Was rumored to be written as just another detective movie, with a white detective in the lead, but, after the success of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), the film was rewritten and recast as a blaxploitation movie. This story has been told several times by director Melvin Van Peebles. However, it is probably apocryphal. The Ernest Tidyman novel which was the basis for the film is about a black detective and not a white one.
Much of the action in the movie centers around 125th Street in Harlem. Shaft's apartment (exterior only) was located in Manhattan's Greenwich Village at 55 Jane Street, across the street from the (real) "No Name Bar" at 621 Hudson Street. The former bar was ultimately transformed into deli.
Shaft is seen reading a copy of Essence Magazine in his girlfriend's apartment. Parks is a co-founder of Essence. The magazine is spotted when Shaft is engaging in a conversation with a blind newsstand vendor during the opening sequence.