Throughout this series, I will be taking a look at some movies deemed classic and culturally important and reviewing them in a modern context.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the thought of African American cinema had barely crossed the mind of anyone in Hollywood. Sydney Potier would make history in 1959, when he became the first African American to be nominated for a “Best Actor in a Leading Role.” In 1964, Potier would make history yet again by winning the aforementioned award. But even then, he was nominated for movies made for and by white people. Hollywood still had yet to have a black story about Black Americans, by Black Americans, and for Black Americans. In 1971, that changed with Gordon Parks’ “Shaft,” and its eventual release in theaters. This film proved to Hollywood that audiences were interested in Black stories told by Black filmmakers. “Shaft” was revolutionary at the time, as it brought on the popularization of the Blaxploitation genre, a renaissance of Black films in the ‘70s.
The movie itself is fairly good. The movie focuses on the titular John Shaft, a cool private detective, looking for the daughter of Bumpy, the notorious mob boss who hired him. Along the way, however, Shaft realizes that the case might be much bigger than what Bumpy lead on. The idea of the renegade cop who plays by his own rules was in very high demand in the early ‘70s, with movies like “Dirty Harry” and “The French Connection”. “Shaft” manages to take that idea and really have some fun with it. There are some fairly interesting characters and a good old-fashioned “detective who might be way in over his head” storyline, with the addition of plot twists around every corner. To add, one cannot talk about this movie without talking about the legendary soundtrack by Issac Hayes. As John Shaft walks through the streets of Harlem, Hayes’ soundtrack really reminds you that Shaft is “the cat who won’t drop out when there’s danger all about.”
However, the film is bogged down by some severe pacing issues. Tighter editing could really benefit this movie in several instances. The screenplay, while fun, is sometimes too complex. I found myself often asking “what just happened?” or “ who’s this guy?” Along with that, the delivery of some of the lines are less than great. It’s also very clear that that MGM was only willing to give Gordon Parks the bare minimum budget to make the movie, as I’m sure that they did not expect the extent of the film’s success. The idea of a sort of slick neo-noir movie that the director clearly had in mind is ultimately compromised as an effect of it’s lower budget. The lack of budget, however, does make the film an absolute goldmine of some quality ‘70s camp.
All in all, “Shaft” knows how to show its audience a good time, despite its faults. I would recommend watching it with a group of friends, as it provides fun for all. Though you may not see any film scholars writing any extensive essays on this, it still remains as one of the most important movies in the history of Hollywood. Its success proved to Hollywood that Black movies were not only well received, but could be profitable as well. Over the years, it has become one of those “Old Movies” that no one really knows, or even cares about. It may not be a perfect movie, however, I do believe that it should be remembered as one of the classic films of Hollywood. “Shaft” was (and still is) revolutionary in every sense of the word, as it paved the way for filmmakers like Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins, and Ryan Coogler to tell uniquely Black stories. “Shaft” may seem smaller in the broader history of cinema, but the echo of its impact is heard to this very day, and will remain heard for years to come.