ⓘ Shaft (1971 film)


ⓘ Shaft (1971 film)

Shaft is a 1971 American blaxploitation crime action film directed by Gordon Parks and written by Ernest Tidyman and John D. F. Black. It is an adaptation of Tidymans novel of the same name and its the first entry in the Shaft film series. The plot revolves around a private detective named John Shaft who is hired by a Harlem mobster to rescue his daughter from the Italian mobsters who kidnapped her. The film stars Richard Roundtree as Shaft, alongside Moses Gunn, Charles Cioffi, Christopher St. John and Lawrence Pressman. The film deals with themes like the Black Power movement, race, masculinity, and sexuality. It was filmed in Harlem, Greenwich Village, and Times Square within the Manhattan borough of New York City.

Shaft was one of the first and most popular blaxploitation films, which "marked a turning point for this type of film, and spawned a number of sequels and knockoffs." The Shaft soundtrack album, recorded by Isaac Hayes, was also a success, winning a Grammy Award for Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture and a second Grammy that he shared with Johnny Allen for Best Instrumental Arrangement. The "Theme from Shaft won the Academy Award for Best Original Song and has appeared on multiple Top 100 lists, including AFIs 100 Years.100 Songs. A prime example of the blaxploitation genre, It was selected in 2000 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."


1. Plot

John Shaft, a private detective, is informed that some gangsters are looking for him. Police Lt. Vic Androzzi meets Shaft and unsuccessfully tries to get information from him on the two gangsters. After Androzzi leaves, Shaft spots one of the men waiting for him in his office building. He forces the first gangster into his office where the second gangster is waiting. During a short fight, Shaft dodges one of them who goes out the window, while the other surrenders and reveals to him that Bumpy Jonas, the leader of a Harlem-based organized crime family, wants Shaft brought uptown to Harlem for a meeting.

At the police station, Shaft lies to Lt. Androzzi and the detective assigned to the second gangsters death, by saying that the man was in an "accident". He is allowed to return to the streets for 48 hours. Shaft arranges a meeting with Bumpy in his office. It turns out Bumpys daughter has been kidnapped, and Shaft is asked to ensure her safe return.

After tracking down Ben Buford as Bumpy suggested, a shoot out ensues; Shaft is told by Androzzi after the shooting that Shaft himself, and not Ben, was the target, and that tensions brewing between the uptown hoods belonging to Bumpy Jonas and the downtown Mafiosi have culminated in a couple of murders. But the perception is black against white to the general public, with the possibility of an escalation into full-blown race war. He also shows Shaft some pictures of two of the Mafia men who just arrived in New York. Vic begs Shaft to explain whats going on, although Vic already knows Bumpy is looking for Shaft.

Shaft surmises that mobsters are watching his pad from a local bar. Shaft pretends to be a barkeep and calls the police to have the mobsters arrested. Shaft later goes to the police station to set a meeting to find where Bumpys daughter is being held captive.

Vic tells Shaft that the room that he was in at the station house was bugged and he is supposed to bring him in for questioning, but instead leaves. Ben and Shaft go to the apartment where Marcy Jonas is being held to make sure she is alive. Once there, a gunfight ensues during which two Mafia hoods are killed and Shaft takes a bullet in the shoulder.

Shaft goes home and receives medical attention from a doctor working underground with him. Shaft tells Ben to round up his men and meet him at the hotel where Marcy has been taken, to prepare to get her back. He also calls Bumpy to tell him his daughter is fine and he is going to need some taxicabs to meet him at the hotel for the getaway.

Shafts plan resembles a military commando-style operation. Bens men dress as hotel workers to avoid arousing suspicion. Shaft and one of Bens men go to the roof and prepare to enter the room where Marcy is being held captive. Shafts plan is to cause a distraction with an explosive thrown through the window of Marcys room while Ben and his men come down the hall and deal with the Mafia men as they leave their rooms.

The rescue plan is successful. Marcy is spirited out of the hotel into one of the waiting taxicabs. As the others get away in the remaining cabs, Shaft walks to a phone booth to call Vic. Shaft informs Vic as a result of the rescue there will be a huge mess to fix between the uptown crew and the mob in the near future. Vic says to close it for him, meaning he wants Shaft to fix the trouble. Shaft replies, "Youre gonna have to close it yourself" then hangs up the phone and walks away laughing.


2. Background

The film was adapted from Ernest Tidymans novels by Tidyman and screenwriter John D. F. Black. Joel Freeman and executive producers Stirling Silliphant and Roger Lewis produced the film.

"In Tidymans original story Shaft was white, but Parks cast Richard Roundtree as the eponymous hero." The entire dynamic of the film, its later success, and the future of blaxploitation films were all greatly impacted by Parks decision. This film was created less to impact black consciousness and more to simply to show a "fun film, which people could attend on Saturday night and see a black guy winning." Nevertheless, Parks said in the documentary about his work, Half Past Autumn 2000, that he had hoped the film would inspire young African Americans by presenting them with "a hero they hadnt had before." Shaft was intentionally created to "appeal to a black urban audience, along with contiguous white youths."

After production, in an effort to entice a large black audience to see the film, MGM hired UniWorld, a black advertising firm, who "popularized Shaft by using the rhetoric of black power." Although this film was notable for its crossover success with both white and black audiences, UniWorld focused largely on attracting members of the African-American community. "For example, Variety reported UniWorlds advertisement description of the protagonist John Shaft as, A lone, black Superspade - a man of flair and flamboyance who has fun at the expense of the white establishment." They also promoted "the behind-the-camera participation of blacks, thereby appealing to blacks who would appreciate the film as a black production or could fantasize that blacks had somehow beat the Hollywood system and taken over Metro-Goldwyn Mayer studios."


2.1. Background Roundtrees view about being in the film

When asked at the 2014 Virginia Film Festival how it felt to be cast as Shaft, Richard Roundtree responded that he had been extremely excited about the part at the time. He had previously been cast mostly in commercials, and this role, his first in a feature film, was a big break for him.


2.2. Background Production

Melvin Van Peebles claimed that the success of his film Sweet Sweetbacks Baadasssss Song caused Shaft to be changed from a "white movie" into a "black one". In fact, filming of Shaft began in January 1971, several months before the release of Van Peebles film, with Roundtree already confirmed in the lead role. The story is set in the same month, as shown by a calendar on Shafts office wall.

Tidyman, who is white, was an editor at The New York Times prior to becoming a novelist. He sold the movie rights to Shaft by showing the galley proofs to the studio the novel had not yet been published. Tidyman was honored by the NAACP for his work on the Shaft movies and books.


3.1. Major themes Portrayal of race

Shaft played a crucial part in the development of African-American advancement in Hollywood. In the creation of Shaft, there was a significant African-American presence, with director Parks, editor Hugh A. Robertson, and musical composer Isaac Hayes playing crucial roles. On the other hand, white men controlled the other important aspects of Shaft s production. Scenarist and writer Tidyman, writer Black, producer Freeman, and executive producers Silliphant and Lewis were all white men who heavily influenced the making of Shaft. In an analysis of Shaft, Stanly Corkin stated, "Further, the reception of the idea of blackness also becomes various, defined by any number of subject positions, and again, those cannot be fixed to any particular racially defined place of origin." In other words, the perception of race depends on the viewer and thus differs between individuals. Since different representations of race appeal to different people, the films white creators fabricated its representation of blackness in order to appeal to African American and white audiences alike. MGM was struggling financially during the making of this film, so making a profitable film was a necessity. "Under the devious guise of providing the Black American with a new and positive image of his/her life, these films confer upon the viewer, Black or White, little more than a pretended glamour and sophistication, the empty, repetitive wasteland of ancient Hollywood traditionalism."

Parks decision to cast Roundtree rather than a white actor, for whom the role was written, instantly altered the presentation of race in the film. Critics, however, believed the plot was not altered enough to accommodate the change in racial dynamics. "Mark Reid, for example, argues that Shaft is a product of the white studio imagination and merely a black-skinned replica of the white action hero commonly found in the detective genre."

One way that Shafts blackness was showcased was through his attire. Shaft was "stylistically racialized: a black girlfriend, which would satisfy the expectations of cultural nationalism, he is not above sleeping around and having random sex with attractive white women." In one scene, Shafts girlfriend told him that she loves him, and Shaft memorably responded with "Yeah, I know." Also, after a white woman slept with Shaft, she told him, "Youre pretty good in the sack, but youre pretty shitty afterwards. You know that?" This statement further highlights both Shafts sexual prowess and his misogynist actions.


4. Context

The third blaxploitation film released, Shaft is one of the best and most popular films of the genre. Commenting on the film shortly after its release, New York Times movie critic Vincent Canby accurately predicted the wave of blaxploitation films to follow: "How audiences react, however, has a great deal to do with the kind of movies that do get made, and having watched the extraordinary receptions given to both Sweet Sweetback and Shaft Im led to wonder if, perhaps, the existence of what seems to be a large, hungry, black movie audience - an audience whose experiences and interests are treated mostly in token fashion by TV - might not be one of the more healthy and exciting developments on the current movie scene." Shaft greatly impacted future blaxploitation films which "crudely tried to emulate the success of Shaft and Sweetback, repeated, filled in, or exaggerated the ingredients of the Blaxploitation formula, which usually consisted of a pimp, gangster, or their baleful female counterparts, violently acting out a revenge or retribution motif against corrupt whites in the romanticized confines of the ghetto or inner city."


5.1. Reception Box office performance

The film was one of only three profitable movies that year for MGM, grossing what Time magazine called an "astonishing" $13 million on a budget of $500.000.

The Los Angeles Times said the film cost $1 million and grossed $4.5 million. According to Variety by 1976 it earned $7.656 million in theatrical rentals.

It not only spawned several years of "blaxploitation" action films, it earned enough money to save then-struggling MGM from bankruptcy.


5.2. Reception Public reception

Shaft was extremely successful in theaters, which was a huge accomplishment for the then-struggling MGM studios. It was produced at a cost of $1.2 million while earning $10.8 million in its first year of distribution, $7 million in the U.S. alone.


5.3. Reception Critical reception

The critical reception of Shaft was mixed. In general, the film was applauded for its innovation, success, and its lasting effect on the film industry. "Because of the films positioning securely within the parameters of industry standards, Shaft was generally applauded by the critics both black and white, as being a breakthrough production in terms of expanding black representation in commercial cinema."

Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, "The strength of Parkss movie his willingness to let his hero fully inhabit the private-eye genre, with all of its obligatory violence, blood, obscenity, and plot gimmicks. The weakness of Shaft, I suspect, is that Parks is not very eager to inhabit that world along with his hero." Gene Siskel awarded two stars out of four and wrote that the film "offers little more than a rousing opening fight and a chance to see Roundtree glower while he models some fancy leather outfits." Variety wrote that the film was "directed by Gordon Parks with a subtle feel for both the grit and the humanity of the script. Excellent cast, headed by newcomer Richard Roundtree, may shock some audiences with a heavy dose of candid dialog and situation." Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it "the first good Saturday night movie Ive seen in years. Shaft is not a great film, but its very entertaining." In a review for The Monthly Film Bulletin, Nigel Andrews called it "in the main a highly workmanlike and enjoyable thriller." Gary Arnold of The Washington Post called it "a diverting commercial thriller, inconsequential but slick and casually enjoyable."

Other critics like Clayton Riley mainly found fault in the films failure to "deal with Black life in serious terms," writing that "Sam Spade is all right for the field hands because the White folks dont want to carry that weight any more. But how seriously would Five Easy Pieces have been taken with a Black pianist as the weary protagonist?" Riley also harshly stated, "Mediocre is the only word to describe the work of Gordon Parks, the director of this nonsense, inept is the kindest thing to say about the performances of Richard Roundtree as John Shaft, a Black private eye on the prowl for kicks in the Big Apple underworld." Parks responded to Rileys social criticisms with a letter to the editor in The New York Times, stating that "Riley seems sadly alone among blacks in this reaction. Most black critics have lauded the film for its portrayal of Shaft as a strong black hero. I share Rileys desire to see black actors playing roles now assumed by actors such as Jack Nicholson or Dustin Hoffman, but I dont think the choice for black people is limited to either Five Easy Pieces or Stepin Fetchit."

Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 88% based on 40 reviews from critics, with an average rating of 7.47/10. The websites "Critics Consensus" asked a rhetorical question, "This is the man that would risk his neck for his brother, man. Can you dig it?" On Metacritic, the film holds a score of 40 out of 100 based on 32 reviews, indicating "mixed or average reviews."


5.4. Reception Awards and other honors

Isaac Hayes won the Academy Award for Best Original Song and was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song for "Theme from Shaft ". In 2004, the song was named the 38th greatest movie song of all time by the American Film Institute. Hayes also won a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score, the Grammy for Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture and was nominated for the Original Dramatic Score Oscar, as well as the BAFTA Award for Best Film Music. The films score was also selected as a possible candidate for AFIs 100 Years of Film Scores. Richard Roundtree was nominated for the Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer Male, and he also received an MTV Lifetime Achievement Award for his portrayal in the Shaft Trilogy. The character John Shaft was considered a possible candidate for AFIs 100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains. The film itself was also a candidate for AFIs 100 Years…100 Thrills.

In 2000, Shaft was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In 2003, Shaft was chosen as one of The 1000 Best Movies Ever Made by The New York Times.


6. Soundtrack

One of the greatest factors contributing to Shaft s wild success and lasting appeal is its memorable musical score, "a revolutionary funk/soul masterpiece," composed by Isaac Hayes. Hayes auditioned for the role of Shaft but was asked to compose the musical score instead. "Vulgar, shallow, and crudely done, Shaft distinguished itself mainly by having the best musical score of the year. Isaac Hayess sensual, moody background music added to the texture of the film…"

Hayes soundtrack was known for its unique and catchy sound. "Instead of laying out a series of lengthy, chilled-out raps and jams, the episodic nature of a movie structure obliged him to focus on shorter instrumentals, featuring laid-back, jazz-infused riffs and solos." For example, from the Theme from Shaft, "The instrumental section, played by the Bar Keys and Movement, deploys pulsating bass, stuttering wah-wah guitar, Hayess own distinctive piano playing, a descending four-note horn motif, ascending flute runs and the now famous Pearl and Dean-style blasts of brass and strings." "Thirty five years on, Shaft may sound dated, but its a sound that inspired a generation of soul musicians. Hayes laid back vocal delivery and the gorgeous arrangements by Johnny Allen are still breathtaking, and the album remains a quintessential slice of 70s soul."

For Hayes remarkable composition, he received a combination of public praise, notable critical reception, and awards. Only a few weeks after the release of the film, Hayes soundtrack album had already earned $2 million and had gone platinum. "The Shaft theme became so popular that it was heard everywhere, from nightclubs to halftime at football games." Guerrero 1993 Hayes was also nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Original Dramatic Score and for Best Original Song with the Theme from Shaft. When he won for Best Original Song, it was the first time an African American composer had won an Academy Award. "The 45-single release of the record topped the US charts, hit number 4 in the UK and is still popular today, enjoying a new lease of life as a cellphone ring tone."


7. Sequels and Reboot

Shaft initially had two sequels called Shafts Big Score! 1972 and Shaft in Africa 1973, with "neither capturing the soul of the original," according to author Howard Hughes. An additional sequel, and part remake, was released in 2000, also called Shaft, starring Samuel L. Jackson as John Shaft II, the nephew of John Shaft. The earlier sequels were followed by a short-lived 1973-74 television series titled Shaft on CBS. Richard Roundtree was the only person to ever play John Shaft, appearing in all four films and the television series.

Ernest Tidyman wrote six Shaft novel sequels, including Goodbye, Mr Shaft and Shafts Carnival of Killers.

In February 2015, TheWrap reported that Shaft would be rebooted by New Line Cinema with John Davis producing the new film. In July 2015, The Hollywood Reporter reported that Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow would be writing the script, Davis and Ira Napoliello would be producing, and Richard Brener and Samuel J. Brown would direct. The Hollywood Reporter wrote that the film "will have a comedic tone but will retain its action roots". When he was asked about that characterization of the film, Davis said "Its drama, but its going to be drama with a lot of fun moments. A lot of lighter moments." In January 2017, Deadline reports that Tim Story will direct the film, a sequel, which will follows the son of John Shaft. In August 2017, it was revealed that Richard Roundtree and Samuel L. Jackson would reprise their roles from previous films, and Jessie T. Usher portraying the son of John Shaft. In November 2017, the film was revealed to be entitled Shaft and was released on June 14, 2019.


8. Pop culture references

Already in 1972, Pam Griers character in Hit Man starred in a pornographic film she believed was a screen test for Shaft.

In the British gangster film Sexy Beast, Don Logan played by Ben Kingsley tells Gal Dove played by Ray Winstone that his fake name is "Roundtree, like Smarties, like Shaft."

On the tv show Seinfeld, Shaft is reported to be Elaines favorite movie.

On The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Shaft is the idol of the fictional Will Smith, and several episodes make references to the film. In one episode Will denies that Shaft is a fictional character and claims he is real, parodying how young children deny that the cartoon characters they love are not real. "The Wedding Show Psyche!", a fifth-season episode, includes a Shaft -themed wedding for Will and his fiancee, Lisa.

In ER, in the fifth season Halloween episode 5, surgical resident Dr. Peter Benton dresses up as John Shaft and reveals to British surgical intern and previous trauma fellow Dr. Elizabeth Corday that when he was a kid he wanted to be Shaft.

In the Simpsons episode One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish, Bart and Lisa sing Isaac Hayes theme song to the film at a karaoke bar. In the Glee, episode Throwdown, Sue Sylvester refers to student Matt Rutherford as "Shaft" when she is listing off the minorities in the glee club. In the episode "Fists of Furry" of Eek! The Cat, a parody of the theme song is played to the character Sharky. In the Community episode "Anthropology 101", Pierce Hawthorne Chevy Chase refers to his living situation with Troy Barnes Donald Glover as like "Batman and Shaft".

In the Mystery Science Theater 3000 presentation of Mitchell, Joel and the robots perform a variation of Isaac Hayes "Shaft" theme during that films opening credits. In Good Eats, Alton Brown performs a parody of the films theme song about puff pastry. In the final Father Ted episode "Going to America," the song is played by an elated Ted, perking up a depressive priest in the process.

It was noted by Quentin Tarantino during the 2012 Comic-Con panel that Broomhilda von Shaft and Django Freeman from his movie Django Unchained are intended as the great-great-great-great grandparents of John Shaft, from the Shaft movie series.

In the Futurama movie Benders Game, the elevator operator opens the door and says, "Maintenance shaft service!" The Professor says, "Shut your mouth!", to which the elevator operator replies, "Im just talkin bout the shaft!"

In Desperate Housewives, Richard Roundtree appears as a private detective. The name of his agency, seen on a newspaper ad, is "Hafts", an anagram for Shaft.