The Summer of Shaft begins now!
Shaft debuted in 1971 as audiences were growing far too accustomed to the Youth Power films and Studio Tentpoles of the era. Director Gordon Parks was tasked with mining the urban truth out of Ernest Tidyman’s source novel. Tidyman’s source novel was a massive publishing hit that ended up getting him the job of writing the script for The French Connection. A film that was promptly rewritten by William Friedkin and Gene Hackman.
In the same year, MGM graced audiences with the mildly anticipated Shaft feature film adaptation. While often cited as the start of the Blaxploitation film movement, the honor really belongs to Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.
That’s not because Sweet Sweetback arrived first, it’s because Shaft really isn’t Blaxploitation. Hear me out now!
Shaft is a film series about a black main character in the inner city. However, nothing about what is presented plays as true Blaxploitation. The Blaxploitation movement involved more marginalized and underground creators working with a semi-rotating stable of talent. What MGM had with Shaft was a slightly out of formula crime movie.
Richard Roundtree is the most charismatic male lead in the first wave of Blaxploitation flicks. It also went to show how other studios didn’t understand what made these movies work. Pairing Roundtree with that legendary Isaac Hayes score produced the kind of thing that launches a cultural change on film. Shaft made black cinema cool to the suburbs.
Director Gordon Parks is one of the most underrated filmmakers of the 1970s.While he only directed the first two Shaft movies, his move from photographer to director produced an artistic touch that most Blaxploitation movies never received. It wasn’t enough to make a badass movie, Parks wanted you to feel John Shaft as a 3-dimensional character.
The problem with the film stems from the Tidyman influence. Too much of the film feels like a 1940s gangster film with inner city actors forcing an unrealistic cadence. Cops show up needing John Shaft’s help to talk to a certain criminal element. However, no one is ever able to help John past a certain point.
That doesn’t stop John from bedding a ton of ladies and generally sticking it to the bad guys. The film is short and plays to its audience’s fantasies. Still, it was a big studio release that tried to break open barriers. I’m always going to be a fan of that.