Shaft (1971)

*. OK, so even if you’ve never seen this movie, about this cat named Shaft, you’ve probably heard the Academy Award-winning theme music by Isaac Hayes. Can you dig it? Hell yeah!
*. Hayes had auditioned for the lead role. In a way he got it, since his song would go on to be an even bigger hit than the movie. It sets the tone (or vibe) for tongue-in-cheek blaxploitation perfectly. This was a genre that never took itself that seriously. “Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?” Please.
*. Speaking of opening notes, I love how that overhead shot we start with takes us through progressively seedier cinema marquees until, rising up from the subway, we get . . . Shaft!
*. No movie could live up to such a theme song, and Shaft doesn’t. I liked it more on this most recent rewatch though then I did seeing it a few years ago. I don’t think there’s a whole lot to it, with the hopeful premise of a sort of Big Sleep in Harlem soon fizzling out pretty quickly. But there’s no part of it that’s not entertaining.
*. Released the same year (but a month earlier) as The Omega Man, which is sometimes heralded as portraying the first interracial kiss in a movie. I think The Omega Man‘s primacy has to be qualified anyway, as being the first such kiss in a major Hollywood movie. I also wonder if they reckon these things differently if it’s a black man and a white woman, or vice versa.
*. Shaft doesn’t really have a way with women beyond being able to pick them up and then have them take care of him. His main squeeze Ellie is the recipient of one of the drippiest and most perfunctory fucks in cinema history. Shaft actually seems to fall asleep on top of her at the end. His telephone conversation with her is famous: : “I love you.” “Yeah, I know. Take it easy.” Hangs up.
*. A later conquest complains about how “pretty shitty” he is with “what comes after.” Sad but true. Unfortunately, someone seems to have really liked the “shitty” part, as it gets picked up as a kind of refrain when the one-night stand tells him to close his apartment door himself on her way out. “Close it yourself, shitty!” is even made the last line of the film, where it really doesn’t make any sense. Why would the police lieutenant Vic tell him to close the case up?
*. Some critics found Shaft’s treatment of women to pander too much to black stereotypes. But after that theme song and its reference to the black dick attracting all the chicks I don’t know how po-faced we can be about this. It’s a blaxploitation movie. Of course it’s trafficking in stereotypes. I guess the question is how you think the movie wants us to take them.
*.  Here’s one of those little things that I like to notice: Look at how, when Shaft roughs up one of Bumpy’s goons, the goon turns and spits a mouthful of blood onto the wall behind him. That’s great, and it didn’t cost anything.
*. Check out those full bookshelves in Shaft’s apartment! Now there’s something I can really dig. You don’t see bookshelves like that in movies much any more (much less in the apartments of action heroes). Then again, you don’t see bookshelves in people’s homes a whole lot. Well, you do in my house!

*. Gordon Parks came from a background in photography. This makes it all the stranger to me that this movie, while well shot for its budget, is so without visual style. The only thing that stands out is the garish colouring of some of the interiors. What it does have is cool. In the “making of” featurette included with the DVD there’s an instructive bit of direction given by Parks to Richard Roundtree on how to act when he breaks the bottle over the Mafia guy’s head in the bar. “Make sure you retain the cool that Shaft should retain.”
*. It’s pretty easy to retain that cool when you have all those hip lines. “Don’t let your mouth get your ass in trouble.” “You are one wise Caucasian, Vic.” “You’re a cagey spook, Bumpy.” (Reply: “You ride a tall horse, Mr. Shaft.”) It also helps when you’ve got such a nice wardrobe. That leather jacket even earns a compliment from the gay bartender, and I assume it’s what Gene Siskel meant when he singled out Shaft’s “fancy leather outfits” as one of the only things he appreciated about the movie.
*. That sense of cool pervades everything about Roundtree’s performance. My favourite example is the scene where Shaft meets the Mafia guy in the fancy bar and he proceeds to drink his espresso at his own pace before leaving to be taken to Marcy. That scene is actually quite unnecessary, but it’s played out to its full just so we can see Shaft being cool drinking coffee from a tiny cup and not getting flustered when being called a nigger. Why the waitress is presented as being so spaced out is, however, something I’ve never been able to understand.
*. The trailer included with the DVD is an absolute must. Watch it after you see the movie because, like many trailers from this period, the entire plot and all the highlights are given away. The voiceover though is priceless. “Shaft’s his name. Shaft’s his game.” Huh? What does that mean? “The mob wanted Harlem back. They got Shaft up to here.” Here? Where? “Hotter than Bond, cooler than Bullitt.” “Rated R. If you want to see Shaft, ask your momma.” You’re damn right. Lay it on me.

3 thoughts on “Shaft (1971)

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I haven’t seen that since I was a kid so I’ll have to take your word for it. And I’m pretty sure I never saw the one where he went to Africa. I guess there’s only so much Shaft I can take . . .

      I will be posting my thoughts on the 2019 edition tomorrow though.


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