Release Date: June 25th, 1971 (Los Angeles)
Directed by: Gordon Parks
Written by: Ernest Tidyman, John D. F. Black
Based on: Shaft by Ernest Tidyman
Music by: Issac Hayes, Johnny Allen
Cast: Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 100 Minutes
“Don’t let your mouth get your ass in trouble.” – John Shaft
When I was a kid, two movies introduced me to the blaxploitation genre and black cinema of the ’70s. Those films were Dolemite and Shaft. Since that time, I have gone on to immerse myself in the genre and to try and soak up all it has to offer. While I still like Shaft, it feels like diet blaxploitation, as it is pretty light when compared to some of the edgier and less commercially marketable stuff of the era.
But the thing is, Shaft really kicked the door down and left it wide open for all the other movies to come rushing in right after it. It wasn’t the first film of its kind but it was the first to make a massive impact and to help these films crossover with a bigger audience. Shaft went beyond the inner city theaters and bled into suburban America and eventually, it grew beyond that as well. Today, it’s widely considered to be a classic from its time period.
Shaft is just a really refined picture for what it is. It feels bigger and larger and less grindhouse-y. It was put out by a major studio and when compared to the blaxploitation films before it, it just has a sort of professional touch and a magic about it. That’s not to take anything away from Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, They Call Me Mister Tibbs! and Cotton Comes to Harlem but Shaft had a feel of Hollywood legitimacy to it. Granted, I prefer a lot of the lower budget blaxploitation stuff like Dolemite but I have to respect Shaft for what it accomplished and what that meant for its era in black filmmaking.
Plus, Richard Roundtree is perfect as the super cool, no nonsense, badass John Shaft. There aren’t a lot of men that can stand shoulder to shoulder with Roundtree and have his sort of presence. Okay, maybe Fred Williamson and Jim Brown but you get the picture, Roundtree is one badass MFer.
Moses Gunn is also in this and he has a strong presence as well. Gunn is a well versed actor that can be tough as hell and also quite sweet. He’s great as a domineering gangster in this film yet he was also incredible in The NeverEnding Story, which saw him play a role that was really the antithesis to his role here. I just love seeing Gunn in things and he also has these very powerful looking hands that draw attention to themselves and add an extra bit of mystique to his characters.
Shaft has good action elements to it but not as much as I’d like in an action crime film. Roundtree’s attitude and swagger certainly makes up for the lack of gun play and fisticuffs though.
Pairs well with: The Shaft sequels and TV series, as well as the Shaft reboot with Sam Jackson. Also goes well with Superfly, Cotton Comes to Harlem and Detroit 9000.