Blaxploitation wasn't really a term for the films starring black actors and, frequently, featuring black writers and directors in the early to mid-1970s at the time the original movies were made. In all honesty, the exploitation part in many of the films is questionable at best, other than some of the later movies rehashing plots and trying to ride on the coattails of Shaft, Super Fly and Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song. Hollywood was at a point in the late 1960s where they were hurting, as color televisions became less expensive and the huge, epic films of the past started to seem like relics as many of the confines (such as the Hays Code) began to fade away.
Due to the failure of big budget productions, and movie studios frequently teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, many were happy to distribute films made by up-and-coming independent writer/directors. In many cases it was the people who made the movie that went around and got the financing, hired the crew and put the blood, sweat and tears into making it. Even when the studio was involved they started to realize that many of these emerging artists could make movies for a few hundred thousand or a million at the most that were guaranteed to turn a profit. It's the reason so many good films came out in the 1970s and why directors such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were able to get their foot in the door when just a decade previous they would have been laughed out of the building.
This not only worked for white film makers, but unintentionally also worked out for black directors trying to break into the mainstream. Honestly, Melvin Van Peebles had made a much better film, with a clearer message and much more professional direction with The Watermelon Man, but it was Sweet Sweetback, despite it looking like a film school student's first amateur film, that helped initially change things. There is also the fact that the former was somewhat aimed at a white, liberal audience, criticizing hypocrisy and reminding them that there was still a long way to go before things changed. Sweet Sweetback, however, was made for a black audience.
Unfortunately, since Van Peebles's movie was released first, Shaft has sometimes been unfairly criticized, with hints that the role was meant for a white actor but changed to get black audiences into the seats. The fact of the matter was that John Shaft already existed as the title character of the book by Ernest Tidyman, and was always black. When director Gordon Parks got involved there was no question about whitewashing the character, as Parks already had his own legacy. One of the founders of Essence magazine, he was a poet and a profession photographer, often focusing on the African-American community. He was also a writer, having published The Learning Tree in 1963 and independently producing and directing the film adaptation of the book in 1969. Shaft was studio produced and had a pretty decent budget of just a bit over a million dollars. MGM put their full faith behind Parks, long before the unexpected underground success of Sweetback, and it paid off in being one of the few MGM films to turn a profit in 1971.
John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) is a private detective in New York. One morning while doing his rounds he finds out there are a couple of men working for a Harlem criminal boss named Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) looking for him. The police also become aware that Bumpy is looking to meet with Shaft, and his frequent contact Vic Androzzi (Charles Cioffi) tries to get information from him on what is going on. It turns out that Jonas's daughter Marcy (Sherry Brewer) has been kidnaped by unknown individuals and he wants to hire Shaft to find her.
Bumpy thinks that she may have been picked up by a group of black revolutionaries led by Ben Buford (Christopher St. John), but it turns out the truth is Jonas's men bungled a robbery and angered an unnamed mafia boss. With the aid of Buford's group, and with New York's finest to help lean on the outside enforcers, Shaft hopes to rescue Marcy and come out with a huge payday on top of it. That is, of course, if he survives.
Shaft has all the familiar detective tropes, but also makes the character more action-oriented than many of the ones from the past. While singer Isaac Hayes is said to have auditioned for the role, it was Richard Roundtree that filled it, and wonderfully. If anything he was too good as the role pretty much stifled his career, particularly when Hollywood got back on its feet and decided it was time to start throwing money at big budget films again. At the same time a number of well-meaning white liberals started to be concerned that these movies did nothing but promote negative stereotypes. By the end of the 1970s there was no longer a need for John Shaft, and so Roundtree and the other black actors that shine in this film, Moses Gunn and Christopher St. John, were left again with the bit parts that movies like Shaft were supposed to put in the past.
That also went for Gordon Parks. He directed this movie's first sequel, Shaft's Big Score!, before moving on to other projects, and many of them Afro-centric. Unfortunately for the longest time that also meant once again being marginalized and considered to appeal to only audiences of color and not the mainstream. It's a shame because his photographic eye made him a great director. Many of the problems I find in later blaxploitation films - bad framing, lighting and a tendency to have scenes of just driving or walking from one place to another to pad out the time - are not apparent here. I understand some modern audiences find it a bit talky or slow in places, but that's not a flaw on Parks's behalf, but just a stylistic change that should be expected over a course of 50 years.
One of the best examples of his talents is the opening, with Shaft emerging from a subway stop on 42nd Street. It's a distance shot, but Roundtree in his distinctive attire is unmistakable, and the opening theme song from Isaac Hayes sets the urban mood perfectly. It goes on to show Shaft making his way through Manhattan, displaying New York in all its dingy glory. I would question if Scorsese could have done any better at establishing a character with just music and his physical attitude as he deals with the world around him. Until we get to the shoeshine place about the only dialogue we get is a quick "Up yours!" when someone almost hits him while crossing the street.
As for the story itself there are no real surprises - Shaft gets a case, it turns out to be more complicated than he thought, he gets the crap kicked out of him at one point and, ultimately, is able to finish the job with a little help from his friends. There is the occasional bit of social consciousness thrown in, but that's to be expected from the 1970s. Parks definitely could have made a more substantial point about the racial attitudes of the time, but it always feels like his goal was to make a fun action film rather than to get up on a soapbox and preach. At the time just having a strong black lead in a mainstream studio film - and, unlike a lot of later movies, making him a private eye instead of a pimp or pusher - was pushing the envelope quite far as it was.
Even if Shaft hadn't had its imitators or been responsible for starting a new genre, this would still have been a hit film as well as a landmark for black actors and directors. The thing I find sad is that, 50 years later, there is still a separate, marginalized black cinema, when at least one point in our history it appeared that movies like Shaft would just become another everyday part of Hollywood rather than an anomaly.
Time: 100 minutes
Starring: Richard Roundtree, Christopher St. John, Moses Gunn, Michael Cioffi
Director: Gordon Parks