about a gang war rumored to be taking place in Harlem. Meanwhile, a drug-dealing black godfather, Bumpy Jonas (played wonderfully by Moses Gunn), hires Shaft to save his daughter from the people who have recently kidnapped her. This turns out to be the Italian mafia, so with the help of a former comrade (Ben Buford, played by Christopher St. John) and his cadre of black nationalist followers, Shaft undertakes a dangerous but ultimately successful rescue mission. All of this non-stop action is interrupted by dated romantic interludes (Shaft seems to have no qualms about cheating on his girlfriend, and proves himself an equal-opportunity lover), and opportunities for Shaft to make whitey look square, stupid, or worse.
If ever there existed a film in which the narrative is simply a vehicle for showcasing a particular character, Shaft is it. Together, Tidyman, Parks, and Roundtree created a strong black hero who—for the first time in Hollywood cinema—made his own rules, listened to no one, gave the orders instead of taking them, and was not in the least afraid of making jokes at the expense of white authority figures. It is worth comparing Roundtree's character with those so often portrayed by legendary African American thespian Sidney Poitier, figures who were polite, elegant, and generally acceptable to caucasian audiences. Shaft 's revolutionary implications are inadvertently revealed in the press booklet accompanying its release, which protests (too strongly) that the film "has a black hero, but don't confuse that with a message— it's for fun!" Despite its subversive protagonist and militant undertones, Shaft did remarkable business among both black and white audiences, eventually grossing over $23 million at U.S. box offices alone. Such broad-ranging success can only be explained by the fact that Shaft is perfectly comfortable in any situation, with people of every stripe (including a blatantly typecast homosexual bartender, who feels compelled to pinch his butt), and that his magnetism and coolness under fire transcend mere color boundaries.
None of this, however, is to say that Parks' film escaped all criticism. Like so many of its blaxploitation offspring, Shaft was accused of perpetuating negative stereotypes of African Americans, including promiscuity, immorality, and a propensity towards violence. In another vein, black cultural critics such as Darius James have argued that Shaft —which originally had a white man in the title role—is merely "a conventional action film for general audiences, enlivened by its Black cast members." In interviews, Martin Van Peebles concurs with this assessment and goes even further, asserting that while John Shaft is allowed to be flamboyant and do little things, the film's subliminal message is actually counterrevolutionary—that a white authority figure (the police commissioner) is still there hovering over him, simply tolerating his excesses.
Whether Shaft is of any political or ideological value for African Americans remains a debatable issue. What cannot be denied is the impact the picture has had on later black (and white) filmmakers. Boyz N The Hood (1991) director John Singleton eloquently sums up this complex legacy when he writes, "Mind you, it's not a perfect movie. But. . . you have a whole generation totally influenced by the image of a Black man walking down the street in a leather coat, walking through Harlem; the close-ups on his face." And it should not be forgotten that Hayes' score for the film was groundbreaking in that here, music effectively led the narrative. Following on the heels of Shaft 's success, Parks, Tidyman, and Roundtree collaborated on a sequel in 1972, Shaft's Big Score! John Guillermin's Shaft In Africa arrived in theatres the next year. And with a blaxploitation revival gaining steam in the late 1990s ( Original Gangstas , Jackie Brown ), Roundtree—who made only $13,000 for his work in the original—is slated to reprise his signature role in Singleton's Shaft Returns (2000).