Thirty years ago this month, Shaft unleashed its badass presence upon an unsuspecting America. Shaft has since become a cultural icon, and it's easy to see why---as one of the first mainstream movies to possess a black protagonist who wasn't going to take crap from anybody, Shaft was a revelation, more catharsis than wake-up call.
To be specific, "not taking anybody's crap" included making fun of white men, belittling them, beating them silly, killing them and sleeping with their women. It was all in a day's work for New York detective John Shaft (Richard Roundtree), a tough, stylish cop who finds himself the key figure in a brewing race riot.
A local black drug kingpin, Bumpy, comes to Shaft to ask for help. Bumpy's daughter has been kidnapped by one of his many enemies, and Bumpy knows that Shaft---who has one foot in the white world and one in the black world---is the man to find her. Although he hates Bumpy, Shaft loves the money he's ready to dish out and takes the case.
Soon, Shaft finds that the Mafia has kidnapped Bumpy's daughter, setting up an impending battle between the white mobsters and the black gangs. Police Chief Vic Androzzi, one of the only white guys who Shaft respects, pleads with Shaft to do what he has to do to avert the oncoming bloodshed.
When the relatively low-budget (just over $1 million) Shaft came out in 1971, it was a surprise smash embraced by black and white audiences alike. Isaac Hayes' theme song won an Oscar, his original score won a Grammy and Roundtree won a Golden Globe for "Most Promising Newcomer, Male." Shaft was followed by two sequels, Shaft's Big Score (1972) and Shaft In Africa (1973) and was added to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry in 2000, alongside fellow inductees Apocalypse Now and Goodfellas. Also in 2000, it was remade by director John Singleton, starring Samuel L. Jackson as Shaft.
But what was so appealing about the 1971 John Shaft is that for all his pro-black rhetoric ("Problems, baby?" "Yeah, I got a couple of them. I was born black and I was born poor."), Shaft belonged to no social group at all---not blacks, not whites, not cops, not civilians, not rich, not poor.
Overtly, Shaft aligns himself with his black "brothers," refusing to be a stool pigeon to the white cops who don't understand the pressures of the ghetto. But when Chief Androzzi holds up a black pen to Shaft and says, "You ain't so black," Shaft holds a white coffee cup up to Androzzi and responds, "You ain't so white."
Shaft distrusts black authority figures as much as white ones. Among his few true friends are an Italian cop (Androzzi), an Irish bartender and two flamboyantly gay men. As Hayes' famous theme song states, Shaft was indeed "a complicated man."
Despite his somewhat ludicrous machismo, Shaft is STILL a more complex character than most black characters in movies today, and Shaft is a surprisingly complex film. Despite its unspectacular plot, it has shockingly complicated characters (almost none of them fit neatly into either "good" or "bad" categories), and the film has a socially relevant edge.
For example, Shaft enlists the help of a group of Black Nationals (who have a large poster of Malcolm X in their hideout), a group Shaft obviously respects but does not fully support. The Nationals, meanwhile, call Shaft a "Tom" for consorting with white men, whereupon, predictably, Shaft kicks their collective butt.
Shaft's major drawback is its portrayal of women. Hayes' song begins with "Who's the black private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks?" This proves prophetic, as he has sex with both a black woman and a white woman during the span of the film.
While this promiscuity is certainly a sign of the times, Shaft's sexual habits are more disturbing than those of his white counterpart, James Bond, because Shaft so clearly comes from a place more grounded in reality. The black woman Shaft sleeps with is a single mother that he truly seems to care about, which makes his offhand one-nighter with the white woman feel all the more cheap.
Shaft only gives in to the white woman's seduction AFTER he's finished beating the crap out of a few mobsters, and he's way too busy making phone calls in the morning to even say hello to her. These details are supposed to set his priorities straight in our minds, but they don't work.
Still, Shaft's reputation as merely "blaxploitation" is undeserved. Sure, Shaft DOES have a lot of sex, and he DOES say a lot of things like "You dig?" "Right on!" and "Up yours, baby!" and there ARE a lot of people getting beaten up and killed.
But, again, those are signs of the times rather than indictments against the picture. In the early '70s, films were aimed at adults rather than teenagers, and skin was most definitely in. Meanwhile, lingo like "You dig?" was considered current.
Finally, the body count stemmed mostly from Shaft's attempt to be a black Bond---someone who was tough, funny, sexual and could kill dozens of people and still be considered cool. Shaft was a movie that prided itself on going "too far," and a low body count would've seemed downright pansy.
From the opening sequence, which features high angle shots of Shaft moving through the throngs of civilians on the New York streets, it is clear that Shaft is one of the people, unlike the elitist Bond. The soundtrack that accompanies much of Shaft's street-walking (and there is a LOT of footage spent on Shaft hoofing it up and down New York streets) features plenty of songs describing the black urban situation---a situation full of poverty, welfare, drugs and inhuman living conditions.
Interestingly, we rarely see any of these conditions (aside from the general gritty look of the Harlem setting). This speaks to the film's impressive degree of restraint, particularly in light of the myriad of blaxploitation features that would follow Shaft.
In fact, the mere EXISTENCE of the movie Shaftwith its grainy film stock, cheap production values and poorly mixed dialogue tracksis a celebration of high achievement, despite dire economic straits.
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