Reviews

Gordon Parks

USA, 1971

Credits

Review by Daniel Loria

Posted on 25 January 2011

Source Warner DVD

Categories 70s PIs

Halfway through Shaft, the title character is forced to make a rendezvous with a racist Italian gangster. The gangster phones Shaft to ask where they should meet. Shaft’s answer is one of the reasons why the film is so entertaining to revisit. With an overwhelming list of possible locales to choose, he chooses Caffe Reggio, a small East Village café. The decision is telling of the film’s protagonist: if John Shaft has to put up with your bullshit, he might as well have a cappuccino.

One thing is clear from the film’s opening credits: John Shaft is a badass. Walking through the gritty streets of 1970s midtown Manhattan, the private detective goes through a daily routine that apparently involves flicking-off cars as he jaywalks to the shoeshine parlor. These idiosyncratic moments are sprinkled throughout a film that reconfigures the role of the private detective through the representation of its African-American protagonist.

Like many other detective films, the winding storyline is not easy to follow. Shaft is initially contacted by Harlem mob boss Bumpy Jonas, whose daughter has been kidnapped by the downtown Italian mafia. Shaft enlists the help of Ben Buford and his political-activist posse to rescue Bumpy’s daughter while keeping the meddling NYPD at bay. Shaft, in the tradition of the private eye, remains independent from any sort of allegiance throughout the film, mediating racial, legal, and politically divided factions. He works for himself, as detached from the motivations behind the plot’s main players as he is from the women he sleeps with.

Director Gordon Parks and his cinematographer, Urs Furrer, give the film a gritty look that has as much of an edge as its protagonist. The soundtrack works beautifully to smooth out all the deliberately rough edges the film visually employs. Isaac Hayes’s iconic title theme is basically a plea for people to leave the film and go home to have sex with one another. The seductive rhythms of his musical score inject the film with energy and serves as a binding, cohesive element to a narrative that can lag at times.

Ed Guerrero sees the film’s crossover appeal as part of its success: “Reflecting its essence as a commercial vehicle, Shaft…is able to successfully negotiate the tensions of functioning in a white-dominated world while still portraying the sexploitative, aggressive, black macho image served up for consumption by young, urban black audiences.”1 Guerrero provides several instances in the film’s narrative where this “middleman strategy” is accentuated. First, Shaft is not confined to Harlem in the film. With an office in midtown, contacts uptown, and a sweet bachelor pad downtown, Shaft’s mobility around the city is not limited to the invisible segregating border of 110th street. Shaft also moves freely around the film’s warring factions, mediating a gang war between white and black mafias without having an allegiance with either of them. Shaft is therefore politically “safe” as an individual who renounces any sort of collective or political action based on race. Finally, this individualist stance is ultimately reflected in his love life. Guerrero notes that while Shaft’s black girlfriend fulfills “the expectations of cultural nationalism,” he is still free to go around “having random sex with attractive white women.”2

A misconception to avoid is thinking that Shaft stands out purely because it’s a racial twist on a genre whose literary background has been dominated by white protagonists. Although detective novels with white heroes might be more popular, it is important to note the deep lineage and tradition of African-American detective fiction when thinking about Shaft. Stephen F. Soitos’s study on the subject traces the genre back to its literary roots, going back to the early 20th century with serial novels like Pauline Hopkins’s Hagar’s Daughter (1901-02) and J.E. Bruce’s The Black Sleuth (1907-09).3 Soitos explores the history of the black detective novel and delineates its four principal tropes: the detective persona, double-consciousness detection, black vernaculars, and hoodoo.4 The tropes are themselves revisions of the traditional modes of hardboiled detective fiction, creating a different and unique brand of detective literature.

By transporting a number of these tropes to the cinema (with the notable exception of hoodoo, which doesn’t play a part in this film), Shaft can therefore be regarded as a revisionist narrative on its own terms: the first detective film to incorporate its independent literary history to an already established Hollywood genre. In Shaft, the protagonist’s race is vital for the investigation to work. The narrative works because only a black detective would be able to resolve the plot; the character’s identity gives him the cultural access required to the contacts and resources needed to crack the case. In other words, Shaft succeeds not because he is a hardboiled detective, but specifically because he is a black detective. The storyline grants the black protagonist a narrative agency absent in any other contemporary African-American characters. Rather than becoming an obstacle to overcome, race in Shaft is a crucial and essential component for the very conception of a hero to exist in the first place.

One of the principal legacies that the 1970s introduced to the American cinema was a reconfigured notion of the American hero. A protagonist was no longer bound by a studio-enforced set of morality; it was an age where the anti-hero could flourish. Strong, black, and bold, Shaft became a new type of protagonist that studios expected audiences to embrace. It’s hard to say if Shaft is as relevant for audiences today. Images of black men have changed considerably in the media since the early 70s. John Shaft’s brash defiance, unmitigated virility and strict individualism have gone from being an innovative and progressive mode of representation to a cultural cliché. Characters like Shaft no longer feel fresh or even plausible, becoming a sort of archaic remnant of an ultra-Masculinity constrained to the realm of kitsch in films like Undercover Brother and Black Dynamite. An attempt to revive the franchise in 2000 with Samuel L. Jackson produced lackluster results. Although Shaft might not have the same power today as it did in its first release, the one thing I can safely claim is that in 1971, Hollywood had its hands full with the cat that Isaac Hayes described as “one bad mother…”


  1. Guerrero, Framing Blackness, 92.
  2. Guerrero, Framing Blackness, 92-93.
  3. Stepehn F. Soitos, The Blues Detective: A Study of African American Detective Fiction (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996), 59.
  4. Soitos, The Blues Detective: A Study of African American Detective Fiction, 27-51.
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