Tuesday, August 30, 2011

He's a Complicated Man

Film: Shaft
Format: DVD from personal collection on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks? Who is the man who would risk his neck for his brother man? Who’s the cat that won’t cop out when there’s danger all about? You should know that I’m talk about Shaft. Can you dig it? Shaft is a complicated man, and no one understands him but his woman.

Okay, enough fun with the theme song here. Shaft is not the first blaxploitation film, nor the first really important one (that would be Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song), but it is the first one to be a huge financial success. It’s also the film that set a number of the blaxploitation clichés and stereotypes into some pretty heavy stone. In its own way, Shaft is the granddaddy of the subgenre, the one that dozens of films in the 1970s wanted to be. More than that, the character of John Shaft was (and still is in many ways) the prototype of the blaxploitation hero.

While the plot won’t be much of a shock if you haven’t seen Shaft, but it’s important to remember that in many ways this film is the progenitor of the films that followed. With this film, the plot was something relatively new, or at least a new spin on an old plot. We have the eponymous John Shaft (Richard Roundtree), who is a private detective with some connections with the police, particularly Vic Androzzi (Charles Cioffi). Shaft is being sought after by a high-profile criminal named Bumpy Jones (the vastly underrated Moses Gunn).

As it turns out, Bumpy isn’t looking for Shaft to get rid of him, but to hire him. It seems that someone has kidnapped Bumpy’s daughter Marcy (Sherri Brewer) and naturally Bumpy wants her back. Bumpy claims not to know who has his daughter, but he suspects a gang of men with connection to the Black Panthers, particularly Ben Buford (Christopher St. John). He hands Shaft an envelope full of cash and tells him to find his girl.

As it turns out, things are not this simple. When Shaft finds Ben, they are attacked by men with sub-machine guns. Shaft and Ben escape, and Shaft gets a little more information from Androzzi. It seems that the Mafia has moved arrived in town. Bumpy Jones has taken over the drug trade in Harlem, and the Mob wants it back, and back by any means possible up to and including kidnapping Bumpy’s daughter and holding her for ransom. Naturally, this means that there’s going to be a war on the streets of New York unless Shaft can stop things, and thus we have a third act.

So with the basic plot squared away, let’s talk about what’s important here. First, the name “John Shaft” is one of the great film character names in history, and ranks with “James Bond” as the greatest action character name ever. Seriously—you can say it easily, shout it, say it seductively, and even insert the word “muthafuckin’” into it easily (as in “John muthafuckin’ Shaft”). This doesn’t even touch on the fact that “shaft” is a slang term for male genitalia or the fact that, as a black private detective, he’s always getting shafted by the man. It’s name that works on every level, and there’s not a thing that can be changed to make it better. It’s flawless, and it’s not a stretch to say that it’s one of the reasons for the film’s success.

Additionally, while I still say that Super Fly has the greatest soundtrack in film history, the title track for Shaft may well be the best song ever written for a movie. It’s iconic for a reason, and it’s even iconic without the butter-smooth voice of Isaac Hayes asking questions about the man who is John Shaft.

But these things are superficial. There’s something much more important going on here. Where a lot of the blaxploitation films fell short is in how the film carried through its plot. In a sense, the dialogue of the film predicts this. For me, the most important moment in the film is the second meeting in Androzzi’s office, when Shaft and Androzzi finally come clean with each other. Androzzi comments that the coming war between the Mob and Bumpy Jones is going to be a huge problem. He says, essentially, that the war will be gang against gang, but that on the surface it will be black against white.

And that’s sort of the point here. It’s not black against white, which is what the blaxploitation genre turned into following this film. It’s not black working with white, either—when he’s accused of being an Uncle Tom, Shaft reacts badly, and no one who sees the film would ever consider Shaft has that particular failing. The central point is that the problem going on in New York that Shaft finds himself embroiled in is bigger than race, or at least different from race. It’s a critical point, and one easily overlooked.

Suffice it to say that this film is another one that made me feel pretty white, but not nearly so much as films like Super Fly and Boyz N the Hood. If I have a problem with the film, it’s that it feels a bit dated because of the language being used. But, change the jive a little, and this is a film that very much plays today—kind of remarkable for something nearly as old as I am.

As a final note, it’s worth saying that one of the most successful things about this film is that we as an audience learn everything we need to know about John Shaft before the opening credits have rolled. We see Shaft walking across a busy New York street, and he stops for nothing. No onrushing cab will cause him to deviate from his path. There’s no better ten seconds or so that show us exactly who this man is, and the rest of the film backs up that opening perfectly.

Why to watch Shaft: Because that cat is one baaaaad mutha…Shut yo mouth!.
Why not to watch: It can’t shake the fact that it feels dated.


  1. I've not seen this. Nick mentioned that he was watching it (or going to be) and somehow, I just knew it was a tie-in to your project (since it wasn't for his 60/60). I imagine it to be quite the letdown of a film to watch for the first time now, serving more as a teaching tool to a film movement than as a piece of entertainment. However, you do make it sound a lot better than my impression.

    The real question is, will my knowledge and love of Black Dynamite ruin this film for me?

  2. Good question.

    I was surprised at how much I liked Shaft. It's a smarter movie than I assumed it would be, and that goes a long way.

    I don't think your love of Black Dynamite will affect you any more than watching Hot Fuzz affects any appreciation you might have for Point Break (or vice versa).