Shaft (1971): Breakdown by Rantbo
A bad-ass, sex-machine private-eye is hired by a gangster to find his missing daughter.
While many consider SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG to be the first film of the Blaxploitation craze, and others often bring up Sidney Poitier’s Mister Tibbs flicks to be a catalyst, I’ve always associated the genre’s start with Gordon Park’s pivotal tale of hard boiled urban noir, SHAFT.
A private dick in 1970s New York City, John Shaft is the go-to man for the hard cases the MAN just aren’t able to wrap their heads around. Namely, those in need of solving for black criminals and underbelly scum. Like the kidnapping of an uptown Harlem gang leader’s daughter, for instance. After some tough negotiations, Shaft agrees to help the big, bad grief-stricken criminal to get back his bay-bay, and stick it hard to the sons-a-bitches that done took her. Can you dig it?
Of all the things that make SHAFT great (of which there are many), the unwavering badassness of Richard Roundtree’s portrayal and the simplistic story that allows for his coolness to be free and uninhibited, are the main contributors, which also made the film a classic. Plain and simple. And while the lyrics of his theme song clearly dictate the man, the myth and the legend that is John Shaft before we even hear him speak, they are completely superfluous. All that’s needed to solidify Shaft as the bad mother____er that he is, is the opening scene. Within those first few post credit’s minutes, Shaft learns that A.) Two gangsters packing heat are looking for him, B.) The cops know about it, and are now keeping tabs on him, C.) That he has a scuff on his shoe, and D.) Doesn’t give a shit about A, B, or C. ‘Cuz he’s on his way to get laid.
While one could interpret Shaft’s apathetic approach to his new found plight as careless, or even idiotic, it is in fact neither. Shaft simply KNOWS, that he can not be fucked with. It’s that cut and dry. Roundtree’s powerful looks and natural charisma fuel a drive in the character so bracingly cool and carefree, that when Shaft actually does become upset, and opens a can of whoop-ass, it’s almost like watching a volcano erupt. Something once so serene and imposing, yet strangely beautiful just explodes and before you know it, everything is fucked—except for the rock. It just cools down and then fucks your girlfriend as you writhe in agony. Or something… POINT BEING, Shaft lives up to the hype, as he truly is a bad mother fucker.
SHAFT is an especially interesting entry to the genre of blaxploitation, and not just because it was one of the first. It separates itself by avoiding (read: not containing, as they were before it’s time) several of the key factors seen so often in the films, in later years. For one, it’s a serious movie. Now I know that a ton of the blaxploitation flicks are so cool and funny because they were intended to be taken seriously and just ended up being unintentionally funny, but this is not the case here. SHAFT was intended to be a serious detective story, starring a strong black man as a strong black character, that black audiences could relate to. And it succeeds on every front. At least, I think it did. Having not been born for over a decade after its release and being a white guy from a suburban mountain town, I don’t think I can accurately say that black audiences in the 70s could, or did relate to Shaft. But, I think it’s safe to say SOMEONE liked the character enough, as SHAFT was a big hit and spawned two direct sequels. ANYWAYS, I’m getting off topic.
Another aspect that makes the character, and thus the film, unique is that while Shaft does put out a “Fuck you, whitey” vibe to figures of authority, he is really more of a human bridge across 110th street. Shaft has several white friends, and his best appearing to be an older white cop, who gets his back and helps to keep John out of trouble with the police. This is unique in that within this genre, white folks are usually seen as crooked, scheming, criminal slavers/thieves/ pimps/gangsters and abusive figures of authority. You know, more like real life. So there might be some validity to those that argue that SHAFT doesn’t belong in the blaxploitation genre.
From the gritty, street-life centered story and it’s hand-in-hand splendid cinematography, to the memorable characters and situations, the final aspect that sets SHAFT apart is the quality. This is a solid, right-on solid, Academy Award WINNING film. Yes sir, Truck Turner himself, Mr. Isaac Hayes won the Oscar for best original song. It’s that one you’ve been humming since you started reading this review. Which in itself represents how excellent and deserving of acclaim the song is. Also nominated for best score, Hayes is without a doubt as much a pivotal piece of SHAFT’s success as Roundtree himself. And the two together, along with director Gordon Parks, understandably and deservingly jump-started a revolution not just for African American film, but for Bad-Ass Cinema in general. And for that reason alone, this film has earned at least one-jive talkin’ honky’s respect and admiration. Plus, it’s also pretty fuckin’ good. Check it out.
[HOW BAD-ASS IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?]
Richard Roundtree is John Shaft, Private Investigator
I’m going to ask you three questions and the correct answer to all of them—is SHAFT!
#1. Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?
#2. Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother man?
#3. Who’s the cat that won’t cop out, when there’s danger all about?
They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother fucker. And by they, I mean me. That’s right, I’m NOT gunna shut my mouth. Dig it, or get the Hell outta here. He bags the bitches like Bond. Takes no shit like Dirty Harry. And he’s also one of only two characters in the history of the world able to rock a turtleneck and not look like a jackass. Bullitt being the other.
[THE BODY COUNT: 13]
Not a high count, but a satisfying one given the circumstances of the film relying more heavily on the sleuthing aspect of it’s genre than the action. As it stands, Shaft himself only claims 2 of the kills, while 10 of the rest are a bunch of randos, killed in various shootouts. Excluding the one poor bastard who tried to tackle Shaft, and ended up throwing himself out a four story window.
Click HERE for the Body Count Breakdown
[MOST SATISFYING DEATH]
The Ol’ Smash And Grab [SPOILERS]
In an effort to both take out the mafia and recover the target kidnappee in one piece, Shaft devises an elaborate plan to rappel himself in through the apartment window (from the floor above), and into the room where the girl is being held. Using a burning chunk of—something, soaked in gasoline as a distraction, Shaft does just that. And it goes off without a hitch. He flies into the room, riddles the honky wop with bullets and rescues Bumpy’s bay-bay, and thus saves the fuckin’ day.
[DUDESWEAT AND MACHISMO]
The two lead character’s names are SHAFT and BUMPY. And Shaft is also pals with a gay bartender who acts like a rock-star roadie, in that he picks up loose women for John to shaft.
Which, I admit, sounds pretty straight-forward, but what if the drink-slinger only does this in an effort to weasel onto Shaft’s good side and ease him into discussing his sexual natures? Plus, he IS a bartender. Who’s to say that he couldn’t, one night, slip a little something extra into one of Shaft’s drinks after a long night of uninhibited sexual discussion… ?
OK, so my theory is pathetic at best and also quite disturbing. But it’s the best I could come up with. As though the title character shares his name with a pivotal part of the male anatomy, he puts his own to use in the defilement of the female gender. Plain and simple, Shaft is a ladies man.
[EXPLOITATION AND MISOGYNY]
Gay Bartender: There’s a girl over there, with the dark hair and the groovy boobs… You really turn her on, if you’re interested.
Shaft: Well, I aint dead.
Shaft doesn’t ask, Shaft tells.
And so do the ladies.
White Chocolate: You’re really great in the sack, but um, you’re pretty shitty afterwords. You know that?
And while many may see Shaft’s apparent mistreatment (read: honest approach) to the ladies he pleasures as a negative, I see it as James Bond-esque and therefore, completely justified and, dare I say, cool. And while I don’t advocate infidelity (if the first woman he lays, is in-fact his girlfriend), there is a certain level of promiscuity one must have to accept (or at the very least, understand) when dating a hunk of sexual chocolate named Shaft.
Shaft: Hey, baby, please close the door, huh?
White Chocolate: Close it yourself, Shitty. ~kiss~
[EPIC MOMENT AND BEST ONE-LINER]
EP-M: Shaft Tends To The Mafia
Shaft, suspecting his home of being watched by the mafia, strolls into the bar across the street from his place and with one line and a twenty dollar bill, takes over the tending duties to better assess the situation. A second or two later Shaft confirms his suspicions by chatting up a couple Italian goombas and watching their reactions to the lights being turned on in his apartment. And through his charm and quick thinking, Shaft quickly outwits the poor bastards, gets them arrested, busts one of their heads open with a liquor bottle for spitting on him, AND picks up a hot date for the night. Few men have ever been this cool in a lifetime, and Shaft does it all in the span of about 10 minutes.
Mafia Contact: I’m lookin’ for a nigger named John Shaft.
[THE MORAL OF THE STORY]
“Money always matters.“ And John Shaft is a bad mother—you know.
[THE CHECKLIST: 10 outta 25]
[ ] Athlete(s) Turned “Actor”
[ ] Clinging To The Outside Of A Moving Vehicle
[ ] Crotch Attack
[X] Dialogue Telling Us How Bad-Ass The Main Character(s) Is/Are
[ ] Ending Featuring An Ambulance, A Blanket or A Towel
[ ] Factory/Warehouse
[ ] Giant Explosion(s)
[X] Heavy Artillery
[ ] Improvised Weapon(s)
[ ] Macho Mode(s) Of Transportation
[ ] Main Character Sports Facial Accessory(s)
[X] Manly Embrace(s)
[ ] Notorious Stunt-Man Sighting
[X] Passage(s) Of Time Via Montage
[X] Politically Fueled Plot Point(s)
[X] Senseless Destruction Of Property
[X] Shoot Out(s) and/or Sword Fight(s)
[ ] Slow-Motion Finishing Move(s)/Death(s)
[ ] Stupid Authoritative Figure(s)
[X] Substance Usage and/or Abuse
[ ] Tis The Season
[ ] Torture Sequence(s)
[X] Unnecessary Sequel [Shaft’s Big Score!]
[ ] Vehicle Chase(s)
[X] Vigilante Justice
Shaft (1971) © Turner Entertainment Co., a Time Warner Company, MGM and Warner Home Video