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I saw this film when it came out. It was "different" and hence garnered attention from the movie going populace normally being fed mainstream private eye films. I didn't like it at the time but I went to the cinema with a girl I fancied and told her I liked it - as she seemed to find the film entertaining. (or did she just give that impression because she was trying to please me??) Just for old time's sake, I watched it the other night. 42 years had indeed changed my view - I detested the film! Wooden acting, desperately bad screenplay and plot. Cheap, nasty, depressing sets and photography. Everyone and his dog spitting out surly one liners that did little more than irritate. How on earth did this train wreck ever get any traction? The director, actors and everyone else involved in Shaft should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. I now realize why it was entitled "Shaft"; the movie going public got shafted. - and yes, that was a surly one-liner.. UGH! UGH! and double UGH!
This early Gordon Parks' film is a first in many ways. In the long list of Black movies which follow, this is the cornerstone. After the success of this film, Black actors became Gris for the Hollywood mill. It was called " Blxploitation " as in the Exploitation of the Black world. The innovative Movie is called " Shaft " and tells the story of John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) a Black Private investigator who is hired by 'Bumpy Jonas' (Moses Gunn) a ranking gangster for the Harlem district. Shaft is wrongly informed Ben Buford, (Christopher St, John) the head of the black underground has kidnapped his daughter. With a New York police detective (Vic Androzzi) Shaft enters the search only to discover the Mafia is involved. The world of John Shaft is dangerous, infested with mounting tensions and violent men. Still, this 'cool' private eye is a match against the elements and the sexy women who he seems to attract. In the annals of movie making this is a first in many ways and Roundtree is excellent in the first of several sequels and other black films which follow. ***
The original version of "Shaft" always surprised me whenever I watched
it, because its not what I expected at all. Those looking for an
over-the-top "Dolemite" style camp fest (or even one of the film's
sequels) will be quite disappointed. The original "Shaft" is a much
more low key and minimalist film. There's no sequences of flashy pimps
acting badass or anything along those lines. In fact, if the lead
character himself wasn't black, this would simply be an extraordinary
if enjoyable 70s cop thriller. It hasn't aged very well and the first
half is all setup and rather slowly paced. Still, I love 70s action
films like this so I wasn't bothered at all.
The film is a classic for several reasons. First, the lead performance by Richard Roundtree is iconic and still just as cool today. Hes tough and sexy, yet remains likable throughout. Hes a quintessential anti-hero and I'm shocked he didn't really crossover to become a major Hollywood player. His portrayal showed a lot of promise. Also, the photography of vintage NYC adds a sense of gritty realism missing from a lot of these films. Of course, one can't forget to mention Isaac Hayes' legendary score, which actually plays even better than the film itself nowadays. "Shaft" may be a bit dated, but its still quite entertaining to watch if you know what you're getting going in. (7/10)
In what is easily one of the most important films ever made, and an
excellent film in its own right, Director Gordon Parks, who at the
time, along with Ossie Davis and Melvin van Peebles were the only three
well-known minority directors, brings the "black style" of film-making
to the mainstream with Shaft, a crime-drama whose characters happened
to be black.
What set Shaft apart was that the film was shot by black people, and for a primarily black audience, where whites were treated only as welcome guests of the action. The characters, most notably Shaft (Richard Roundtree), could easily have been written as whites, but since they were written as black, they did not "act white." The film was a forerunner to what is now commonplace on networks like UPN, where shows like Martin present African-American culture much the way shows like Barney Miller did with white culture.
The theme song, historic itself, sent this film over the top in the best way possible. We all want to be Shaft at least once in our lives.
At the time SHAFT was released, it was a startling film... and watching
for the first time, it crossed a social line, and there was no going
Walls and conventions were crumbling in all of the arts. The biggest play in Broadway's history, the precedent breaking and iconoclastic Rado, Ragni and McDermott production "Hair", was playing in a dozen cities at once to sellout crowds. In the post Blacklist period, Joe McCarthy and HUAC were dead, and once again the films, books, and plays had a social message and tried hard to reflect the world as is really is. Sex and dirty words came springing triumphantly out of the closet, and it was anything goes.
On TV, Bill Cosby was costarring with Robert Culp in the breakout dramatic series I SPY. Dianne Carroll had her own integrated series, JULIA. Even in outer space Nichelle Nichols provided a Black presence as the competent communications officer Lt. Uhura aboard the Starship Enterprise in STAR TREK.
It was the time for Black talent to make it's presence known.
America was used to (and probably a bit bored with) the film noire private eye flicks we'd been watching since World War Two. They usually were based in New York City, and they were usually vehicles for hard boiled WHITE private dicks like Alan Ladd or Robert Mitchum. They were pure fantasy and they spun fantastic tales about a mythical underworld and thugs who came straight out of Dashiel Hammett novels. They were fun, but they never had the taste of reality, especially for Black audiences; there were virtually NO Black people in them, anywhere. The shadowy world of the private eye never rang true.
The first time I saw this film was in a theater with a totally Black audience. The effect on us was electrifying.
From the first fade-up when the lead guitar cranked up that Issac Hayes theme, SHAFT grabbed your attention! Tall, handsome Richard Roundtree in his leather coat, striding thru the big city traffic like a cowboy on horseback riding thru a herd of cattle... confident, comfortable, at home. This is HIS world, HIS city, and he OWNS it ALL... flip the finger to a cabbie who dares to honk at him! This isn't the film noire world of nightclubs, nondescript gangsters, and Dooley Wilson as the men's room attendant anymore... it's the REAL New York City, complete with the crowds, the traffic, the Harlem drug scene, Black revolutionaries, hip little bistros with Gay bartenders, and in the background an undercurrent of rising aspirations; of a Black man, running his OWN detective agency, and more important getting the RESPECT for his position from a White NYC police department detective.
Sorry Bogie... we still love ya, and tho Sam Spade was cool, there's no place for him in the world of John Shaft. Sam's day is over.
John Shaft isn't a lowly, subservient Steppin Fetchit darkie fumbling his way around in the White man's world, he's his OWN MAN... and he's big, bad, and bold enough to DEMAND that kind of respect! SHAFT was a detective for a new age... his message and image were aimed at Black Americans who were no longer content to be second class citizens who sat quietly in the back of the bus.
Today, SHAFT may seem commonplace and a bit boring. That's because this film, so explosive and revolutionary when it came out, did it's job and made the entire concept of a Black private eye seem completely plausible.
It's one of the best Blaxploitation films (as the genre came to be known). Well written and produced, even tho now it's a period piece, it can still hold it's own.
This known film deals about Shaft,an extremely tough and independent
detective contracted by Harlem's drug king called Bumpy(Moses Gunn)for
freeing his abducted daughter.Shaft running afoul into Harlem and
confronts a sinister monsters bands in order to rescue her.The
private-eye eliminates anyone who stands in this way on his objective
and breaks all the rules in going after baddies ,battling a variety of
bullies,besides avoiding the confronting between black gangs and white
gangs.He's helped by a Lt. chief Inspector called Vic(Charle Cioffi)
and by group of Black power followers(Christopher John).
This fist and guns opera features some passable acting,noisy action sequences,though no too much and is quite entertaining.It's an intriguing film,plenty of thriller,suspense,kinky sex and the action keeps things moving along .Violent,raw script by Ernest Tidyman(French connection).Special mention to soul musical score that still resonates by Isaac Hayes who won an Academy Award.The picture is professionally directed by Gordon Parks.The movie has violence,profanity and adult subject matter.The result is a strong entry for action buffs ,plus creating the blaxploitation sub-genre.It's followed by two inferior sequels with similar players : ¨Big score¨(Gordon Parks)with Moses Gunn and ¨Shaft in Africa¨(John Guillermin)with Vonetta McGee and a recent version(2000 by John Singleton) with Samuel L. Jackson and cameo by Richard Roundtree as the Shaft's uncle .
Yesterday here in Atlanta -- a city that's home to quite a few black men who
still dress like the guys in Shaft -- a theater about a block from me ran a
showing of Shaft in conjunction with an exhibit of Gordon Parks' photography
at a local museum. The audience was about 80 percent black and loved it --
as did I. As the movie played, people were singing along and yelling out the
lines in the movie. It was pretty clear that for the blacks in the audience,
this movie was something special and probably had been since it first came
For me, though, the best part of the movie was the peek you get at the total seediness of New York in the early 1970s. Cities were so ugly back then and NY was probably one of the absolute ugliest. From the 20-times-painted-over rowhouses to potholed streets to tacky, neon-wrapped storefronts and hookers, the NY of Shaft seems real down to the last bit. You can smell it, feel it, know just what it was like. Watching it last night, I realized why my German grandmother moved out of NY in 1979 -- her apartment, which once had been in a "poor" neighborhood turned into the kind of ghetto shown here and the entire city became a giant cesspit. Thank got NY has turned around since then.
Okay so there's a huge pile of films from the late 60's and early 70's that haven't worn well--- "Easyrider" leaps first to mind, but after seeing "Shaft" on TCM, we've got a new contender. I realize this is one that started the onslaught on our racial consciousness and while it's better than "Superfly," "The Mack," "Shaft in Africa," "Cleopatra Jones," et al, it's a shock to see how tacky things were 36 years ago. The hip lingo is horribly dated, the incessant reminders that us Caucasians are hopeless honkies is irritating and yeah, there's the wardrobe. I can't help it, it's distracting seeing middle aged guys wearing plaid suits with wide polyester ties (Starsky & Hutch fashion icon Antonio Fargas even has a cameo as a sidewalk informant) wearing laughable hats. Why did they have to throw in Shaft verschtionking a barfly when he's got a loyal (and far classier) woman back at the ranch? The plot is incredibly simplistic and is an ominous indicator of the even worse things to come in the Blaxploitation genre. Alright then, what's right? The late Gordon Parks could construct great complex exterior shots and draw out a fairly credible performance by the inexperienced Richard Roundtree. He could have been a whole lot worse. The best actor here is Moses Gunn (seen to better advantage in "Ragtime"). Ignoring Issac Hayes' title track lyrics that asks the rhetorical question, "who's the big Black private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks?" (yeesh... but I'm just talking' about SHAFT!), the soundtrack is pretty decent. So there's a lot to be embarrassed about for those involved but there's also some redeeming qualities to the movie. I rate it a 3 for 10.
I'm always weary of watching films that are revered or perceived as
being seminal. Not because any criticism I have will be ignored but
because what flaws are there are easily over-looked in the face of the
film's stature - no-one complains about the Venus De Milo having no
arms, after all. In movie terms, this is a film that is all about
breaking barriers - the first successful blaxploitation movie, it was
this film (and its iconic soundtrack) that fuelled an entire genre of
cinema and led to two sequels, a TV series and even a recent reboot -
such is the reverence that "Shaft" is held in. However, in the cold
light of day and ignoring such feelings, it's interesting to note that
it is actually a pretty average film albeit one with an astonishing
Richard Roundtree plays John Shaft, a cool-cat private eye working the seedy streets of New York City. After encountering two goons in his office (and sending one of them to the sidewalk via a window), Shaft finds himself in the employ of local crime boss Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) who hires Shaft to locate his missing daughter. Reluctantly, Shaft takes on the case and soon finds himself in all sorts of trouble with the Mafia who are muscling in on Bumpy's turf. Not only that but Shaft is tailed by homicide detective and occasional buddy Vic (Charles Cioffi) who is convinced that there is more going on than Shaft is prepared to tell him...
There is a curiously low-budget feel to "Shaft" that I wasn't expecting, highlighted by the near-constant over-dubbing of Shaft and other characters' dialogue. The action, when it does come, is also not filmed very well by director Gordon Parks - his strength seems to be in building atmosphere and there are times when the air hangs heavy with expectation such as the fantastic opening scene. Roundtree is the ultimate bad mother-f*****, making what might have been an ordinary character into one for the ages. He is almost impossibly cool and with Isaac Hayes' legendary soundtrack pulsating in the background, you can't help but fall in love with the film. All the other actors can do is bask in Roundtree's glory and to be fair, they all do their part. The story might look and feel like a classic (or should they be clichéd) film noir and initially, I was struggling to find interest in it. But something curious happened - I suddenly found myself paying more attention to it and getting involved. Digging it, if you will.
In a lot of ways, it reminded me of the first "Star Wars" in that here is a film that isn't that well made in parts and at times, isn't that entertaining but slowly and surely, you fall in love with it. You have to give it respect for its legacy if nothing else but also because it helped to break down racial barriers that had existed in Hollywood for so long. Here was a film where almost all the principal characters and actors were black and the film was still successful, flying in the face of studio expectation or cynical critics. This is a deeply cool movie to watch and even better to listen to - it's also better than the Samuel L Jackson version a few years back because this feels like the genuine article and it is, of course. Not every day that Sammy J comes second in a cool contest but on this occasion, "Shaft" really is the man. Looks like I've proved my own point...
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The NAACP gave up trying to persuade Hollywood to cast more
African-Americans in films and television shows in 1963 and resorted to
legal measures and economic sanctions. Consequently, blacks began to
appear in both major and minor roles in greater numbers. Actor Sidney
Poitier emerged in the late 1960s as the first truly popular
African-American actor and qualified as an example of "the model
integrationist hero." By the 1970s, African-Americans had turned up not
only in ghetto-themed movies but also every other film genre and
television show. Meanwhile, the discrimination that black actresses
encountered simply mirrored the shortage of roles white actresses had
contended with in Hollywood since time immemorial. Former Cleveland
Browns football star Jim Brown rose to prominence in the wake of Sidney
Poitier as the new African-American hero. Poitier and Brown served as
precursors for Blaxploitation.
Eventually, the pendulum swung from one extreme with the racist depiction of blacks as subservient Sambo characters before the 1960s to the newest extreme with blacks portrayed as Superspades in what later constituted a cinematic phenomenon called Blaxploitation. Essentially, the golden age of Blaxploitation movies occurred between 1970 and 1975 and these movie targeted primarily black audiences. Blaxploitation heroes and heroines displayed a social and political consciousness, and they were not confined to single roles. They were cast as private eyes, policemen, vigilantes, troubleshooters, pimps, etc. In each instance, these characters worked within the system, but they did so as they saw fit and sought to improve the African-American community. Not surprisingly, blaxploitation heroes often clashed with whites, but they refused to depict whites in strictly monolithic terms. Good whites and bad whites jockeyed for prominence in the films. Although one NAACP official described blaxploitation as just "another form of cultural genocide," African-American audiences flocked to see them. Blaxploitation movies knew no boundaries and encompassed comedies, musicals, westerns, coming-of-age dramas, slave plantation films, and horror movies.
Director Ossie Davis' urban crime thriller "Cotton Comes to Harlem" (1970), about two African-American N.Y.P.D. cops, Coffin Ed Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques) and Gravedigger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge), based on the Chester Himes novel, paved the way for the movement. When the film premiered, critics did not categorize Cotton as blaxploitation. Interestingly, the term "black exploitation" first appeared in print in the August 16, 1972, issue of the show business newspaper "Variety" when the NAACP Beverly Hills-Hollywood branch president, Junius Griffin, coined the term in a speech about the derogatory impact of the genre on African-Americans. Later, black exploitation was abbreviated as blaxploitation. The two films that historians have classified as "germinal" were independent filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles' "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" (1971) and mainstream director Gordon Parks' "Shaft" (1971). Peebles's film supplemented the content of Davis' film with sex and violence, and Sweetback's success with black audiences triggered the blaxploitation craze, one of the most profitable in cinematic history. Major Hollywood film studios rushed similar films into production. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer followed Sweetback's success with their private eye thriller "Shaft" (1971) starring model-turned-actor Richard Roundtree as the equivalent of Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade gumshoe character in "The Maltese Falcon." Some critics complained that movies like Shaft simply substituted blacks in roles that were traditionally played by whites. Initially, MGM thought about of rewriting the African-American lead in Shaft, based on Ernst Tidyman's novel as a Caucasian.
As a detective movie, Shaft observed all the conventions of the genre. The action opens with the trench-coated protagonist wearing out shoe leather in Manhattan to the tune of Isaac Hayes' Oscar-winning theme music. The lyrics provided a thumbnail sketch of the hero's persona. Private detective John Shaft lives up to those lyrics as "the cat who won't cop out when there's danger all about." An infamous Harlem crime lord, Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn), loosely based on real-life criminal Bumpy Johnson, hires Shaft to locate his missing daughter Marcy. Eventually, Shaft discovers that the Italian mafia has abducted her and he assembles a motley crew of black militants to help him rescue Marcy. The success of Shaft spawned two sequels "Shaft's Big Score" (1972) and "Shaft in Africa" (1973) and later a short-lived television series. Many blaxploitation movies gained notoriety for negative portrayals of African-Americans trapped in the ghettos that resorted to crime and vice to triumph over their hostile surroundings and oppressive white landlords.
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