SHAFT (1971, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., USA, 100 mins, Colour, 1.85:1, Mono, Cert: 15, Crime Thriller) ∗∗∗∗∗
Starring: Richard Roundtree (John Shaft), Moses Gunn (Bumpy Jonas), Charles Cioffi (Vic Androzzi), Christopher St. John (Ben Buford), Gwenn Mitchell (Ellie Moore), Lawrence Pressman (Tom Hannon), Victor Arnold (Charlie), Sherri Brewer (Marcy), Rex Robbins (Rollie), Camille Yarbrough (Dina Greene), Margaret Warncke (Linda), Joseph Leon (Byron Leibowitz), Arnold Johnson (Cul), Dominic Barto (Patsy), George Strus (Carmen), Edmund Hashim (Lee), Drew Bundini Brown (Willy).
Producer: Joel Freeman; Director: Gordon Parks; Writer: Ernest Tidyman, John D. F. Black (based on the novel by Ernest Tidyman); Director of Photography: Urs Furrer (Metrocolor); Music: Isaac Hayes; Film Editor: Hugh A. Robertson; Art Director: Emanuel Gerard; Set Decorator: Robert Drumheller; Costume Designer: Joe Aulisi.
Gordon Parks’ ground-breaking crime thriller stars Richard Roundtree as Ernest Tidyman’s iconic tough black New York private detective, John Shaft.
Shaft is hired by Harlem crime lord, Bumpy Jonas, to locate and rescue his kidnapped daughter. Bumpy tells Shaft he suspects she has been abducted by black revolutionaries, led by Ben Buford, when really she has been snatched by the Mafia as part of a turf war. When Shaft realises he has been set-up by Bumpy to enlist Buford and his men he ups his price before linking up with Buford to plan a rescue.
It is easy today to underestimate the impact of SHAFT today when black action heroes are commonplace, but in 1971 Parks’ film was a revelation. From the opening shots of Roundtree’s Shaft strutting his way through Midtown Manhattan to the closing sequence of the daring rescue the film oozes style. With Isaac Hayes’ funky theme playing over the credits a movie icon was born.
The bleak New York winter of 1970/1 helped provide a gritty urban backdrop to Parks’ realisation of Ernest Tidyman’s novel. In his first starring role Roundtree has such an incredible charisma he instantly makes the role his own brilliantly sparring with the police and gangsters alike. Moses Gunn is also commanding as Bumpy Jonas (renamed from Knocks Persons in the novel as a nod to real life Harlem gangster of the ‘20s and ‘30s Bumpy Johnson). Charles Cioffi is the epitome of world-weariness in his portrayal of Lt. Vic Androzzi, whilst Ben Buford is portrayed by Christopher St. John, but is less imposing than the more intellectual version seen in the book.
The film has a slow pace by today’s frenetic standards, but is punctuated by occasional bursts of violent action. Parks’ lack of experience comes through with the aforementioned pacing problems. The editing could also be tighter in certain scenes – although the rescue finale is well-judged. However, his visual eye is evident throughout in the way he captures New York in social decay. The bare tenements and littered streets come sharply into focus against the harsh winter backdrop.
The film’s greatest achievement, though, was the legacy it created, enabling new talent to thrive in a Hollywood that hitherto had been a largely white domain.
Two sequels – SHAFT’S BIG SCORE! (1972) and SHAFT IN AFRICA (1973) and a series of seven TV-movies (1973-4) followed. John Singleton attempted to re-launch the franchise in 2000 with Samuel L. Jackson as Shaft’s nephew (also named John Shaft) and Roundtree reprising his role in little more than a cameo appearance.