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  • Manny Labram

Shaft, 1971 - Review

Updated: Jan 31

“Who is the man that would risk his neck. For his brother man? SHAFT! Can you dig it?”

Cited as one of the first films from the famed blaxploitation film genre, Shaft 1971 is a crime action thriller film directed by Gordon Parks. The plot centres around titular character John Shaft (Richard Roundtree), a private detective hired by Harlem mobster “Bumpy” Jonas (Moses Gunn), to help rescue his kidnapped daughter from the Italian Mafia.

I was very excited to watch this film. Shaft is a pop culture icon. It has been referenced in many TV shows and films alike. Its immensely popular theme song written and sung by legendary soul musician, Isaac Hayes, may be even more well-known than the film itself. However, upon viewing Shaft for the first time, I was greatly disappointed.

The film opens rather coolly with some gritty shots of Shaft walking through downtown NYC, with the funky theme song playing over. Shaft is tall, handsome, and good looking. He’s dressed in a suave, all brown outfit; a camel brown turtleneck under a plaid blazer, and chocolate brown leather jacket. We hear the first lyrics of the groovy theme song ‘Who's the black private dick / That's a sex machine to all the chicks? / SHAFT! / Ya damn right!’ Shaft has a few interactions with the NYC locals. He learns that a pair of Harlem gangsters are looking for him. Lieutenant Vic Androzzi (Charles Cioffi) and buddy cop Tom Hannon (Lawrence Pressman) stop Shaft on the street and question him about the Harlem gangsters. Shaft gives them no information. He does not know why they are looking for him. So far, the film seems interesting. The dialogue has been brief, but I’ve enjoyed its natural rhythm and jive fitting of 60s/70s America.

“You got problems, baby?”

“Heh. Yeah, I got a couple of 'em. I was born black... and I was born poor.”

In what is, in my opinion, the highlight of the film, Shaft encounters the two gangsters in his office. The trio get in a fight, and one of the gangsters gets thrown out a window, falling many storeys to his death. The fight scene is a short, but fun, over the top sequence that nicely displays Shaft’s superior physical prowess. The surviving gangster tells Shaft that Bumpy, a Harlem crime boss, is looking for him.

At this point, the film starts to lose its momentum. Shaft meets with Bumpy, and is persuaded into helping the ringleader retrieve his daughter, Marcy (Sherri Brewer). Bumpy says he doesn’t know who has taken her, but suspects a black militant group called the La Mumbas may be responsible. Shaft is apprehensive to help as he doesn’t trust Bumpy, but does so for a fee. The dialogue throughout is slow and so are the movements from the characters. Moses Gunn as Bumpy is at first quite imposing, but betrays himself as he weeps over the kidnapping of his daughter. It is an unmoving and cringeworthy display of crocodile tears. After a rather awkward slow zoom onto Bumpy’s teary sniffling face, we question what his motives really are. As a boxing fan and Muhammad Ali superfan, I was happy to see his trainer, Drew Bundini Brown, onscreen as Bumpy’s henchman, Willy. However, he is equally unmoving as he stiffly laments over his fellow gangster being thrown out the window by Shaft. He too has an awkward slow zoom on his meant to be disgruntled face.

After once again refusing to cooperate with Lieutenant Vic and his fellow policemen, who have caught wind of the scuffle between Shaft and the gangsters, Shaft then tracks down Ben Buford (Christopher St. John), the leader of the La Mumbas. As Shaft interrogates Ben about Bumpy’s missing daughter, a shootout breaks out between the La Mumbas and a mystery adversary. Shaft and Ben make it out alive, but some of Ben’s men are killed. Later on Lieutenant Vic reveals to Shaft that the mystery shooters were members of the Italian Mafia and were in fact after Shaft, not the La Mumbas. Vic details that there is something bad brewing between Bumpy’s crew and the Mafia. I should note at this point we are halfway through the film. There has not been much backstory to either Bumpy, Ben and the La Mumbas, or even Shaft, for there to be any real tension or excitement from the plot.

“Got to see if you're clean before you can see the Man.”

“[laugh] Better get yourself six more helpers then, Willy.”

Nonetheless, Shaft and Ben confront Bumpy. It's revealed Bumpy knew it was the Mafia who kidnapped his daughter all along. Bumpy wanted Shaft to team with the La Mumbas for their muscle. Though again hesitant, Shaft and Ben name their price for their services to Bumpy. The segment is slightly confusing as Bumpy is very willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for Shaft and the La Mumbas, who are also mainly motivated by money, meaning there was no need for the earlier bloodshed.

Shaft, with the help of Lieutenant Vic, eventually captures two Mafia men by tricking them at a local bar. It’s interesting to note the bar scene features one of the first openly gay characters in mainstream film. However, this is the only real commendable aspect of the scene. To trick the Mafia men, who are spying on Shaft’s apartment from the bar, Shaft pretends to be a bartender. Then, right in front of the two Mafia men, he calls Lieutenant Vic to send men to arrest the unknowing Mafia men. The scene feels very unbelievable as you would expect the Mafia to at least have some inkling as to how the prolific Shaft looks like.

Eventually, Shaft meets with one of the Mafia members in public. He is then brought to where Marcy is being kept. Shaft tries to save her but fails, and is instead shot in the shoulder. This leads to Shaft regrouping with Ben and the La Mambas crew to formulate a plan to rescue Marcy from the Mafia group. In the film’s finale, Shaft and co carry out their carefully constructed strategy and successfully rescue Marcy. The film ends rather abruptly with the La Mambas fleeing into the night with Marcy, whilst Shaft has the last laugh towards one of his more adversary policemen.

[answering his phone] “Wrong Number.”

“Don't bull me, man. I got the right number. This is Shaft.”

“How'd the hell you get this number?”

“Off a bathroom wall in the goddamn subway!”

Overall, I think there is a lot wrong with this film. At the crux of it, the film is very boring. Though I liked the smooth and hip words used, the dialogue is very slow and drawn out throughout the film. It makes plot twists and reveals very lacklustre. It doesn’t help that the audio is recorded separately to the film. I usually wouldn’t use this circumstance as a detractor, as it’s a product of its time, but in this scenario it just drags out something that is deflating the film already. You would hope there would be payoffs like some exciting action set pieces, but instead we’re given quite dull and anticlimactic sequences. It also doesn’t help that Shaft is a very low-budget film. I believe it could have been saved with a bit more creativity in the writing and energy from the actors.

The idea of rescuing a mob boss’s daughter isn’t an uninteresting storyline in isolation. The problem is it's not well executed here. The pacing is incredibly slow. It is difficult to connect with Bumpy or his kidnapped daughter, Marcy. It would have helped if Bumpy was a bit more desperate, or if we got a deeper look into his backstory and relationship with Shaft. Shaft himself does not have a strong narrative arc. He is shot in the shoulder towards the end of the film, however, it does not hold him back enough to be significant. I would have enjoyed the film more if Shaft had more reasons for joining the operation such as revenge, love, or profound obligation. I would also say I found the film generally quite serious, which meant the plot needed to do even more heavy lifting for me. Overall, there is a lot to be desired from the story.

“You're really great in the sack. But, um, you're pretty shitty afterwards, you know that?”

My final grievance with Shaft is its messaging. It has quite a negative portrayal of race and toxic masculinity. I’ve come to learn that Shaft was originally written as a white character but was then changed when Gordon Parks cast Richard Roundtree. Many critics of the film felt as though the story was not changed enough to fit the racial interplay, and I would agree. Shaft does not act as an explicit ally towards the black community. The film tells us that Shaft grew up poor and with the black community. However, once he becomes wealthy, he moves to Greenwich Village, a predominantly white neighbourhood. This goes against the zeitgeist of the black community at the time, that black people should invest in poorer neighbourhoods once they become wealthier. Another racial snub comes from the portrayal of the La Mambas. A militant group that is likely based off of the Black Panthers and similar groups, become nothing more than hired muscle for a big-time crime boss, who is also black, and in no way advances the black struggle of that time. In terms of toxic masculinity, Shaft frequently sleeps with random women though he has a girlfriend. He dismisses both girlfriend and mistresses alike after having his way with them. Shaft’s dialogue with women is so short that it is difficult to appreciate his seductive powers. In the end he comes off as a bit crass.

Of course there’s the argument that Shaft does not need to be a shining example to the black community or to any community. However, I believe the film presents itself in a way to purposely appeal to the black viewers, which is why I feel these points are valid.

“You are one wise Caucasian, Vic.”

To a more positive end, Charles Cioffi had a good performance as Lieutenant Vic. He gave the film some much needed playfulness. I felt as though Vic was more explicitly focused on keeping the peace than Shaft, who seemed mostly motivated by money. Another fairly good performance goes to Moses Gunn as Bumpy. Though his character lacked depth and had a few awkward scenes, he mostly comes off as quite formidable and fits his Harlem kingpin persona.

Though I did not love the character of Shaft, he does at least come off as strong. He does not bow to anyone whether it be Harlem gangsters, the Mafia, or the police force. This is something quite admirable given the era of the movie. I felt his character could have been boosted with a bit more wit, but he is at least a dominant figure in comparison to the other characters.

To close I will once again mention the dialogue, however slow, did feature a good use of language representative of the time and culture. And there were times where the film did feel ‘cool’. It is a good portrayal of an urban, diverse, crime ridden 70s New York in all its corrupted glory. Shaft of course features a stellar soundtrack throughout the film, courtesy of Isaac Heyes. I commend Shaft 1971 for being one of the firsts to have a black leading character win in the end. However, being the first does not always mean the best. And that is the case in this film.

Overall: 5/10

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