Originally shown November 25, 2009
There are a metric ton of stories surrounding Gordon Parks’ 1971 classic Shaft, but this is the one I’ve heard most often: as MGM was spiraling into bankruptcy, someone in the studio made an interesting realization. The “white flight” caused by the race riots of the late 1960s might have sent a lot of white people to the suburbs, but the movie theaters were still mostly in the cities. The movie business needed mostly black audiences to fill their movie houses, and in order to make that happen, the audience needed to see someone on-screen that they could identify with. As good an actor as he is, Sidney Poitier was not that guy.
MGM had been planning on making Ernest Tidyman’s hit novel about a black P.I. and switching the lead character to a white man, but they changed their minds and left the title character black. They hired former model Richard Roundtree and paid him $10,000 to fill the role. The end result saved MGM, and is now in the National Film Registry of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” movies.
The funny thing is, if you just look at the movie on paper, it doesn’t seem all that significant. Its plot treads a lot of the same ground that Humphrey Bogart and Steve McQueen had already walked. Perhaps because of its light budget, Shaft doesn’t have a lot of action; one big shootout happens off-screen, and the big set-piece at the climax is basically all buildup to a rather lame release. Roundtree is fantastic, but the rest of the cast ranges from mediocre to atrocious.
So what makes this movie great? Attitude. It’s attitude that makes Roundtree’s performance so good, but beyond that, no one connected with this film has the attitude that they were just making a “black version” of the classic detective movie. Movies about angry black men trying to survive the mean streets had been made before, but Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song and The Harder They Come were independent films, made by outsiders. Everyone involved with Shaft, especially Roundtree, understood that it was their single best shot at getting big-time Hollywood to explore the streets that had gone up in flames a few years before. They did not waste that chance.
That attitude begins the very first moment you hear that Isaac Hayes score, and Hayes proves to be the through-line that carries the attitude with us. Hayes only won an Oscar for Best Original Song for “Theme from Shaft”, but I personally like the rest of the music in the movie just as much. It’s not angry, because movie music usually shouldn’t be: anger is one emotion you should always leave the actors to deliver. Instead it’s sad and soulful, connecting John Shaft with the sort of human suffering that private eyes have been investigating since the first Raymond Chandler story.
Then there’s the sex. John Shaft is a black private dick who’s a sex machine for all of the chicks, and as our vice president might say, that’s a BFD. Sex is entwined in our national history with race. Sex was used to accuse Martin Luther King of hypocrisy, to lynch Emmett Till, and was even implied in the court-martial of Jackie Robinson.* This applied equally well to the movies: Poitier was sexless on-screen by design of the studios. Roundtree turns that idea on its head by having several graphic sex scenes, including one with a white woman, which was a shocking thing to see from a Hollywood studio film at that time. Shaft the movie, much like Shaft the character, asserts an aggressive sexuality and doesn’t give a damn who knows about it.
The really depressing thing is that the sex issue is still a big one today. As I mentioned in my review of Black Dynamite, Samuel L. Jackson’s movies have made more money than any black actor ever, but when was the last time he got to have a sex scene? An even better example can be found on the commentary track of Blade II: writer David Goyer laughs about how Blade is finally going to get a love scene in the third movie, which he jokes will be called Blade 3: Blade Gets Laid. But Wesley Snipes sounds legitimately frustrated that he can’t get what a lot of other action heroes have had; knowing Hollywood as he does, he thinks it’s probably not going to happen. And if you’ve seen Blade: Trinity, you know he was right.**
Of course, no one connected with Blade: Trinity would say that they are racist. They would say that a sex scene would be out of place with a comic book character, or that it would have tested badly with audiences. It’s all marketing, they would say. This is exactly why Shaft is so amazing. It may have been born of marketing, out of a studio’s desperate need to make money off of the black audience, but in the hands of its filmmakers it became something more. It became a legend: The Bad Mother Who Saved a Studio. Can you dig it?
Reviewed by Mark Young
*Before he played professional baseball, during his time in the Army, Robinson received a court-martial for refusing to move to the back of a bus. The driver singled him out when he saw Robinson talking with a woman whom the driver believed to be white (she wasn’t). An all-white jury voted to acquit.
**Also if you’ve seen Blade: Trinity, may God have mercy on your soul.