Anyone unfamiliar with the blaxploitation pictures of the 70’s usually pictures the more cartoonish end of the spectrum with glorified pimps dressed in garish refinery, blowing away corrupt and oppressive members of the white establishment while calling people things like jive-turkey – and in some instances (the works of Rudy Ray Moore for example) they’d be absolutely right. However, when actually sitting down to watch some of the earlier examples of the genre for the first time, those people may be a little surprised at what they get.
While certainly not the first of its kind – Melvin Van Peeples’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song made it’s debut earlier in the same year – Gordon Parks’ Shaft quickly became arguably the most famous entry of the genre and is one of those movies that you’re convinced you know even if you haven’t seen it – I should know, I was one of them – but once you get past Issac Hayes’ impossibly iconic theme tune, Shaft plays out more conventionally than you might suspect.
John Shaft is a private detective like no other; proud, self reliant and not willing to take any shit from anyone he strives to do the best for his community while remaining slightly apart from it, but when he gets words that two guys from Harlem are looking for him, events unravel that only he can control.
The two guys are a couple of heavies sent over by notorious gangster Bumpy Jonah – this movie is fuckin’ loaded with great names – who’s coming at Shaft hard considering that he actually needs his help, but after clearing the air (by ejecting one of said heavies from his office by way of the window), the P.I. finally gets some much needed back story.
It seems Bumpy’s daughter has been kidnapped, he needs Shaft’s help to locate her and he gives him a lead on which to go on, Ben Buford; the head of a local black militant chapter, but this turns out to be a red herring as Shaft and Ben narrowly escape a shootout that leaves the former’s compatriots riddled with slugs. Shaft finds out from Lt. Vic Androzzi, his uneasy connection within the local police force that it was actually him and not Ben who was the target of the hit and Bumpy eventually comes clean that he’s engaged in a mounting gang war with the Mafia but can’t fully engage as the public perception sees it as black on white crime instead of the battle for turf it really is.
Hoping to avoid a race war, Shaft makes a slightly dodgy deal with Bumpy to once again track down his daughter and rescue her from the mob, but to do so with take all his contacts and brass genitals the size of bowling balls to pull this off…
Viewed for for the first time now, you might watch Shaft and innocently wonder what all the fuss is about – after all, the film plays pretty much as a straight crime caper and even though we all still have a long way to go, we live in a world where Samuel L. Jackson can order around a gaggle of bickering superheroes and where Morgan Freeman can play both the President and God – but taken in context you immediately begin to see how important it really is.
From the first moment we lay eyes on Shaft, striding through Times Square like he owns the fucking place, it’s incredibly apparent that this dude isn’t being portrayed in the way that movies usually treat black characters. John Shaft is no mere sidekick, or a police partner with a massively limited lifespan, or a drug dealer or a pimp; he’s self sufficient, insanely confident (like, Seth Gecko in From Dusk Till Dawn, confident) and takes shit from no one as he confidently makes his way through life while always being impeccably stylish. Now while that doesn’t sound overly mold breaking, remember that a sizable contingent of those people he aforementionedly doesn’t take shit from are white police officers and his uber-complicated relationship with Lt. Androzzi as they constantly banter with each other for information turns out to be one of the most entertaining parts of the movie.
But strip away the game changing presentation and does Shaft still have what it takes to be the cat who won’t cop out when there’s danger all about? Well, mostly, yeah.
The script, written by Ernest Tidyman who bagged an Oscar that very same year for The French Connection and was based on his novels where Shaft was noticably of the caucasian persuasion, is predictably solid and weaves a world where seemingly no one can be trusted. It’s also surprisingly simple for a film where either everyone is lying through their teeth or simply lying by omission, but the main focus here is that Shaft is the only man who can act as a go-between for all the various characters as he can transcend both the lawmen and the criminals and the race divide due to his limitless charisma. Step forward Richard Roundtree, then, who infuses the titular character with all the qualities that seemingly confirm what the Oscar winning soundtrack’s been telling you all along – that he’s probably the most masculine man that’s ever lived. He can out fight, out shoot, out speak and out fuck everyone else in the movie (he doesn’t quite have a James Bondian appetite for women, but he’s close – plus his conquests actually get on screen orgasms) and Roundtree, – stunningly in his cinematic debut – ably manages to talk the talk and walk the walk while openly calling everyone baby.
A major shout out has to go to Moses Gunn’s cigar sucking Bumpy Jonah too, the outrageously slippery head of a Harlem based crime family whom you can always tell is lying because his damn lips are moving and who makes a welcome return in the sequel.
If there’s a problem with Shaft, it’s that the inexorable rumble of time has taken a slight sheen off the filmmaking with the actual action being quite sparse and limited to a couple of scuffles and a few brief shootouts – but thankfully its attitude and the irresistible style of its main character ensure that it remains a vital component of black cinema and film in general.
I can dig it.