Director: Gordon Parks
Production: MGM, Shaft Productions Ltd.; distributed by MGMUA; color, 35mm; running time: 98 minutes. Released July 1971, USA. Cost: $1.5 million.
Producers: Joel Freeman, David Golden (associate); screenplay: Ernest Tidyman, John D. F. Black; cinematography: Urs Furrer; editor: Hugh Robertson; sound: Lee Bost, Hal Watkins; art director: Emanuel Gerard; costume designer: Joseph Aulisi; original music: Isaac Hayes; makeup: Martin Bell; casting: Judith Lamb.
Cast: Richard Roundtree (John Shaft); Moses Gunn (Bumpy Jonas); Charles Cioffi (Lieutenant Victor Androzzi); Christopher St. John (Ben Buford); Gwenn Mitchell (Ellie Moore); Lawrence Pressman (Sergeant Tom Hannon); Victor Arnold (Charlie); Sherri Brewer (Marcy Jonas); Rex Robbins (Rollie); Camille Yarbrough (Dina Greene); Margaret Warncke (Linda); Joseph Leon (Bryan Leibowitz); Arnold Johnson (Cul); Dominic Barto (Patsy); George Strus (Carmen); Edmund Hashim (Lee); Drew Bundini Brown (Willy); Tommy Lane (Leroy); Al Kirk (Sims); Shimen Ruskin (Dr. Sam); Antonio Fargas (Bunky).
Awards: Oscar Award for Best Music, Song (Isaac Hayes), 1972; Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score (Isaac Hayes), 1972; Grammy Award for Best Original Score written for a Motion Picture (Isaac Hayes), 1972; MTV Movie Award for Lifetime Achievement (Richard Roundtree), 1994.
Tidyman, Ernest, Shaft, New York, 1971.
Guerrero, Ed, Framing Blackness: The African American Image inFilm, Philadelphia, 1993.
Belton, John, American Cinema/American Culture, New York, 1994.
James, Darius (a.k.a. Dr. Snakeskin), That's Blaxploitation! Roots ofthe Baadasssss 'Tude (Rated X by an All-Whyte Jury), New York, 1995.
Martinez, Gerald, Diana Martinez, and Andres Chavez, What It Is. . .What It Was! The Black Film Explosion of the 70s in Words andPictures, New York, 1998.
Bannon, Barbara, "What's Happening to Ernest Tidyman's 'Shaft' On the Way to the Screen," in Publishers Weekly, April 1971.
Canby, Vincent, "'Shaft'—At Last, a Good Saturday Night Movie," in New York Times, 11 July 1971.
Oberbeck, S. K, "Black Eye," in Newsweek, 19 July 1971.
Riley, Clayton, "A Black Movie for White Audiences?" in New YorkTimes, 25 July 1971.
Elson, John T, "Black Moses," in Time, 20 December 1971.
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"He's cool and tough. He's a black private dick who's a sex machine with all the chicks. He doesn't take orders from anybody, black or white, but he'd risk his neck for his brother man. I'm talkin' about Shaft. Can you dig it?" These lines, from Isaac Hayes' Oscar Award-winning "Theme from Shaft," serves as a good introduction to Richard Roundtree's African American hero/rebel/icon John Shaft, eponymous star of the wildly successful 1971 feature film directed by Gordon Parks. One of the first entries to fall under the controversial heading of "blaxploitation" cinema, Shaft followed directly on the heels of Martin Van Peeble's Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song (1971), and is widely acknowledged as the film which initiated the black film explosion of the 1970s (along with Superfly, directed by Parks' son, and released one year later).
Shaft's screenplay was written by Ernest Tidyman, author of a series of popular detective novels featuring the film's protagonist. (Tidyman would go on to win an Oscar for Best Screenplay in 1972 for his work on William Friedkin's The French Connection.) After the success of Sweetback, MGM gave Parks the go-ahead—and a modest (even for the time) $1.5 million budget—for a project which would hopefully capitalize on the fast-emerging black market. Parks was already an extremely accomplished individual, having a reputation as one of America's preeminent still photographers of African descent (his work appeared in Life magazine from the 1940s through the late 1960s), as well as being an esteemed author, composer, and filmmaker. In 1969, Parks became the first African American to direct a major studio production, the autobiographical The Learning Tree. Parks wanted a fresh face to play the lead role in his new film, and found exactly what he was looking for in Roundtree, a former Ebony model and occasional theatre actor whose looks, ability, and physical presence provided just the right combination of machismo, virility, and confidence for the part.
Shaft's convoluted plot is actually fairly standard hard-boiled detective fare. After inadvertently causing the death of a gangster who showed up at his office for some unexplained reason, John Shaft is coerced by a pair of white police inspectors to help them gather information about a gang war rumored to be taking place in Harlem. Meanwhile, a drug-dealing black godfather, Bumpy Jonas (played wonderfully by Moses Gunn), hires Shaft to save his daughter from the people who have recently kidnapped her. This turns out to be the Italian mafia, so with the help of a former comrade (Ben Buford, played by Christopher St. John) and his cadre of black nationalist followers, Shaft undertakes a dangerous but ultimately successful rescue mission. All of this non-stop action is interrupted by dated romantic interludes (Shaft seems to have no qualms about cheating on his girlfriend, and proves himself an equal-opportunity lover), and opportunities for Shaft to make whitey look square, stupid, or worse.
If ever there existed a film in which the narrative is simply a vehicle for showcasing a particular character, Shaft is it. Together, Tidyman, Parks, and Roundtree created a strong black hero who—for the first time in Hollywood cinema—made his own rules, listened to no one, gave the orders instead of taking them, and was not in the least afraid of making jokes at the expense of white authority figures. It is worth comparing Roundtree's character with those so often portrayed by legendary African American thespian Sidney Poitier, figures who were polite, elegant, and generally acceptable to caucasian audiences. Shaft's revolutionary implications are inadvertently revealed in the press booklet accompanying its release, which protests (too strongly) that the film "has a black hero, but don't confuse that with a message— it's for fun!" Despite its subversive protagonist and militant undertones, Shaft did remarkable business among both black and white audiences, eventually grossing over $23 million at U.S. box offices alone. Such broad-ranging success can only be explained by the fact that Shaft is perfectly comfortable in any situation, with people of every stripe (including a blatantly typecast homosexual bartender, who feels compelled to pinch his butt), and that his magnetism and coolness under fire transcend mere color boundaries.
None of this, however, is to say that Parks' film escaped all criticism. Like so many of its blaxploitation offspring, Shaft was accused of perpetuating negative stereotypes of African Americans, including promiscuity, immorality, and a propensity towards violence. In another vein, black cultural critics such as Darius James have argued that Shaft—which originally had a white man in the title role—is merely "a conventional action film for general audiences, enlivened by its Black cast members." In interviews, Martin Van Peebles concurs with this assessment and goes even further, asserting that while John Shaft is allowed to be flamboyant and do little things, the film's subliminal message is actually counterrevolutionary—that a white authority figure (the police commissioner) is still there hovering over him, simply tolerating his excesses.
Whether Shaft is of any political or ideological value for African Americans remains a debatable issue. What cannot be denied is the impact the picture has had on later black (and white) filmmakers. Boyz N The Hood (1991) director John Singleton eloquently sums up this complex legacy when he writes, "Mind you, it's not a perfect movie. But. . . you have a whole generation totally influenced by the image of a Black man walking down the street in a leather coat, walking through Harlem; the close-ups on his face." And it should not be forgotten that Hayes' score for the film was groundbreaking in that here, music effectively led the narrative. Following on the heels of Shaft's success, Parks, Tidyman, and Roundtree collaborated on a sequel in 1972, Shaft's Big Score! John Guillermin's Shaft In Africa arrived in theatres the next year. And with a blaxploitation revival gaining steam in the late 1990s (Original Gangstas, Jackie Brown), Roundtree—who made only $13,000 for his work in the original—is slated to reprise his signature role in Singleton's Shaft Returns (2000).
Directed by Gordon Parks and starring Richard Roundtree as the itinerant black detective, John Shaft, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's hugely successful 1972 feature, helped initiate Hollywood's Blaxploitation film craze, a series of cheap and sensational, but lucrative productions featuring provocative ethnic protagonists. Although Shaft offers a proud and raw revision of the typical Hollywood African-American hero, the tough spectacle of John Shaft's defiance ultimately contributes little to the cause of racial harmony and understanding.
Provoked by the $10 million in profits of Melvin Van Peeples' independently produced Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song in 1971, the aging Hollywood studios observed that Van Peeples had managed to target a widely ignored new box office patronage. Three social factors combined to create a new public taste for successful ethnic "badasses" like Sweetback and Shaft. The rise of the civil rights and Black Power movements fostered a popular appreciation for the intelligent, capable, and righteous black individual who triumphed in his attack on the white establishment. The national white flight to the suburbs also contributed to a shifting racial demographic that revised city centers like Chicago, Detroit, and Atlanta where the cinemas of downtown commercial areas now catered to a predominantly middle-and working-class African-American clientele. Lastly, in the late 1960s, Hollywood's long-standing policy of self-censorship gave way to a more liberal rating system that offered mainstream film a new outlet for what had been previously considered uncomfortably blatant expressions of African-American sexuality and anger.
Never as openly revolutionary as the X-rated Sweet Sweetback, whose title character escapes white justice after a virulent spree of fornication and murder, Shaft tapped into popular feelings of racial tension as it revised the standard Hollywood hard-boiled detective with an R-rated ghetto flavor that tweaked but never attempted to topple the status quo. Shaft did much, in Ed Guerrero's words, to "crystallize Hollywood's formula for the 'new' filmic representation of blacks." The film itself revolves around Private Detective John Shaft's rude, but shrewd negotiation of a triple threat. Hired to free the kidnapped daughter of "Bumpy Jonas," a dubious black mob boss, Shaft tangles with the white racist police who attempt to reduce him to a slavish errand boy, navigates the race-complicated grudges between black and white organized crime, and utilizes the revolutionary fervor of militant, but ultimately doomed black urban youth. Throughout the film, Richard Roundtree's performance as the indefatigable private detective subtly revises many of the best hard-boiled moments of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Like Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, John Shaft overpowers an attacker in his own office, and taunts both his employers and the police, but Shaft also makes deft use of his ethnic appearance when he masquerades as a servile bartending "boy" in order to foil two white assassins. Finally, Shaft's dramatic climactic assault on the hired guns in a seedy inner-city hotel references both the war film and the Western in its calculated, paramilitary strike on a fortified outpost of white evil.
Shaft's sexual escapades, boldly aestheticized by Gordon Park's disco-energized cinematography and Isaac Hayes' funky grooves, further exhibit his prowess as a thoroughly masculine black badass. While Shaft shares his most romantic liaisons with a comely African-American woman, he also asserts his manhood by picking up random white women in a local bar. Shaft's post-coital pillow talk with his regular black partner is tender, but his biracial one night stand ends coldly. As Shaft ignores and insults his nameless white lover the following morning, she labels him decidedly "shitty." This brief exchange between the black hero and his white bedfellow powerfully informs the film's finale, when Shaft mimics the angry white woman's insult as a climactic joke on a white establishment cop. Subtly taunting but never openly attacking the racial hierarchy in which he survives, Shaft ends the film disappearing into the city after having effectively "screwed" all his white antagonists.
Aside from two fair sequels, Shaft's Big Score and Shaft in Africa, Shaft's popularization of the sexy, truculent black male spawned an often bizarre series of Blaxploitation rip-offs and pretenders. A few of these heroes, like Superfly's Youngblood Priest and The Harder They Come's Ivan Martin, offer some psychological depth. Most Shaft-inspired Blaxploitation heroes, however, are grotesque, ultraviolent perversions of black sexuality. In films like Welcome Home, Brother Charles and Cotton Comes to Harlem, black male pride and defiance is reduced to crude arrogance, degrading sexual stunts, and brutal vengeance. Hollywood also marketed the feminine side of Blaxploitation through female Shafts, Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson. Films like Coffy, Foxy Brown, and Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold advertised a shapely, violent black heroine whose arrogant appeal centered around ample doses of ethnic attitude and T&A.
Shaft's new heroic stage in the Hollywood image of the African-American male is clearly limited. Gladstone Yearwood explains, "films such as Shaft, Superfly, and Cooley High attempt to subvert, or at least question, the dominant tradition in the cinema, but they are effectively harnessed by it in their usage of the Hollywood model as the basis for the development of black heroes." Originally conceived and scripted for a white actor, MGM quickly darkened its Shaft project for an inner-city African-American audience in order to test drive a new narrative formula where the black won and survived for profitable sequels. Richard Roundtree received a mere $13,000 for his starring role in the first film and the majority of Shaft's startling profits were rolled back into MGM's white executive wallets.
Exemplifying the studios' new drive toward customized saturation marketing, Shaft's success with the African-American urban audience resulted in a wave of diversified product tie-ins. Aside from more than $10 million in profits from the film's first year of release and the success of Isaac Hayes' Oscar-winning, platinum soundtrack album, MGM capitalized on the popularity of John Shaft's refusal to bow to the man through a merchandising storm that B.J. Mason detailed in Ebony as a plague of Shaft "suits, watches, belts and sunglasses, leather coats, decals, sweatshirts and night shirts, beach towels, posters, after shave lotion and cologne." Beginning with Shaft, Hollywood's cheap and sly appropriation of the racial tensions in America's metropolitan centers became the basis for a parade of crude fantasies and commercial gimmicks revolving around predominantly brutal and misogynistic black heroes who rule the ghetto, but would never garner Sidney Poitier's invitation to dinner.
Guerrero, Ed. Framing Blackness. Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1993.
James, Darius. That's Blaxploitation: Roots of the Baadassss 'Tude (Rated X by an All-Whyte Jury). New York, St. Martin's Press, 1995.
Mason, B.J. "The New Films: Culture or Con Game?" Ebony December 1972, 68.
Riley, Clayton. "Shaft Can Do Everything—I Can Do Nothing."New York Times. 13 August 1972.
Yearwood, Gladstone. "The Hero in Black Film." Wide Angle. Vol.5, No. 2, 32-50.
shaft / shaft/ • n. 1. a long, narrow part or section forming the handle of a tool or club, the body of a spear or arrow, or a similar implement: the shaft of a golf club the shaft of a feather. ∎ an arrow or spear. ∎ a column, esp. the main part between the base and capital. ∎ a long cylindrical rotating rod for the transmission of motive power in a machine. ∎ each of the pair of poles between which a horse is harnessed to a vehicle. ∎ a ray of light or bolt of lightning: a shaft of sunlight. ∎ a sudden flash of a quality or feeling: a shaft of inspiration. ∎ a remark intended to be witty, wounding, or provoking: he directs his shafts against her. ∎ vulgar slang a penis. ∎ (the shaft) inf. harsh or unfair treatment: the executives continue to raise their pay while the workers get the shaft. 2. a long, narrow, typically vertical hole that gives access to a mine, accommodates an elevator in a building, or provides ventilation. • v. 1. [intr.] (of light) shine in beams: brilliant sunshine shafted through the skylight. 2. [tr.] vulgar slang (of a man) have sexual intercourse with (a woman). ∎ inf. treat (someone) harshly or unfairly: I suppose she'll get a lawyer and I'll be shafted. DERIVATIVES: shaft·ed adj. [in comb.] a long-shafted harpoon. ORIGIN: Old English scæft, sceaft ‘handle, pole,’ of Germanic origin; related to Dutch schaft, German Schaft, and perhaps also to scepter. Early senses of the verb (late Middle English) were ‘fit with a handle’ and ‘send out shafts of light.’
This 1971 feature film, directed by Gordon Parks (1912–), revolutionized the image of African Americans in Hollywood (see entry under 1930s—Film and Theater in volume 2). Shaft was produced inexpensively by MGM (see entry under 1920s— Film and Theater in volume 2). Shaft's star, Richard Roundtree (1942–), was paid only $13,000 to play John Shaft. The gritty private-eye drama proved a huge box-office success and helped create the movie craze known as "blaxploitation" (films in which black characters' lifestyles are often displayed in a fashion that reinforces negative stereotypes).
John Shaft was a private detective hired to locate the kidnapped daughter of an underworld chieftain. With its loner hero, fiendish plot twists, and shady characters, Shaft echoed the golden age of Hollywood detective movies like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. There was just one twist: For the first time, all the major characters were African Americans. Director Gordon Parks (1912–), a distinguished photographer and cinematographer, succeeded in capturing the look and feel of urban America in the 1970s. The film's funky score by Isaac Hayes (1942–) featured the Academy Award–winning "Theme from Shaft," with its memorable lyrics "Can you dig it?" and "Shut yo' mouth."
Ultimately Shaft triumphs over his enemies and completes his assignment, with little or no help from the white establishment. The plot of Shaft was largely secondary to the film's style—and that of its star, however. As Shaft, Roundtree brought an element of cool to his character that few African American actors had brought—or been permitted to bring—to their roles in the past. With his stout Afro hair style, ankle-length leather coat, and quiet manner, Shaft became an icon (a symbol of his time) and a sex symbol to millions of youths, both black and white.
Roundtree returned for two sequels to the moneymaking picture: Shaft's Big Score! (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973). Each film placed Shaft in ever more cartoonish situations, and neither sequel made as much money as the ground-breaking original. But Shaft's influence was felt in other successful "blaxploitation" classics like Superfly (1972) and The Harder They Come (1973), each of which featured lead characters clearly modeled on John Shaft. Eventually the blaxploitation genre boom petered out with clunkers like Blacula (1972) and Blackenstein (1973). Shaft's unique impact on American cinema was evident when it was remade in 2000 by director John Singleton (1968–). This time, Samuel L. Jackson (1948–) played the title character, bringing the classic "Shaft cool" to a new generation of filmgoers.
—Robert E. Schnakenberg
For More Information
Blaxploitation.com.http://www.blaxploitation.com/ (accessed March 26, 2002).
James, Darius. That's Blaxploitation: Roots of the Baadasssss 'Tude (Rated X by an All'Whyte Jury). New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
Martinez, Gerald, Diana Martinez, and Andres Chavez. What It Is . . . What It Was!: The Black Film Explosion of the '70s in Words and Pictures. New York: Hyperion, 1998.
Shaft Official Movie Web Site.http://www.shaft-themovie.com/ (accessed March 26, 2002).
1. Body, fust, or trunk of a colonnette or column extending from the top of the base to the bottom of the capital, in the Classical Orders diminishing in size as it rises (see diminution, entasis).
2. Slim cylindrical tall element, one of several clustered around a pier and tied to it by shaft-rings, often made of Purbeck marble or some other material to contrast with the lighter stone of the pier.
3. Colonnette set at an angle of a building, e.g. junction of a jamb with a wall, or framing a reveal.