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Throughout Shaft, the lead character is built up to be a black superman. He refuses to give in to the expectations of a largely racist white society that he be a criminal and that he bow to the will of authority. Shaft is equally at home in white uptown and black harlem. And in 1971, he was a hit with white and black audiences alike.
In 1971, America had just put the most violent and strenuous years of the century behind it. The civil rights movement had won equality under the law for black Americans. But equality in the real world was another story. Previously, the history of cinema had been played out in a government that had oppressed its black citizens as a matter of policy. Black actors had been relinquished to playing small parts that usually presented stereotyped images of the black race. The early 1970's saw a renaissance for black interests in the cinema, and movies like Shaft led the way.
The man who became John Shaft for the movie unfortunately became John Shaft for his entire career. Richard Roundtree started his career as a model, working for a while in a black theater ensemble in New York City ("From Model to Movie Star" 130). Roundtree was born in New Rochelle, New York in 1937 and went on to attend Southern Illinois University. It was there that he began his acting career which consisted of big roles in small plays and small roles in small movies until Shaft came along.
Roundtree's relative obscurity was partially responsible for his landing the part. Director Gordon Parks demanded an unknown actor for the role, a requirement Roundtree fulfilled easily. Parks knew immediately when he laid eyes on the handsome, cool Roundtree, he had chosen the right man to fill Shaft's leather suits ("From Model..." 128). Plus, he worked cheap! Roundtree made only $13,000 for his work on Shaft, which grossed over $7 million (Parish 252).
Parks himself actually seemed an unlikely director for an action movie like Shaft. Extremely talented in many fields, Parks was best known as Life magazine's award-winning still photographer. Parks' first film, the autobiographical The Learning Tree was the first time a black director had handled a major studio release (Parish 251). Having directed that dramatic film, Parks saw Shaft as an opportunity to broaden his experience by trying a faster- paced style movie. Of the job, Parks said, "I wanted to shoot a little fun for a while. Then I'll do something serious"(Bannon 22).
Parks went on to direct several more Hollywood movies, including the third Shaft movie, Shaft's Big Score! for which he also composed the score. He also acted in the 1992 made-for-TV movie "Lincoln".
The success of Shaft at the box office made a major star out of Roundtree. Riding his immediate success, he went on to star in two Shaft sequels, Shaft's Big Score! and Shaft in Africa as well as a short-lived Shaft television series. Unfortunately, the character of John Shaft cast a shadow over the Roundtree's career ever since. While the role ended much of the negative typecasting that had haunted black actors up until then, it also typecast Roundtree as a black action hero in a time when actors could not build successful careers on action films. Since then, he has landed numerous small roles in television, including parts in "Roots" and two recent "Bonanza" specials. His work in film has consisted mainly of over twenty low-budget action films (Internet). But none of his roles have matched the visibility or popularity of John Shaft.
Perhaps even more successful than Shaft the movie was Shaft the soundtrack. The funky blues score reached number one on the charts and won both a Grammy and an Oscar. The score perfectly captured the spirit of black and beautiful John Shaft and his New York City turf. That slick, soulful sound is not surprising considering from where its creator, Isaac Hayes, comes.
The biography of Isaac Hayes reads like that of just about any blues legend in American history. Hayes was born in 1942 in a small town in rural Tennessee. His sharecropper parents died soon after he was born, leaving his grandparents to raise him. At age five, Hayes was singing in church and was still a boy when he began singing in Memphis blues clubs. In the years that followed, he traveled the country, playing in small clubs and bars living the tough life of a blues man. "He spent one night sleeping on a crap table, one whole summer living in a junked car" (Elson 55).
Hayes is credited with popularizing "rap", which he employs in the "Theme From Shaft". Behind Shaft's opening credits, Hayes pumps out a funky bass-line with a lively high-hat that conveys the essence of John Shaft better than any of the script's characterization. As the theme breaks down into strings and horns, Hayes raps, "They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother..." "Shut your mouth!" the backup singers protest. Hayes explains, "But I'm talkin' about Shaft." "We can dig it."
The song describes Shaft in a variety of ways, both lyrically and musically. As the audience gets their first look at Shaft, dodging taxi cabs as he moves across Times Square, the rap builds him up as the coolest, baddest cat in New York City. Meanwhile the music sets the mood for the world, and the movie he inhabits. Shaft the character, like Shaft the man, has a reputation that precedes him, thanks to Isaac Hayes.
As the opening theme dies down, we find out Shaft is being shadowed by two thugs hired by black gang boss, Bumpy Jonas. After throwing one out of his office window and interrogating the other, Shaft finds out that Bumpy wants to talk to him. Bumpy later comes in person to explain that his daughter, Marcy, has been kidnapped, and he wants to hire Shaft to find her. As it turns out, the white mafia is responsible for the kidnapping, although Bumpy says he suspects a black militant gang, led by one of Shaft's former associates, Ben Buford.
A major undercurrent in the film is an impending race war between the mafia and black revolutionaries like Buford. Vic Androzzi, a white police lieutenant, pressures Shaft to report on Bumpy's dealings, fearing he may be involved in the racial conflict. Shaft refuses, but buys enough time to begin his kidnapping investigation. When he goes to investigate Buford's gang, he gets caught in a shootout that leaves several of Buford's men dead and exposes the mafia's involvement. Shaft arranges to visit Marcy so he can assure Bumpy she is safe, but tries to rescue her instead, getting shot in the chest in the process.
Later that night, after fully recovering from his gunshot wounds, Shaft organizes a team of Buford's militants and plans an assault on the mafia hideout. The team prepares a complex battle plan and loads up on military weaponry before their attack. In the battle that follows, the heroes wipe out half the New York underworld and rescue Marcy. As their caravan of getaway taxi cabs roll away, Shaft telephones Androzzi to let him know where to find the remnants of the mafia.
Clayton Riley, a black reviewer writing in the New York Times, called this story "an extended lie, a distortion that simply grows larger and more unbelievable with each frame." Riley's primary problem with the film is that it pretends to present a positive image of blacks in film, but in reality, it only recycles a form long overused and discarded by white Hollywood (Riley B13). Riley may not have known it at the time, but the flaws he notes in Shaft would be repeated again and again in a slew of films through the mid-seventies dubbed "blaxploitation" films ("black exploitation") by critics.
The blaxploitation movement in cinema is rooted mainly in the successes of Sidney Poitier in the late 1960's (Belton 109). Poitier films like To Sir With Love and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner attracted large white audiences, and alerted Hollywood to the impact of a growing black audience. In 1971, Shaft and Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, a movie about a black man who becomes an outlaw and black militant, were the first movies to successfully exploit this trend for commercial success.
While such films opened unprecedented opportunities for black actors and stories in Hollywood, according to Riley, they failed entirely to give a true treatment to the facts of black life (B13). Riley may go overboard though, when he says that Hollywood passed the detective story mold to black audiences because "the White folks don't want to carry that weight anymore." Shaft is a believable, albeit sometimes superhuman, black character, not just a Sam Spade with brown skin. And hasn't Hollywood always focused on characters that were a little bigger than life?
The appeal of Shaft's superhuman status is not lost on Vincent Canby, another New York Times reviewer. Canby calls Shaft a good "Saturday night movie" (B1). He overlooks the movie's racial issues and sees it for its pure entertainment value. For Canby, Shaft conjures up the traditions of all the heroes of the silver screen, not the least of which is detective Sam Spade. All this excitement stems, he says, from the vitality of the black audience newly opened to the magic of the movies.
For Canby, the good feeling that Shaft leaves with movie- goers, black or white, overrides any technical flaws it might have. Not so for S.K. Oberbeck, a reviewer for Newsweek. The "super cat" appeal of Shaft that made the movie for Canby is exactly Oberbeck's stumbling block. "The script is laboriously slow, spending too much of its time setting Shaft up as a super-cool dude" (Oberbeck 80). Maybe so, but even that aspect of the movie was a draw for black audiences. Director Gordon parks even said, "It's just a Saturday night fun picture which people go see because they want to see the black guy winning"(Parish 252). Shaft is the main attraction here. If the movie spends most of its time developing his character, so be it. There is a reason his name is the title.
Oberbeck also comments on the technical quality of the film. He complains of "endless tracking shots of Shaft pounding his turf, the old overhead pan opening as Shaft crosses a busy street against a light" (Oberbeck 80). But again, these are elements that build the character. When it comes to character development in Shaft, it's all good.
The key to the success of Shaft is the universal appeal of the main character. Shaft is black and commands the respect of the black community. That respect is gained through his ability to survive without subjugating himself to the white authority figures. Shaft is not intimidated by the police, the mafia, or even black gang boss, Bumpy. The white authority figures respect Shaft because while he is black and proud of it, he lacks the militant "chip" on his shoulder that a character like Buford has. Shaft is free from the confines of race, he neither bows to nor wants to subvert white society. And in the early years after the civil-rights upheavals of the late 1960's, freedom from the boundaries of race was everyone's dream.
This was also a time when black Americans were finally claiming the rights that had been denied them for three hundred years. The new freedoms, although still not complete, inspired and energized the black community. If Shaft was too big a character, it was only because Hollywood was trying to make up, maybe even overcompensating, for the years of insignificant, racist roles that had always been thrust upon black actors. John Shaft was a black man who had the will and the power to take the position and lifestyle that had been denied black people for so long.