Update mid-2019: With the release of a jokey, essentially hesitant new Shaft film that seems more frightened of the possibility of a serious African-American hero than skillfully parodying the same archetype, the original 1971 film’s defiantly un-hesitant seriousness is bracing to this day. Cutting both American politics and the elephantine girth of ’60s Hollywood productions down to size, there’s a fugitive simplicity at the core of Shaft, a no-nonsense vision of black empowerment that simultaneously seems uncertain about whether it is truly achieving anything politically. As a film, it’s both a blunt portrait of a rapidly neoliberalizing America and, despite its black heroism, a skeptic when it comes to the question of whether this “sex machine to all the chicks” is truly the hero who will lead us after the fire next time.
As lean as its name, Shaft benefits considerably from director (and former photographer) Gordon Parks’ sensate, resolutely non-metaphysical worldliness. While the titular character has an undeniably phallic forward motion, there’s always a more communal undercurrent, a sense that Parks is rekindling his days photographing the black working class for the Farm Security Administration, albeit here with a more assertively urban slant. Which is to say: while the main character may be the black cat who won’t cop out, Shaft is more polyphonous than its demonstrably individualistic title suggests. While Roundtree is strutting through New York City, Parks finds time to scour the periphery for intimations of collective woe. He wrestles tiny particles of racial anger out of the malaise of the post-’68 moment.
Shaft struggles, of course, with any kind of permissiveness to gender issues, but the film’s will to explore the shifting matrices of blackness in the early ’70s and to question the moral architecture of the classical Hollywood hero (while still succumbing to its individualism) still hold up, especially in that amazing introductory shot. A coup de cinema, the intro imagines the titular character as a shark cutting through the New York streets, paying no heed to the white film stars who are trapped and immobilized in the film posters above his head, unable to truly commune with the city or exercise any motion at all. Thus, while it’s been easy to mock the film for its performance of black masculinity since its release, it also stages a potent drama of American fissure, fingering the jagged grain of post-civil-rights America in a way few films had before, and surprisingly few have since.
To paraphrase Isaac Hayes, and my intro for my review of The Warriors, there are many ways to begin talkin’ ‘bout Shaft, but I, perhaps by necessity, will begin by talkin’ ‘bout Shaft. And by Shaft I mean Richard Roundtree’s Shaft, the film’s central character, and the way the film is so fascinated with him even when it seems to be going through the motions of an honestly rather tepid plot-line. Yes, Shaft has to spent the majority of his film Shaft, and it is his film mind you, searching about for the daughter of a black gangster, kidnapped by a white gangster. And yes, he needs to find her to prevent an all-out race war from flooding the streets. But that really isn’t important – what is important is Shaft himself, not so much what he has to do, but the sheer fact of the man. More simply put, what makes Shaft work is not that what Shaft is doing is particularly noteworthy, but that it is Shaft himself who is doing those things, and having his way with them. Got that?
Perhaps I should re-start. 1971’s Shaft was one of the first (and only) big successes of the Blaxploitation genre, taken up by aspiring American New Waver Gordon Parks when studio filmmaking decided that it would be okay to steal money from African-American audiences, insofar as they did so with essentialist African-American films and thus hopefully kept well-to-do whities out of the theater and busy with their Redfords and Newmans (thus keeping a racially segregated movie-going populace still segregated). The script, by the writer of the fairly unknown Shaft books Ernest Tidyman and Star Trekker John DF Black, both white, certainly doesn’t do a whole lot to move beyond the racial stereotypes popular in other American crime thrillers (Tidyman won an Oscar for his screenplay for The French Connection, a film that struggles mightily to decide how fascist and racist it wants to be).
However, the unexpected happened: Shaft had the privilege of being one of the few Blaxploitation films actually directed by a black director. Parks, best intentions and skill aside, never found success in the New Wave, and obviously decided, if he was to be pigeonholed as a director of “black” movies and if American was going to make “black” movies, at least he could ensure they were made with respect, craft, and racial consideration not fully diluted by the safe arm of corporate filmmaking. He decided to make a relatively more progressive film, bringing a certain gritty, observational documentary-urgency to the work that shifted things toward Shaft himself, and implicitly validated him through his visual framing in a way the screenplay doesn’t always demand.
Shaft, thus, exists at a curious crossroads. On one hand, the film shares a number of striking similarities to some of the brightest white lights dotting the landscape of American cinema in 1971. Like for instance Dirty Harry and The French Connection, the film stars a mostly amoral, asocial loner struggling to survive as a cop on the day-to-day streets of gritty urban warfare. In this sense, and insofar as the film ultimately privileges Shaft as the “objective individual” refusing to specifically align himself with any one side of society, the finished product works to incorporate Shaft into this distinctly white, individualistic norm at the expense of any sense of radical black communal-ism or social critique. In this sense, the film’s critique of white society is, if present, limited by the needs of mainstream “individualist” filmmaking and the doldrums of the cynical early ’70s, a time when black America had somewhat (if the historical metanarrative is to be believed) lost faith in radical, communal social action and had, like just about everyone else, become exhausted enough to decide the best they could do was just try to make end’s meat as individuals.
At the same time, even if the film isn’t per-se racially radical, the act of incorporating a black man into this white milieu, and explicitly contrasting his mobility in bas-relief to static white male stars left by his wayside in the very opening scene, and having him call out white people on their treatment of him as a purely utilitarian object, is radical in a more restrained sense. It doesn’t have the timber of a truly revolutionary political critique or any such thing, but there’s swaggering, insurrectionary danger to the film that undeniably has its eyes set on white society, and an interest in upholding a black man who commits violence as a hero and not a villain (gender is a whole other issue the film doesn’t even touch, its view of black action being wholly and strictly “masculine”). Like the man himself, the film isn’t about to give white society a pass, and it speaks its mind when it needs to.
Certainly, it was one of the few early ’70s “New York is a lived-in hellhole” films to actually imply that it was, for all intents and purposes, a much worse of a hellhole for African Americans than whites. And “New York is a depleted, lived-in hellhole” is absolutely something that Shaft is committed to showcasing, and quite wonderfully at that. Gordon Parks wasn’t really an action director – probably why Shaft is a fairly low-key film, even when he does suitably wreck up the place with his more unhinged, slapdash direction. He’s clearly more comfortable with setting up atmosphere and mood, which largely here takes the form of showcasing New York as an alien location, equal parts glum dehumanization, electrifying excitement and clutter, and temperamental, sultry mood swings. Parks is very much interested in revealing his vision of New York as a place that is, at once, wholly alive and deeply exhausted, living high on its own reckless, rebellious energy even as it is smothered by the same. If Parks doesn’t quite nail the narrative (not that there is much to nail) he has the non-narrative mood, the sense of tangible place, down pat.
The same goes for the big man himself, John Shaft. Roundtree gives a slick, fluctuating, cool-as-ice performance in the title role, selling Shaft’s weary angst and ultra-competence in equal measure, but Parks helps him ably by bending the movie around Shaft himself until it answers to his every whim. There are barely a handful of scenes where Shaft is absent or elsewhere, and when he isn’t on camera, it’s usually because we’re seeing his perspective and “becoming” him ourselves. Calling Shaft a character study is wishful thinking, but it’s undeniably fascinated with it’s main character. More pointedly, it’s interested in how he sees the world – giving us Shaft’s New York, the cynical, beaten-down version he sees from his perspective – and how the world sees him back. This sort of tension allows the film a confrontational vibe that keeps us pulsed at a sweaty un-ease throughout.
I’m not here to reclaim Shaft as some sort of long-lost misunderstood masterpiece of provocative cinema, for it simply isn’t any of those things. It is simply a rather good crime thriller with some well above-par direction, a sharp star turn, a kick-ass, multi-faceted soundtrack, some interesting subtext, and a shockingly cohesive visual element that all combines into, if not a masterpiece, a good film that gets in, does its thing, and gets out. Just like the man himself.
P.S. Seriously, Isaac Hayes’ smoky, sensual soundtrack, headlined by the showstopping introductory number that proudly and dangerously announces Shaft for us with a grandstanding ambition that implicitly calls out other white action heroes for failing to live up to Shaft’s shadow, is killer, and does a lion’s share of the work to establish the film’s emotional resiliency and sly cool.