Even if you haven’t seen Shaft (1971) you’ve probably heard of the film; even if it’s only Isaac Hayes classic funky title song. The film was also remade in 2000 and starred Samuel L. Jackson, but it is more than likely the Hayes’ funk soundtrack that has meant the film ahs endured as a cult classic with its pimpy dressed up black men and wintry Harlem and Brooklyn streets. Yet back in the day the film was made at a time when a black audience needed role models, even if the film was written by a white man, Ernest Tidyman but was directed by a leading pioneer of modern black cinema, Gordon Douglas. In other words they were not playing tokenisms or, going back to an earlier cinema playing maids, mammies or porters. There had also been the African-American actors playing characters trying to assert themselves into a racist society in In the Heat of the Night or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (both 1967), but these were middle-class characters in films that all starring the graceful Sidney Poitier and a wider black audience wanted someone else, who was cool and fly that they could relate to.
John Shaft is played by Richard Roundtree and this film was his breakout role. Shaft is a private detective working closely with the NYPD and is informed by the police that gangsters are after him. A street war is going on between the Harlem blacks and the Italians. Shaft uses one of the members of a black gang, Bumpy (Moses Gunn) to help him out in entrapping the Italians.
There’s not much of a real plot to Shaft other than a great deal of style driven by Hayes’ soundtrack. In fact throughout Shaft is not that well acted but it doesn’t seem to matter. However, this flat acting style does make the film drag in places. Despite his lack of real acting ability, Roundtree dominates every scene with his scuplted afro, big moustache and cool clothes including raincoat length leather jackets. The action is violent and in your face and shot in a seedy New York virtually unrecognisable today which has an obvious parallel with the superior The French Connection, that was coincidentally made the same year; the pair of films having many similarities with the snowy dirty and cold mean streets of the Big Apple. There is also an early small role for Antonio Fargas as a street informer that anticipates his role as Huggy Bear in ‘Starsky and Hutch’.
Shaft did prove popular enough to generate two sequels, all of which starred Roundtree: Shaft’s Big Score (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973) as well as a short lived TV series after Shaft in Africa had finished, with only 7 episodes made before it was cancelled. One of the episodes is included on the discs, as well as trailers for the two sequels. When Shaft had had its day there was a whole genre of films being made known as Blaxploitation films that also found its own black female hero in Pam Grier with Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974). The transfer of the film looks good on both discs, another notable extra being a short small Making Of featurette.