Shaft (1971)

D: Gordon Parks
S: Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn

Shaft is a drama of urban space. From its opening images of the grimy streets of New York city in the daylight to its closing scenes in darkness punctuated by the flashing lights of emergency services, director Gordon Parks' film excels as a harshly contemporary and naturalistic portrayal of the metropolitan environment. Like The French Connection, the film is alive with casual imagery which evokes a sense of desperation and decay which requires no dialogue to clarify. Throughout the film Parks and cinematographer Urs Furrer create visual spaces which confine or constrict their characters; from run-down tenements and pedestrian packed sidewalks to narrow alleyways and seedy hotel corridors in which violent confrontation frequently takes place. Defiantly walking these mean streets down which a man must go is the character John Shaft, created by novelist Ernest Tidyman and here brought to life in a suitably tough performance by Richard Roundtree. Shaft is a classic pulp fiction hero, a private eye with an ambiguous relationship with the law hired by a mysterious/enigmatic client for a job which turns out to be more trouble than he expected. In fact, the story is perfunctory, if convoluted enough to hold attention while it runs. The setting is what is important. Tidyman's black New York is a distinctive and defining character in itself which (literally) colours the action from start to finish. Space acts as something of a metaphor for the racial and political tensions which simmer under its bubblegum surface. Though the film is infused with racial self-awareness, it stops short of politicising either story or character. Shaft may be the most strong-willed and self-actualised black central character in American film for some time, but the case he finds himself involved in questions none of the complex dynamics of burgeoning racial equality problematised so elegantly by Norman Jewison in In the Heat of the Night under the guise of a murder mystery. Shaft is a racial drama insofar as its portrayal of an uncompromising and unforgiving African-American hero in the heart of a spiritually and visually dark city makes no concessions to white expectation (which is itself a challenge to the white audience), but the film plays the story by the numbers and goes for violent action and adventure over theme and context. It works as entertainment, not as trope, which is, of course, in its own way, a deliberate and necessary conceit which also serves an important political/representational purpose.

The story concerns the kidnap of a black mobster's daughter which Roundtree investigates under the watchful eye of the NYPD. Strangely considerate and patient cop Charles Cioffi allows the detective an incredible degree of latitude which, while it stops short of downright manipulation, allows the NYPD to monitor a situation over which they have no control and little understanding. It may be that a racial war is about to erupt, or perhaps a group of political activists led by Christopher St. John is involved. Either way, Harlem underworld boss Moses Gunn wants Roundtree to get her back, no matter what the cost to anyone who stands in his way. The result is a story which doesn't involve a lot of detection per se, but which follows Rountree as he works his way through a succession of underworld types until he comes face to face with the real villains (white mobsters). Meanwhile there are tender romantic and otherwise sexual interludes in which the character establishes his prowess in all fields of masculine endeavour, and the film climaxes with a set-up and siege which draws inspiration from the 1960s 'caper' movie but is (eventually) much bloodier and more decisive.

The film's main rewards are in execution, specifically Parks' use of urban space, good performances from all the cast, and Isaac Hayes' perfectly judged music score. This latter provides the film with most of its personality. The opening theme song (which won an Oscar) beautifully complements the montage of images of the city streets with which the film begins, and also frames the introduction of Roundtree's character, seen first striding along purposefully until harassed by a Taxi cab. The combination of these elements provides the film with an edge which gives it that indefinable 'coolness' to which so many films aspire. There is visibly more effort to it than the likes of Bullitt, but Shaft has the same cohesion of style, content, and attitude which made the Steve McQueen vehicle so effective. Roundtree's character is less likable than McQueen's, exhibiting fewer sympathetic moments of self-doubt (if such a thing is possible), but the film is much tougher and meaner on the whole, so he is perfectly adapted to the environment: a true 'native' of the urban jungle. This kind of metaphorical richness permeates the film and, enhanced by the film's use of authentic locations, it emerges as a sneakily effective counterpoint to the white European vision of the city seen in The French Connection.

From a contemporary point of view, like so many great Hollywood movies, the success of Shaft seems as much a lucky combination of elements and circumstances as a well-worked plan to touch the pulse of the viewing public. It was a risky project for MGM, but one which paid off nicely at the box-office, initiating not only a series of sequels (Shaft's Big Score!, Shaft in Africa), but cementing the need for and inspiring the production of a whole strain of mainstream and quasi-mainstream films later labelled 'blaxpliotation'. Though raising a series of problematic questions about whether they were positive or negative on the whole, the best of these films, Shaft among them, have endured and found a place in the evolution of twentieth century American cinema. Shaft itself was remade at the century's end by noted African-American political filmmaker John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood, Higher Learning).

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.