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  Shaft I Think If James Bond Met John Shaft He'd Get A Bullet In His Ass
Year: 1971
Director: Gordon Parks
Stars: Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn, Charles Cioffi, Christopher St. John, Gwenn Mitchell, Lawrence Pressman, Victor Arnold, Sherri Brewer, Rex Robbins, Camille Yarbrough, Margaret Warncke, Joseph Leon, Arnold Johnson, Dominic Barto, Antonio Fargas
Genre: Action, ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) is a private detective on the streets of New York City, and as he makes his way from his apartment to his office this morning he negotiates the traffic and public, but stopping off for a shoeshine he is told that someone's been looking for him. His friend in the police force, Vic Androzzi (Charles Cioffi), stops him and asks him if he knows why he would be searched for by Harlem gangster Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn), but he doesn't know and brushes the cop off. However, once he reaches his office he is ready for violence...

Who indeed is the black private dick who's the sex machine to all the chicks, as Isaac Hayes so memorably asked in the Oscar-winning theme song to Shaft, a film with a lot to answer for as well as a lot to thank? That opening sequence with the hero nearly getting run over and seeing off a seller of stolen watches, accompanied by the classic music would have been enough to change the landscape of American film on its own, as you didn't really need to see the rest of the film after that, but there was a story to this, and it was drawn from one of Ernest Tidyman's pulp paperbacks, him being the (white) creator of the character.

It might not sound revolutionary these days, and it assuredly doesn't look it now, but Shaft did not simply introduce the concept of a black hero to the mainstream; after all, Sidney Poitier could claim to have done that himself back in the fifties. Therefore it became fashionable to describe this as a simple redressing of a basic white detective yarn with African Americans, as if there had been no other concessions to the lead's race, which plainly was not true. If anything, here were a whole new bunch of stereotypes about the black stud who could more than handle himself in a fight put into play here, with Roundtree taking life with good humour but a no bullshit attitude that fashioned him in a style many an action hero well into the twenty-first century would follow.

No matter what their race, it's worth pointing out, as director Gordon Parks grounded the action genre which would take over from the Western as the popular genre movie on a budget with his no frills, just get to the point stylings. Not that he was especially stylish with them, but it was a notable change in approach from his overearnest previous film The Learning Tree, if still centred on raising a particular consciousness. Here the message was that black American males were every bit as capable - if not more so - than their white counterparts, which unfortunately meant the females of whatever colour were assigned either sex object status or marginalised otherwise, which is another aspect filmmakers picked up and ran with.

Aside from that, Shaft was admittedly unremarkable by today's standards: take out the odd bit of swearing, violence and sex, or at least tone it down, and the kidnap plot could have been the basis of any number of crime shows on contemporary 1970s television, which is what it unavoidably ended up being when Roundtree reprised his role for a series after they'd stopped making sequels. Moves towards social relevance were there, no matter what the original's critics would have said - there weren't many white detectives who struggled to get a cab, for example, but pretty much all the star had to do was show up and read his lines with appropriate cool. If you were not so keen on 1971's idea of sophistication, there was always the host of odd to our eyes details that crept into every frame, fixing the film in a point in time and making it interesting for that reason. There were more outrageous, not to mention more enduring variants on the Shaft formula, but it did give Antonio Fargas a break in the mainstream, and for that we should be thankful.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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