in The Vault

Shaft (1971)

Shaft may not have been the first Blaxploitation film, but it was the first blaxploitation film to become a cultural phenomenon. Black audiences finally had their own action hero and he didn’t take any shit. He was the black private dick that was a sex machine to all the chicks. But if it wasn’t the first blaxploitation film why did it resonate? Was it just a happy accident? Interest in blaxploitation projects had been building after MGM found success with Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970). So MGM followed with the pursuit of the next badass brother… And they found him.

John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) is a New York private eye so cool that he doesn’t even look when he crosses the street. He’s hired by an inner-city gang leader Bumpy Jones (Moses Gunn) to rescue his daughter from the Mafia. Shaft takes his search to the seediest parts of New York where he then proceeds to kick ass and take names. I only wished it was as cool as it sounded.

It’s interesting that Shaft is the face of the blaxploitation genre when you consider how the film varies from most blaxploitation films. For one, Shaft lacks the cynicism that came with later blaxploitation films. Also, Shaft is not a film about taking on the white establishment. Yes, the bad guys are white, but Shaft dislikes white people just as much as he dislikes black people. Shaft isn’t about civil rights, he’s a hardboiled detective that just happens to be black. Most of the film’s black slang wasn’t even in the original draft of the screenplay.

Shaft was adapted by Ernest Tidyman and John D.F. Black (both white) from Tidyman’s 1970 novel of the same name. You may recognize Tidyman’s name from his Oscar-winning screenplay to The French Connection. When writing his novel Shaft, all Tidyman sought out to do was to write a pulp detective novel about a hardened detective. It’s a fairly generic detective story when you think about it. There’s the street-smart detective, the mysterious customer who hires him, and the damsel in distress. Little separates Shaft from your typical Hollywood detective movie.

Maybe it’s the character of John Shaft that marks the film’s appeal. I’ll admit John Shaft is fun to watch, but I have mixed feelings about Richard Roundtree’s performance. On one hand, you have to love how Shaft is always laughing at his own wisecracks. Shaft loves Shaft and that’s a fun character trait. On the other hand, Richard Roundtree isn’t particularly thrilling when handling the dramatic side of the character. It doesn’t help that so much of Roundtree’s dialogue appeared to be recorded in post. It gives John Shaft a strangely robotic feel whenever he exchanges info with a stuffy white police Lieutenant (Charles Cioffi).

I don’t know why,m but it would appear most of Roundtree’s dialogue was recorded in post. This gives John Shaft a strangely robotic feel whenever he exchanges info with his stuffy white police Lieutenant (Charles Cioffi). Shaft needs to be cool 24/7 but there’s a weird shift due to technical issues. The performance is inconsistent, but Roundtree still has that aura of cool that makes him hard not to like.

Watching Shaft was a bit of a disappointment. The film has a swagger to it, aided marvelously by Isaac Hayes amazing soundtrack, but it’s also a bore. The action sequences are well done but they’re so far and in-between. Even with that said I have a lot of respect for Shaft. It was a cultural trailblazer that played a significant role in bringing black action heroes into the mainstream. If anything, it gave us one of the greatest theme songs of all time. I can dig it.