NY private dick John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) finds himself hired by local black mobster Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn, playing a character loosely based on the real-life Bumpy Johnson) to find his missing daughter. Meanwhile, police lieutenant Vic Androzzi (Charles Cioffi) is trying to pump Shaft for information as to why he’s being called upon by gangsters. Drew Bundini Brown plays Bumpy’s not-so bright bodyguard Willy, who might be a legit threat to Shaft if he only had (half) a brain.
Probably less of an outright blaxploitation film and more of a detective story that helped (along with Melvin Van Peebles’ “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”) usher in the blaxploitation movement, this 1971 Gordon Parks Sr. (who has a cameo in both this and the remake) film is must-see no matter how you categorise it.
It contains one of cinema’s most memorable openings ever. Visually, aurally, and culturally it sets the scene (and title character) perfectly. John Shaft (played by Richard Roundtree) doesn’t quite belong to any of the worlds he inhabits. It’s a fascinating worldview where Shaft is seen as a man of the streets and of the people, yet the people don’t always show that love back to him. The cops don’t trust him much, he’s not really in league with the Panthers, and even the cabbies give the guy shit. Meanwhile, he takes on a case for the local black mobster (whom he is perfectly happy to talk tough to, giving no fucks) and gets laid a whole lot. You see, as the song says ‘the only one that understands him is his woman’. Or women, as he’s giving it to more than one. Women, that’s where Shaft really fits in, as they all seem to love him, black and white. John Shaft, ladies and gents. He’s cooler than every damn one of us. Roundtree’s Shaft is smooth, tough, handsome, intelligent, angry (but usually in a simmering, low-key way), funny, and…unbeatably cool. He’s a GREAT hero of any colour, hell he even happens to be friendly with the local gay bartender (that’s a bartender who happens to be gay, Shaft’s probably not so open-minded as to frequent gay bars). You won’t find that in any other blaxploitation male hero. It’s a shame the remake, fun as it was kinda turned Shaft into a black “Dirty Harry” because in this adaptation of the Ernest Tidyman novel Shaft most certainly is no “Dirty Harry”. I mean the song tells you outright that he’s a ‘Private Dick’, not a cop! Speaking of the song, I believe “Superfly” has the overall better soundtrack, but Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-nominated score and Oscar-winning title song are without peer. The song alone for me is one of the three greatest songs ever recorded (Joe Cocker’s version of ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ and CCR’s ‘Run Through the Jungle’ being the other two for me). It’s cool as hell, but also sums up the character perfectly (as well as creating the perfect marriage with the opening images of the film as Shaft emerges from the subway into the city streets). The other major song on the soundtrack, ‘Soulsville’ is great too. The on-location shooting gives the film a flavour, ‘Soulsville’ gives it a social conscience.
I’ve always considered the film’s one flaw its pacing, but I actually didn’t feel that way this time around. The first 40 minutes in particular fly by. It’s a well-made film in a genre that eventually became a quickie-churning profit-making machine that eventually bottomed out. In addition to Roundtree’s iconic and charismatic performance, he’s backed up by the rock-solid Charles Cioffi as the fed-up but generally OK cop Vic Androzzi, as well as a fine turn by Moses Gunn as formidable gangster Bumpy Jonas. There’s also a cameo by Huggy Bear himself, Antonio Fargas as a guy named Bunky, whom Shaft bribes for street info. However, for me the most memorable supporting turn comes from Muhammad Ali’s assistant trainer and cornerman Drew Bundini Brown as Bumpy’s bodyguard Willy, who doesn’t take kindly to Shaft’s tardiness. Or the fact that he throws one of his buddies out ‘da goddaaaaamn winda’. I’m not sure if he was meant to be funny, but his dumb-arse, pissed off character was hilarious to me. Poor guy has to back down to Shaft every damn time. He’s Shaft, and you’re not.
One of the first blaxploitation films, albeit a film that was perhaps still trying to work out just what that meant. It’s certainly the most well-known of the subgenre and in my view also the best. Unlike many of the films to come, this wasn’t simply a quick cash grab. It has grit, soul, atmosphere, flavour, and a truly great lead character. Must-see, and then go watch “Superfly” from Parks’ own son Gordon Jr. The screenplay is by Tidyman and John D.F. Black (who wrote the blaxploitation flick “Trouble Man” as well as a plethora of TV work).