Seen by Martin before? Yes
What did I expect? The baddest blaxploitation pic of them all.
What did I get? Well, not that. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is probably that. The odd thing is that I held this expectation even though I had already seen Shaft many years ago and found it wanting. I think I was hoping I would “get” it this time.
As befits its status as a “crossover hit,” Shaft seems denatured, sanitized — even as it boldly foregrounds Shaft’s conquest of a white woman. Like James Bond, John Shaft is a confident and capable cocksman, and like the Bond movies, Shaft is most itself when plotstuff isn’t occurring. Shaft is a “private dick” who’s most comfortable bedding a winsome female or dispensing cutting remarks to anyone who challenges him, and he exists to strut down a city street while Isaac Hayes intones his mating call. Roundtree is perfect for the part: assertive and masculine but with a cocky twinkle in his eye that signals to white audiences that it’s safe to embrace him. Unlike Sweetback, he’s more BadassTM than baadasssss.
Shaft is suave and pulpy, sleek and slick. It’s striking how retro it all feels: the stogies, homburgs, and hostile ripostes all seem lifted from a hardboiled movie from the 1940s. It seems churlish to deny Roundtree the escapist narrative license once afforded to Bogart, but its shaky purchase on a recognizable reality, one that film noir never exactly coveted, makes the project feel insubstantial by comparison.
I’ve recently watched blaxploitation classics Sweetback, Across 110th Street, and Cotton Comes to Harlem, all of which are superior. Shaft has too little bite and emotional resonance, it’s a showcase for the protagonist’s virility and the vicarious thrill of a black man free of interference. That’s fine for its aims — to make money as a mainstream success — but today it comes off as a museum piece, full of groovy brothers saying “jive” and not taking it from The Man.
What here smacks of 1971? The soundtrack, the militant black organization.
IMDB score: 6.5
My score: 5
Director: Gordon Parks
Writers: Ernest Tidyman and John D. F. Black
Starring: Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn, Charles Cioffi, Christopher St. John, Gwenn Mitchell, Lawrence Pressman, Victor Arnold, Sherri Brewer, Rex Robbins, Camille Yarbrough, Margaret Warncke, Joseph Leon, Arnold Johnson, Dominic Barto, George Strus
IMDB synopsis: John Shaft is the ultimate in suave black detectives. He first finds himself up against Bumpy, the leader of the Black crime mob, then against Black nationals, and finally working with both against the White Mafia who are trying to blackmail Bumpy by kidnapping his daughter.