Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Shaft (Gordon Parks, 1971)

Now, I love Blaxploitation films. It is one of my favorite genres. So, how is it that I have let the king of all Blaxploitation films elude me for so long? Perhaps it was the notoriety, or DVD availability? I don't know, but after watching The Mack, considered by some to be the greatest Blaxploitation film, I decided it was high time I saw Shaft.

If you have not seen this film, you probably know a few things already. He's the black private dick, who's a sex machine to all the chicks, and he's a bad mutha. There is a bit more to it than that. John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) is a private investigator in Manhattan (I assume Manhattan, as there seems to be a lot of old school, pre-Guliani Times Square action, and some Greenwich Village activity). A big time gangster from Harlem has been looking for Shaft, and the police want to know why. As there is a mystery angle to the story, I'll leave things there.

Now... The problem with comparing Shaft to The Mack... I called Shaft the king of Blaxploitation films in the beginning of this post, but we almost have to wonder if this is in fact a Blaxploitation film. Hear me out.

Ultimately, John Shaft is Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe, without the alcoholism and sexual hang ups. We can assume Shaft was once a police officer, or at least a government investigator like Marlowe. Like Marlowe, he doesn't take any shit from the cops or the kingpins, and despite a somewhat uncaring exterior is a bit of a crusader. So, like Across 110th Street, is Shaft a Blaxploitation film or a crime drama with a majority of black actors? I am going to say yes, for several reasons. It came quite early in the genre's history, so it was not playing up to other previous films. It addresses social issues, particularly the disparity of wealth and racism. Shaft is indeed different from many other private-eye/spy/detective characters (though he is a bit similar to James Coburn's Derek Flint). Also, it has the Blaxploitation staple of untrustworthy white men, both on the police force and in the underworld. Lastly, it features some great black actors in roles they may not have normally been able to play. More on that.

Roundtree is great as John Shaft. There is a reason this is such a well known character. Even in street scenes of Times Square, he is what you are looking at. Our antagonist, "Bumpy" Jonas, is played by the great Moses Gunn (Cornbread, Earl and Me, Roots, The NeverEnding Story, and a host of television shows at IMDb). Also, we have an appearance by one of the genre's great supporting actors; Antonio Fargas (Foxy Brown, Starsky & Hutch, Across 110th Street).

Ultimately, I will stand by my declaration that Shaft is indeed the king of Blaxploitation films. Pimps and pushers are bad guys. Period. While The Mack is extremely influential, Shaft is just as much so and certainly made the branch of the genre I prefer what it is. Coffy, Three the Hard Way, and so many others owe a huge debt to this film. If you have yet to see it, don't make the mistake I did. If you have not seen it in a while, check it out again.


Shon Richards said...

Shaft is an amazing movie. Easily in my top five.


Great article as always...

Darius Whiteplume said...


Darius Whiteplume said...

I don't know how I have avoided it. If I was not me, I'd hate me for it. :-)

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