Shaft (1971)

“Don’t you try to bullshit me, boy. We’re all on the hustle. I sell broads and dope and numbers. You sell crap, and blue sky. It’s all the same game.”

‘Shaft’, directed by Gordon Parks in 1971, is an American drama and one of the films that launch the ‘blaxploitation’ genre in the 1970s. Richard Roundtree plays John Shaft, a private detective in Manhattan who becomes embroiled in kidnapping plot and finds himself between two sets of gangsters and the police. It’s an action movie with cool dialogue, extravagant fight scenes, an incredibly charismatic central performance and a great soundtrack. One of the first major studio movies to star a black actor it is made all the more groundbreaking by being a genre movie. The film is about race and about the lives of the black community in New York, but it’s mostly an action drama that creates a culture – cool rather than political. The themes of black power are there, but in many ways this film is responsible for developing a myth of the community that then, when coupled with the run of Blaxploitation following it, became absorbed into the real world. This myth is still felt – see for example the nods to ‘Shaft’ in the recent Marvel television series ‘Luke Cage’. ‘Shaft’ has been endlessly parodied. My first taste of Blaxploitation with the Bond movie ‘Live and Let Die’, and watching this it becomes rapidly clear how derivative and poorly shaped that film is. ‘Shaft’ is of its time, but it is important because of the way it manipulated and controlled the perceptions of black culture.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s cool, well-paced and the performances are charismatic. It’s tempting to suggest watching this with its remake/sequel from 2000 to get a sense of how the years have changed the genre.

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