Shaft (1971)

Genres - Action  |   Sub-Genres - Detective Film, Blaxploitation  |   Run Time - 98 min.  |   Countries - USA  |   MPAA Rating - R
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Gordon Parks' Shaft was something startlingly new and unexpected when it appeared in 1971 -- indeed, it was unique with its lead character, a tough, aggressive, attractive black man, played with great charisma by Richard Roundtree. Up to that time, the only black leading men in any Hollywood studio films had been genial, articulate personalities who were acceptable to moderate white audiences: Sidney Poitier most recently, and James Edwards in a few from the late '40s to the early '60s. Richard Roundtree, however, played John Shaft as a character who didn't care whether whites found him acceptable or not -- he was angry, proud, and fiercely sexual, but also displayed intelligence and street smarts of a kind that were a new mix on the screen. Certainly MGM had never released any movie like Shaft before, not only in the persona of its lead character but also in its in-your-face urban setting and the immediacy and urgency of its script's politics. Shaft had more violence -- not to mention talk of violence and the threat of violence -- than had ever been seen in any major studio film with a modern setting, apart from a few war movies, and the violence and threats of violence all took place within the ethos of racial politics and hatreds that were put right in viewers' faces. Even more startling for a movie from MGM is that the film presented the black point of view as the norm, the point of reference, in most of these arguments in Shaft -- this from a studio that 34 years earlier wouldn't let Fritz Lang, when he was directing Fury, cast black actors as anything other than railway porters and shoeshine boys. Even whites who weren't sympathetic to the black point of view had to see the movie for its vibrant use of real locations in an action context. New York City didn't look remotely as good here as it did in the studio's previous major use of its streets as a film setting (in 1949's On the Town), but its streets and buildings and alleyways pulsed with excitement in Shaft. The fact that the movie also had a good mystery at its core, coupled with the newness of the images and the setting, made Shaft a seminal action thriller, more bracing and involving at the time than the bigger-than-life antics of Roger Moore's James Bond. The film also spawned a new screen genre, the "blaxploitation" (or black exploitation) movie; other producers and directors quickly started grinding out crime movies and action thrillers with ghetto settings and black heroes at their center. Few had scripts that were remotely as good, and none had the benefit of Isaac Hayes' pumping, pulsating score (including the Oscar-winning "Theme From Shaft") or Richard Roundtree's ultra-cool performance, which may explain why Shaft was the only movie in this vein to spawn two proper, successful sequels and a television series. Shaft ended up being the most popular movie that director Gordon Parks ever made, but his work was more diverse than that, as demonstrated by his only prior film, the delicate period drama The Learning Tree.