Shaft (1971)

Director: Gordon Parks
Screenplay: Ernest Tidyman and John D.F. Black (based on the novel by Ernest Tidyman)
Stars: Richard Roundtree (John Shaft), Moses Gunn (Bumpy Jonas), Charles Cioffi (Vic Androzzi), Christopher St. Joh (Ben Buford), Gwenn Mitchell (Ellie Moore), Lawrence Pressman (Tom Hannon), Victor Arnold (Charlie), Sherri Brewer (Marcy), Rex Robbins (Rollie), Camille Yarbrough (Dina Greene), Margaret Warncke (Linda), Joseph Leon (Byron Leibowitz)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1971
Country: U.S.
Shaft Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Virtually everything you need to know about Gordon Parks’s seminal action-thriller Shaft is embedded in its iconic opening scene. As Isaac Hayes’s Oscar-winning title song reverberates on the soundtrack with its thumping bass notes, wah-wah funk guitar chords, and deep-throated lyrics, the camera follows private detective John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) as he walks confidently down 42nd Street in New York City, stepping out in front of a car and giving the driver the finger when yelled at to get out of the road. With his assured stride and fashionable knee-length leather jacket and turtleneck sweater, Shaft is confidence incarnate. He owns the space around him and never waivers from what he is doing, which is what made him so different from Hollywood’s previous depictions of black characters, both positive and negative.

As Theophilus Green wrote in an August 1972 article in Ebony magazine, Shaft is “a bad, black private detective, a dude who’s got his program all together and he knows it.” Or, as Donald Bogle described him in his book-length study of African-American cinema, “As Roundtree’s John Shaft—mellow but assertive and unintimidated by whites—bopped through those hot mean streets dressed in his cool leather, he looked to black audiences like a brother they had seen many times before but never on screen.”

And make no mistake—there is great power in representation on-screen, and prior to Shaft, screens had been largely vacant of characters like John Shaft. Apart from Melvin Van Peebles gritty, independently produced Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassssss Song (1971), which had been released earlier that year, the only characters even remotely similar to Shaft had to be found in the race films of the 1930s and ’40s, whose meager budgets and limited distribution in the segregated world of black-only theaters meant that they had no chance of influencing the broader culture.

Shaft changed all that, partially because, as a major studio production, it was decidedly in the mainstream. While some have charged that the film is fundamentally compromised because it was produced by a Hollywood studio (MGM) and was written and produced by white men, one could argue that its hybrid status—both revolutionary black film with unprecedented imagery of a strong black protagonist and Hollywood product clearly shaped to appeal to both black and white audiences—makes it all the more historically important in challenging racial boundaries. And one cannot discount the presence of director Gordon Parks behind the camera. Parks had previously made the semi-autobiographical The Learning Tree (1968), which Warner Bros. contracted him to write and direct, making him the first black director to helm a major American studio film (it should also be noted that he wrote the screenplay, composed the musical score, and also served as producer). A self-taught photographer, he had previously broken the color barrier by being the first black man to shoot pictures for Glamour and Vogue, as well as earned accolades for his photo essays for Life magazine. Thus, for Parks Shaft was not just a studio genre film with a racial twist; rather, it was part of a broader revolution in the representation of blacks in mainstream popular culture.

All of this would be just academic if Shaft weren’t also a genuinely good movie, which it is. It is not a masterpiece by any stretch, but it a solid piece of genre craftsmanship, working the contours of the private detective film in ways both familiar and unique. Based on the 1970 novel by Ernst Tidyman, who co-wrote the screenplay with John D.F. Black, a veteran television scribe who had penned episodes of Mr. Novack, Laredo, and Star Trek, the film follows John Shaft as he becomes embroiled in a turf war between the organized crime syndicate in Harlem run by Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) and the Italian Mafia. Bumpy hires Shaft to find his abducted daughter, which puts him squarely in the middle of a potential all-out war. Key to finding Bumpy’s daughter is a black revolutionary named Ben Buford (Christopher St. John), which means that Shaft must navigate his way through the fraught political realm of post-Civil Rights black nationalism. Meanwhile, he must also balance his cautious relationship with the New York police, particularly Detective Vic Anrozzi (Charles Cioffi), who needs information from Shaft.

And this is part of what makes Shaft such a powerful and memorable character. Unlike everyone else on screen, he can navigate multiple worlds—black and white, legal and criminal, professional and domestic—with confidence and style. He remains unflappable throughout, whether he’s faced with angry cops, vicious Mafia goons, or ruthless crime lords, yet Roundtree keeps him somehow grounded. On paper, the character is a fantasy figure of black empowerment, but on screen he feels real, lived-in, approachable. Far from a cinematic cartoon, John Shaft is, as Donald Bogle put it, “a brother [black audiences] had seen many times before but never on screen.” It is all the more amazing, then, that Roundtree was cast in this pivotal role, given that all of his previous work has been in modeling and theater. Prior to embodying John Shaft, he had never been seen on a movie screen. But, Parks was insistent that Roundtree be cast, a choice that became central to the film’s success, along with the hiring of Isaac Hayes to write the indelible score that brilliantly merges R&B, funk, soul, and gospel.

Parks and cinematographer Urs Furrer give the film a gritty, almost documentary-like vibe that captures the grime and gray of New York in winter. The ground-level authenticity immediately sets the film apart from so many other urban detective yarns, aligning it with the gritty verisimilitude of other New Hollywood films like William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971), which, not incidentally, was also written by Tidyman. Shaft, of course, would go on to spawn a host of so-called blaxploitation films, which filled cinema screens throughout the early 1970s. And, while many of them are entertaining and colorful and revolutionary in their own right, Shaft will always stand apart as the progenitor, the one that broke so many molds and paved the way for future black representation on-screen.

Shaft Criterion Collection Two-Disc Blu-ray Set

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • English Linear PCM 2.0 stereo
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Shaft’s Big Score!, the 1972 sequel by director Gordon Parks
  • “Revisiting Shaft” retrospective documentary
  • “Soul in Cinema: Filming Shaft on Location” featurette
  • Archival interviews with Isaac Hayes, Gordon Parks, and Roundtree
  • “The Soul Sound” interview with Shana L. Redmond on Isaac Hayes score
  • “Styling Shaft” interview with costume designer Joseph G. Aulisi
  • “Listen to a Stranger” interview with Gordon Parks
  • “John Shaft and the Black Detective Tradition” featurette
  • A Complicated Man: The “Shaft” Legacy (2019)
  • Behind-the-scenes footage from Shaft’s Big Score!
  • Trailers, teaser trailer, and radio spot
  • Essay by film scholar Amy Abugo Ongir
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJune 21, 2022

    The image on Criterion’s Blu-ray of Shaft derives from a new 16-bit 4K scan of the original 35mm camera negative, and it looks impressive (according to the liner notes, a few portions of the negative were damaged, so they were replaced with scans of the original yellow, cyan, and magenta separation masters). The image is quite thick with grain, which looks beautiful in motion and reminds us of the film’s vintage. It is also worth noting that Shaft is a very dark film—interiors are often dimly lit, virtually every exterior shot was made on a cold, gray, winter day, and everyone wears brown, black, gray, or tan clothing. There are a few bits of primary colors here and there, but this is essentially a drab-looking film, at least as far as color is concerned. The transfer features good clarity and detail, although it remains a relatively soft image, as was typical of the era and technology. For the soundtrack, we get the option of either the original monaural mix or a remixed stereo track that was done with input from Isaac Hayes III. Both tracks are great and sound very good for their age, with impressive depth and clarity in Hayes’s iconic musical score. There are a few action scenes that feature gunfire, fisticuffs, and explosions, which have mor than enough sonic punch. This two-disc set is also positively crammed with supplements, beginning with the Gordon Parks’s sequel Shaft’s Big Score! (1972), which is housed on a separate Blu-ray. The rest of the supplements are evenly spread across the two discs. On the Shaft disc we have “Revisiting Shaft,” a new 32-minute documentary that features interviews with curator Rhea L. Combs, filmmaker Nelson George, film scholar Racquel J. Gates, and music scholar Shana L. Redmond along with archival interviews with director Gordon Parks. “Soul in Cinema: Filming Shaft on Location” is a 10-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that includes interviews with Parks, actor Richard Roundtree, and composer Isaac Hayes. “The Soul Sound” is a 12-minute interview with Shana L. Redmond about the use of music in the film and why Hayes’s songs were so unique and influential, while “Styling Shaft” is a 15-minute interview with costume designer Joseph G. Aulisi about his work on the film. From the archives we get a 30-minute interview with Hayes from a 1974 episode of the French television series Point chaud; a 12-minute interview with Roundtree that was filmed at the National Film Theatre in London in 2010; a trailer, a teaser, and a radio spot. The second Blu-ray disc, which features Shaft’s Big Score!, is also loaded with supplements, both new and archival. New to this edition is “John Shaft and the Black Detective Tradition,” a 26-minute featurette that includes interview with scholar Kinohi Nishikawa and novelist Walter Mosley (Devil in a Blue Dress). A Complicated Man: The “Shaft” Legacy (2019) is an excellent 45-minute documentary (divided into three parts) about the iconic character’s impact on both literature and film that features interviews with Roundtree and Samuel L. Jackson, among others (it was previously included on the Blu-ray release of the 2019 Shaft). From the archives we get “Listen to a Stranger,” a 20-minute interview with Parks from 1972; nine minutes of behind-the-scenes footage shot during the filming of the car chase sequence in Shaft’s Big Score!, and a trail

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