Shaft (1971)

Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) / Shaft Productions Ltd.
Released: 23 June 1971 (Detroit premiere), 25 June 1971 (Los Angeles opening), 2 July 1971 (New York opening); 19 November 1971 (London opening)
Running Time: 100 mins
Budget: $1,240,000
Gross: $13,000,000 (USA); $24,756,080 (worldwide)

Director: Gordon Parks; Writer: Ernest Tidyman, John D.F. Black (based on the novel by Ernest Tidyman); Producer: Joel Freeman; Associate Producer: David Golden; Original Music: Isaac Hayes, J.J. Johnson; Cinematography: Urs Furrer (35mm, Metrocolor, Panavision, 1.85:1); Editor: Hugh A. Robertson; Casting: Judith Lamb; Art Director: Emanuel Gerard; Set Decorator: Robert Drumheller; Costume Designer: Joseph G. Aulisi; Makeup: Martin Bell; Production Management: Steven P. Skloot; Sound: Lee Bost, Hal Watkins (Mono).

Cast: 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), Tommy Lane (Leroy), Al Kirk (Sims), Shimen Ruskin (Dr. Sam), Antonio Fargas (Bunky), Gertrude Jeannette (Old Lady), Lee Steele (Blind Vendor), Damu King (Mal), Donny Burks (Remmy), Tony King (Davies), Benjamin R. Rixson (Bey Newfield), Ricardo Brown (Tully), Alan Weeks (Gus), Glenn Johnson (Char), Dennis Tate (Dotts), Adam Wade (Brother #1), James Hainesworth (Brother #2), Clee Burtonya (Sonny), Ed Bernard (Peerce), Ed Barth (Tony), Joe Pronto (Dom), Robin Nolan (Waitress), Ron Tannas (Billy), Betty Bresler (Mrs. Androzzi), Gonzalo Madurga (Counterman), Paul Nevens (Elevator Man), Jon Richards (Elevator Starter), Gordon Parks (Apartment Landlord).

John Shaft is hired by Harlem gangster, Bumpy Jonas, to locate and rescue his kidnapped daughter, suspecting she has been abducted by black revolutionaries when really she has been snatched by the Mafia as part of a turf war.


  • Initially the film was to be produced by Stirling Silliphant and Roger Lewis. To this end they formed Shaft Productions Ltd with Tidyman and the team signed a three picture deal for use of the character with MGM on 7 April 1970.
  • Lewis later left MGM for Warner Brothers and Shaft was handed to director Gordon Parks by new MGM boss Jim Aubrey. Parks began preparation for Shaft by asking Joel Freeman to manage the production. A contract was signed on 9 October 1970.
  • John D. F. Black was then brought in to re-write Tidyman’s screenplay. Black produced his revision on 23 November 1970, which ran to 114 pages. This was the basis for the finalised shooting script on 4 January 1971.
  • It was Parks’ son, David, who prompted him to look at a little known actor named Richard Roundtree to play the title role.
  • Filming commenced 3 January 1971 and completed on 18 March.
  • Isaac Hayes agreed a deal with Joel Freeman on 31 March 1971 and took six weeks to compose his ground-breaking score.
  • Shaft was shown to preview audiences on 23 May 1971 and both audience and critics gave a strong thumbs-up, despite some of the black women in the audience objecting to the sex scene between Shaft and a white woman.
  • In 2000, Shaft was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
  • Moses Gunn’s character is renamed Bumpy Jonas (in the novel it is Knocks Persons) providing a nod to real life Harlem crime-lord Bumpy Johnson upon which Tidyman based his character.
  • Ed Barth, who had a minor role as a Mafia hood, went on to play Lt. Al Rossi in the Shaft TV series.
  • The backing vocalists in Hayes’ theme song are Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson from Tony Orlando & Dawn and the unforgettable guitar “wah-wah” riff was played by Charles ‘Skip’ Pitts.
  • The door adjacent to Shaft’s office says “Skloot Insurance” – named after Steven P. Skloot, production manager on the film.
  • Director Gordon Parks cameos as an apartment landlord.
  • The film’s editor Hugh A. Robertson (who had received an Academy Award nomination for his work on Midnight Cowboy) shot a short “making of” documentary, which was included on the DVD release.
  • New York filming locations include: 55 Jane Street (exteriors: Shaft’s apartment); 621 Hudson Street (“No Name Bar”); Cafe Reggio, MacDougal Street; Harlem; Times Square.
  • Shaft’s firearms include: (1) Colt Detective Special 1st Gen – In the first half of the film, he carries a blued one and for the rest of the film a nickel one, which he keeps wrapped up in his refrigerator. (2) Colt M1911 – Shaft wrestles this from one of Bumpy Jonas’ men as they wait for him at his office. The same brand of gun is also used by Shaft to arrest two Mafia hit men at the No Name Bar.
  • CBS edited out 28 minutes of content for Shaft’s 1975 network television premiere.
  • The UK VHS release is an edited print of the film which is dubbed to remove strong language. The DVD and Blu-Ray releases are uncut.

Academy Award (1): Best Music, Original Song (Isaac Hayes for the song “Theme from Shaft”).
Golden Globe (1): Best Original Score (Isaac Hayes).

John Shaft: Warms my black heart to see you so concerned about us minority folks.
Vic Androzzi: Oh come on Shaft, what is it with this black shit, huh?
[Vic holds a black pen up to Shaft’s face]
Vic Androzzi: You ain’t so black.
John Shaft: [Holds a white coffee cup next to Vic’s face] And you ain’t so white either baby.

Whilst Shaft is undoubtedly iconic it falls short of classic status. Parks’ lack of film-making experience is apparent through problems with pacing. However, he and cinematographer Urs Furrer, capture the gritty feel of the New York streets. The dialogue, fashioned by Black (who produced the final draft from Tidyman’s original screenplay) to make it seem more ethnic, is overly hip at times. The editing could be tighter in certain scenes – although the finale is well-judged. The film’s energy comes from Roundtree’s charismatic performance and the witty exchanges – particularly with Bumpy’s right-hand man, Willy (Bundini Brown). The film’s ultimate achievement was the legacy it created. Black action heroes dominated cinemas through the early and mid-1970’s and it enabled new talent to thrive in a Hollywood that hitherto had been a largely white domain.

“… where Sweet Sweetback exploited the common black experience through prejudice, Shaft recalls the experience in terms of its humour, in terms of its aspirations and, perhaps most importantly, in terms of its fantasies.” – Vincent Canby, The New York Times, 11 July 1971.

“The nice thing about Shaft is that it savours the private-eye genre, and takes special delight in wringing new twists out of the traditional relationship between the private eye and the boys down at homicide.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

“Considering the fast-paced early reels, the film may, to some audiences, begin to slow down towards the climax, and the last scene is a bit protracted, though not unduly harmful. However, to those who dig the opening footage, the rest will play like any good general audience entertainment film.” – A.D. Murphy, Variety

 “Parks’ film is a hip, cool, entertaining thriller that in fact never really says very much at all about the Black experience in America; rather, it merely takes the traditional crime-fighting hero, paints him black, and sets him down in a world populated by more blacks than Hollywood movies were used to.” – Geoff Andrew, Time Out

Region 1 (US) – 6 June 2000.
Extras included the Behind-the-scenes documentary shot by Hugh A. Robertson, Soul in Cinema: Filming Shaft on Location; Interactive menus; 3 theatrical trailers.
Region 2 (UK) – 5 March 2001.
Extras as per the Region 1 release.

Region Free (US) – 14 August 2012.
Extras included the Behind-the-Scenes Documentary Soul in Cinema: Filming Shaft on Location. Also included was the TV episode Shaft: The Killing and Theatrical Trailers for the sequels Shaft’s Big Score! and Shaft in Africa.
Region Free (UK) – 2 October 2017
Extras as per the US release, plus a set of four art cards.