BAMF Blaxploitation Archive – SHAFT

shaft posterBAMF’s Blaxploitation Archive is a collection of reviews originally written in the 1990s that appeared in the pages of BadAzz MoFo. This review and many others have been reprinted and collected in BadAzz MoFo’s Book of Blaxploitation, Volume One, which is now available for purchase.

SHAFT 1971; director, Gordon Parks Sr.; starring Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn, Christopher St. John
No conversation about blaxploitation would be complete without considerable discussion of Shaft, easily one of the top five important films of both the genre and the era. Yes, there were quite a few other groundbreaking films, including Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Cotton Comes to Harlem, and pre-blaxploitation era films like In the Heat of the Night, Uptight and The Split, but in many ways Shaft was the culmination of all these films, and the divergent point from which blaxploitation would spring.

Before I get too deep into the film itself, it’s important that I clear up a major myth of blaxploitation. There has been a long-running story that claims that the movie Shaft was in development at MGM with a white actor in the lead role, and that Richard Roundtree wasn’t cast until after the success of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. This story is part of the larger legend of Melvin Van Peebles, the maverick filmmaker responsible for Sweetback, and certainly has a nice ring to it. Unfortunately, the chances of this being true are slim to none.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the third film from Van Peebles, was independently financed (partially by Bill Cosby), and released in April 1971. The film was embraced by the black community, especially by the Black Panther Party, and eventually went on to become a huge box office success, earning over $15 million (on a budget of about $150,000), and becoming one of the most successful indie films of all time. Shaft was released in July of 1971 (and earned over $20 million on a budget of just over $1 million).

If the story of John Shaft initially being a white character, and then changed to black after the success of Sweetback is to be believed, it means that among other things the movie was cast, produced, filmed, scored, edited and released in about two months (not even Larry Cohen can pull that off). The truth is that Shaft was filmed in New York City in early 1971 (between January and March), and that Roundtree had been cast after a very long and very public casting process. Many other actors had been considered for the role of Shaft, including James Earl Jones and Ron O’Neal, as well as singer Isaac Hayes (who would compose the Oscar-winning score), before Roundtree, a model with limited acting experience was cast.

It’s important to keep in mind that the character of John Shaft in Ernest Tidyman’s original novel was black (Tidyman actually won a NAACP Image Award for creating the character). It is also important to note that MGM had already had a huge hit in 1970 with Cotton Comes to Harlem, which was directed by Ossie Davis (who was offered the chance to direct Shaft), as well as 1968’s The Split starring Jim Brown. MGM along with United Artist (which produced many of Sidney Poitier’s films) had already begun to recognize the potential in catering to a black audience, which was how the blaxploitation movement took off. All of these factors make it very reasonable to call bullshit on the assertion that John Shaft was cast as a black man only after the success of Sweetback. It sounds cool, and it makes the impact of Sweetback seem that much more resonant, but there is no way it is true.

Shaft and Sweetback arrived in theaters after a string of films from the 1960s and 1970 had laid the groundwork for what was to come. With the exception of Poitier, Jim Brown, and to a much lesser extent Woody Strode, there were no real black matinee idols to speak of. John Shaft changed all of that, giving black audiences an action hero on par with James Bond, and opening a floodgate for more such heroes to follow. For a new generation of black audiences, Shaft was something completely different. Never before had filmgoers seen anything quite like private investigator John Shaft. He was the black private dick that was a sex machine to all the chicks. He was the cat that wouldn’t cop out, when there was danger all about. He was a complicated man, but no one understood him but his woman. In fact, he was one bad mutha…Shut yo’ mouf…I’m just talkin’ ‘bout Shaft. Can you dig it?

It’s pretty much Gumshoe 101 when our main man Shaft (Roundtree) is hired by Harlem’s crime kingpin Bumpy Jonas (Gunn) to find his daughter Marcy, no one is going to stand in his way. The problem is, no one seems to know where Marcy is being hidden, or exactly who is hiding her. Is it them damn militants, as Bumpy suspects? Hell no, it’s the mafia, who are trying to muscle in on Bumpy’s turf. Those damn honky muthas!!! Soon, Shaft is joining forces with his former ace boon coon Ben Buford (St. John), and Buford’s band of black militants. With the help of his comrades-in-arms, Shaft sets out to place his foot deep in the ass of the mob.

In the pre-Jaws, pre-Star Wars era, when James Bond films were the blockbusters of the time, Shaft earned a hefty chunk of change at the box office—especially considering the film’s paltry budget of just over one million bucks. Shaft was definitely a box office hit, and the film’s high receipts helped breathe new life into MGM Studios, which had been suffering financially for quite some time. And of course, it was the combined success of Shaft and Sweetback that helped give birth to the genre that would eventually be known as blaxploitation.

For a whole host of reasons, Shaft is considered a classic; but that doesn’t necessarily make it a great film. Sure, it’s a good movie, but I don’t think too many people will argue with me when I say that this bad boy tends to drag a bit (remember, some of those action-packed 70s classics weren’t all that action-packed). Even the sequels move at a better pace and have more fully developed stories. Still, Gordon Parks Sr. brings images and a story to the screen that surpasses much of the crap being churned out by Hollywood today. Parks was also one of the first filmmakers to really capture New York City. In fact, Shaft predates many of the classic films of the seventies, that were produced in New York; and really helped to pave the way for films like Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon, and Serpico, by proving to Hollywood that a studio film could be made cost effectively in The Big Apple.

More than the story or even the film itself, Isaac Hayes’ Oscar winning score still withstands the test of time. With the exception of some of the biggest blockbusters of all time, few movie themes are more recognizable or imitated than the “Theme from Shaft.” The masterful score by Hayes would forever change the way music was set to film, and marketed as film related merchandise. More importantly, the success of Hayes’ score and soundtrack would pave the way for one of the things most associated with blaxploitation—the music. This era was the time of symbiotic fusion of film and original music by some of the greatest black musicians to ever live. Isaac Hayes’ Shaft score gave way to the likes of James Brown’s Black Caesar, Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man, and Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly. Music and film ain’t been the same since.

Ernest Tidyman wrote a total seven John Shaft adventures, including The Last Shaft, where the character was killed off (this book was never released in the United States, and is very rare), while the film itself would go on to spawn two sequels, a short lived television series, a terrible “re-envisioning” by director John Singleton in 2000, and dozens of imitators. Shaft has become part of the rich history of American cinema—probably more so than any other character from blaxploitation. Strutting through Times Square to the sound of Isaac Hayes’ score, John Shaft helped to create a new era of onscreen black hero, and has become an enduring part of mainstream pop culture, and one of the icons of 1970s history.

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