In early 1970s social changes in the world seemed so profound, that even the image of Hollywood hero needed serious makeover. The best-known and most popular of them all, James Bond, looked out of touch with the new, rapidly changing environment where white British aristocrats with licence to kill began to look like an embodiment of villain rather than embodiment of hero. Two of the alternatives offered radical departure from the Bond formula – one, embodied in characters played by Bruce Lee in his kung fu classics, was more enlightened and spiritual; the other, embodied in Richard Roundtree as Shaft, was more down-to-earth and obviously more capable to deal with darker realities of modern world than Bond would ever do. Interestingly, both of those heroes happened to be non-white and, as a consequence, their instant popularity crossed racial barriers and thus helped making this film world more multi-cultural. In case of Shaft, however, black colour of his skin was an important issue at the time, so Shaft, 1971 cult classic directed by Gordon Parks, is now often regarded as the film that created phenomenon called "blaxploitation".
The plot of this film begins when black private detective John Shaft (played by Richard Roundtree) gets a visit by two goons working for Bumpy Jonas (played by Moses Gunn), crime boss of Harlem. Bumpy wants to hire Shaft's services in order to locate Bumpy's daughter Marcy (played by Sherry Brewer) who was apparently kidnapped. The prime suspects belong to the group of black militants led by Shaft's old acquaintance Ben Buford (played by Christopher St. John). But Shaft soon realises that the whole affair is only part of much bigger picture. Lt. Androzzi (played by Charles Cioffi), his old friend in New York Police Department, informs him about series of incidents related to Mafia attempts to take control of Harlem. Shaft now knows that he must act quickly not only to rescue the girl but also to prevent major escalation of race-related violence in New York.
Shaft fills all the criteria of "blaxploitation" film - black superhero, black urban setting with familiar cast of stereotypical characters, black villains being better than white villains, graphic violence, sex, nudity, bad language and, least but not last, low budget. Shaft, however, managed to transcend those stereotypes even while setting them. The reason for that could be found in small group of extremely talented people who did their best to overcome the limitations of Ernest Tidyman's uninspired script. Gordon Parks, the legend of "blaxploitation" cinema, used his new opportunity as first major black American director to create memorable images of New York City with its contrasts that reflected brewing racial, class and social conflicts of early 1970s American megalopolis. The other great talent was composer Isaac Hayes (to contemporary audiences best known as the voice of Chef in cult animated series South Park), whose title song earned him an "Oscar" and whose Shaft theme is one of the most popular pieces of movie soundtrack ever played on airwaves. The soundtrack of Shaft is near perfect - from the moment when it introduces the hero, through the ways in which it illustrates the sorry condition of inner-city ghettos or create tension in the action scenes. The only exceptions are pieces used for love scenes that might sound a little bit corny to contemporary audiences.
But the best known of all people associated with Shaft is, of course, Richard Roundtree. He seems to be born for this role, in the same way Connery seems born for the role of Bond. His character is suave, able to enjoy life and seduce almost any woman (and that includes every races, something that is sorely missed in today's post-AIDS and seemingly "politically correct" Hollywood), but his apparently wealthy lifestyle doesn't prevents him from being on the first-name terms with less fortunate people on the mean streets on New York. This more humane quality of Shaft is accompanied by his obviously realistic appraisal of the situation – he despises inner-city poverty, narcotics, organised crime and cryptoracist police, but he knows that they are entities with which he must work every day in order to do his job. Ability to use his brain and mediate instead of using his fists or gun turns Shaft into extraordinary action hero. And he is also racially conscious, yet able to rise above his colour, especially during the conversation with his white policeman friend when he uses the line that could be repeated in order to explain most of racial and ethnic conflicts in today's world. Roundtree's larger-than-life coolness is very well matched by Moses Gunn who plays cold and calculated crime lord, while Charles Cioffi is effective as his well-intentioned yet clueless friend from police.
All in all, despite weak plot or fashions and dialogue that might seem incomprehensible to today's audience, Shaft is today as entertaining as it was thirty years ago. And that explains the legend that managed to spawn entire sub-genre and survive even modern day Hollywood remake.
RATING: 8/10 (+++)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.movies.reviews on October 24th 2001)
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Movie URL: https://www.themoviedb.org/movie/482-shaft?language=en-US