Few things in pop culture have an associated piece of music that precedes it as widely as Shaft. Isaac Hayes legendary and academy recognised score and song is identifiable from its first few bars and with good reason too, Hayes is one of the kings of soul music in an age when Motown and its ilk ruled the roost. Ask people about Shaft beyond that outstanding music and more often than not you’ll be met by nonplussed expressions. Gordon Parks’ film is its score, that is its legacy. Despite that recognition, the character of John Shaft is one lost in absolute obscurity and with labels like Arrow Video and Second Sight plucking Blaxploitation titles from the likes of Jack Hill’s and Pam Grier’s filmographies, the time is more than right for Warner Brothers to add their weight to Gordon Parks and Ernest Tidyman’s fabled 1971 film.
While some will dispute Shaft’s relation to blaxploitation, there is a connection that is undeniable – at least before the character scored big or went to Africa. More so than any film, this can be credited for the popularisation of 1970s black cinema with its mix of street culture, social commentary, phenomenal music, action, and crime jam-packed into a massively entertaining and punchy bundle. While undeniably televisual in its presentation, no one could ever accuse Shaft of the crude – if impossibly charming – talent of people with no prior experience picking up a camera and telling stories that had significance to communities up and down the United States of America.
Those that claim Gordon Parks massively successful hit doesn’t belong in the same conversation as the likes of Willie Dynamite or Foxy Brown are doing so in reference to the genre. Unfortunately for that debate, blaxploitation isn’t a singular, definable genre, it spanned many divides. Divides as wide as Shaft being a neo-noir or the upcoming J.D.’s revenge playing with horror tropes. Blaxploitation is about telling stories about black communities and black people using specific cultural touchstones, films that would never have been made without these people breaking out and directing despite having no real experience at producing either film or TV.
As well as consolidating Isaac Hayes’s star in the upper echelon’s, this 1971 film did the same for Richard Roundtree as the titular role. Despite playing as a very misogynistic character, John Shaft is a ladies man and private eye. He’s at constant loggerheads with the NYPD and its no surprise either as when we first meet Shaft he swaggers over a road with cars stopping for him and when someone tries to kill him soon after, he throws them out of a fourth-storey window. Such gung-ho behaviour gets him in trouble with the [largely white] police. True to the blaxploitation archetypes, Shaft doesn’t really trust the man, but he will collaborate when it suits his needs. Returning to his office, Shaft is propositioned by Harlem gang-lord Bumpy (Moses Gunn) to find his kidnapped Daughter – after which the titular character becomes a pawn in a war the Harlem hangs and the Italian Mafia.
The music is irrefutably seventies in its style, but in its construction, the foundation and inspiration hark back to 40s & 50s noir. The costumes recall the classy simplicity of that era, all aspects of production design follow the same suit. It goes further than mere [flamboyant] style and deep into the narrative construction with a beat sheet borrowed from American cinema’s previous golden age. The plan that closes the film in which Shaft and a gang of his ex-black panther cohorts methodologically stalk the noir-infused décor of a hotel complex armed with a hosepipe has to count among the greatest scenes that era never had. Pity, it is then that the entertainment value and efficiency of that scene and the film is undercut by Shaft on the phone making fun of a woman he slept with earlier – it goes to show a panther can’t change its spots. Moments like that and Shaft’s campy gay friend undercut this otherwise outstanding film.
To return to that opening position, the only context I had for Shaft was the song by Isaac Hayes and the ill-judged 2000s remake starring Samuel L. Jackson, so having the opportunity to rectify that is most appreciated. I’ll leave you with these states which you will count as one of. If your taste for this style of film hasn’t been fattened by a parade of classics and icons then Shaft will play like a garden variety 70s crime movie fuelled by killer music and a misogynistic streak. If, however, you are arriving at this film as tempered by the finely curated selection of titles offered by Arrow Video you’ll find a release that has been one of the fondest discoveries of the year so far – albeit a misogynistic one.