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?