Saturday 29 August 2020

Shaft (1971)


If there was something I was really looking forward to, entering the seventies, it was blacksploitation movies. Nothing for me represents the coolness of the seventies as blacksploitation, the groove, the style and the kick-ass. “Shaft” is all that and I am happy.

John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) is a private detective in New York who is like a black James Bond, just a lot cooler. Shaft takes orders from no-one; he sets the pace. He is resourceful, witty and charming and he can be at home in any company, though he has very little respect to white people. And then he is, I think I said it, totally cool.

The storyline in “Shaft” is not exceptional. Shaft is hired by a gangster to find his kidnapped daughter. With the help of some militant brothers he traces the mafia dudes who are holding her and orchestrate an assault to set her free. Not anything new.

What is new is that this marks the beginning of a line of movies where black people are cool, and resourceful, where the subculture is embraced and treated with respect. It may be exploitation, but it feels more like homage and for somebody going through the list chronologically like me this is a long overdue breath of fresh air.

I am fully aware that the whole race thing is a politically sensitive issue that has not become less touchy over the years, and I am certain that for those with these issues much closer to them a movie like “Shaft” that plays on race both in stereotypes and reverse the stereotypes would be loaded with meanings. For me, living on an entirely different continent, black American subculture is so integrated in what we consider general American culture that a movie like Shaft feels perfectly natural and representative of what we consider American. 

For these reasons I am quite certain I am not getting half the messages this movie is sending and I apologize for that. Rather than being engaged in the politics I focused on how thoroughly enjoyable the movie was. The witticism and the coolness we would later see in movies like “Beverly Hills Cop” and it has become almost a trope, but for a 1971 movie this was a revelation. I do not really care that much of it is exaggerated: How many girlfriends does this dude have and would it really be possible to sideline the police like he does? But this is also a dream image, wishful thinking if you like, very much like James Bond is. It is kick-ass and it works.

What also works in spades is the soundtrack. Isaac Hayes is for me the sound of Chef in South Park (and what a loss that he left the show), but he also did tons of music and what he did for “Shaft” is not his worst stuff. Hearing his deep voice in the opening of “Shaft” sets the right tone and feels good deep in the soul.

“Shaft” is not a movie you watch for the intricate plot, it works, but no more than that. It is a movie you watch for the style, the charm and the coolness and in this case that is absolutely enough. Plus, one should not underestimate its general significance.

Definitely recommended.


  1. Of the three blaxploitation films on the List, this is the best. Me, I was kinda forced to take some points off for the technicals and the rough storytelling, but I still liked this, mainly for the same thing you picked up on and recommended it for: the style of the whole thing. That's what to watch this for, if nothing else.

    1. That is the thing: Style is everything in Shaft and none of the other elements actually suck, it completely saves the day.

  2. I'm going to agree that this is the best of the blaxploitation films on The List (Super Fly has the best soundtrack, though). A lot of that is because this movie is really smart. It's easy to forget that in what a lot of the genre eventually became, where it was just a bunch of guys shooting Whitey.

    There's a moment in Shaft when one of the cops says that the gang war about to happen is about money, but because of the gangs, it's going to look like a race war. That's self-aware and shows just how intelligent this film is beneath the swagger.

    If you like blaxploitation films, track down Blacula if you've never seen it. It's also far smarter than you expect it would be.

    1. I completely agree. This never degenerate to race war, which would be the simple solution, but goes for something more complex.
      I will look up Blacula, it sounds like a lot of fun.