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Savant Review: Shaft

Warner Home Video
1971 / Color / 1:85 / Full Frame and matted widescreen (16:9) versions, double sided; Dolby Digital mono English and French
Starring Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn, Charles Cioffi, Christopher St. John, Gwen Mitchell
Cinematography Urs Furrer
Art Director Emanuel Gerard
Film Editor Hugh A. Robertson
Original Music Isaac Hayes, J.J. Johnson
Writing credits Ernest Tidyman and John D. F. Black
Produced by Joel Freeman, David Golden
Directed by Gordon Parks

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

"He's hotter than Bond! He's cooler than Bullitt! This movie is rated R, so If you wanna see Shaft, ask your mama!" - trailer voiceover.

The original Shaft movie was one of Savant's eye-opening theater experiences. In the little wooden Norton Air Force Base theater, it played just once to a packed house of mostly black airmen. Savant was back for the weekend from UCLA and got a real treat. The crowd loved every scene, every right-on speech, every hardboiled verbal put-down. Savant, in his sheltered life, had never heard an audience like this - they talked back to the screen like it was an interactive experience, with shouts of 'Go, baby!' and 'Right On! Here was a film directed by a black and featuring mostly black actors, with a black hero who was the smartest, sassiest and coolest dude in town. Savant could tell at a moment that something entirely new was afoot - nobobdy in the theater had seen a film like this, and they were delighted.


John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) is a New York private eye caught in the middle of a turf war between the Mafia and gangster Bumpy (Moses Gunn). Although not trusted by the black criminal element, Shaft has both their respect and that of the white-dominated police, all of whom he intimidates and charms as necessity demands. His greatest ally are his brothers on the street - the ordinary citizens who know that John Shaft talks straight, hits hard, and takes nothing from nobody when his dignity is on the line.

Shaft goes into action when Bumpy's daughter is kidnapped by the Mafia. With the aid of a friend in the precinct (Charles Cioffi) and the firepower of an underground militant (Christopher St. John), he takes on the Hoods, outfoxing and outgunning them at every turn. Wounded by machine-gun hitmen, Shaft launches a large-scale raid on a hotel in a final rescue attempt.

Reviewers of the new Shaft seemed surprised to find out that the author of the original series, Ernest Tidyman, was white. This certainly wasn't publicized back in 1971. Savant knew about Gordon Parks because the (shall we say) white press covered him extensively as a celebrated still photographer-turned movie director. I'd already seen his The Learning Tree, a beautifully-shot and tough-minded memoir of childhood in a Southern town from the black perspective that is still the best film of its kind. (The version shown on TCM is substantially edited, so don't judge it on cable viewings.) Before, the only movies generally distributed with black leading players featured either the superhuman Sidney Poitier, or occasionally Harry Belafonte. Unlike previous films, Shaft was an MGM release clearly intended for the black audience Hollywood had always ignored. The attitude of Shaft is what set it apart - it made no effort to court the white audience at all. John Shaft kept his mouth shut for nobody, and wasn't interested in carrying a civics lesson or being an ambassador from an alien race. He was openly promiscuous, keeping at least a couple of steady women on his string, and taking in the occasional admiring prostitute. He talked dirty, told white cops where to get off, pushed around the toughest of the black mobsters, and made mincemeat of adversaries both black and white. A year before The Godfather, the Mafia of Shaft consisted of fairly accurate Italian goombah types; Shaft had no trouble letting loose with the ethnic slurs either. In other words, Shaft was a fresh dose of reality, in 70s parlance, 'telling it like it is.' This script showed no influence of studio influence, whatsoever.

Shaft has a good New York look. A lot of the action action appears to take place around Times Square, which was quite a different place in 1970 - much rougher, much more rundown. Shaft must hold the record for the number of movie marquees on view in one film; I'd guess it was filmed in late Summer-Early fall with what's playing in downtown Manhattan.

At the time of its release, Shaft's soundtrack with its Isaac Hayes title tune was a big draw, and probably had a lot to do with the movie's crossover appeal. My UCLA dorm floor had one (!) black student, who played it night and day. When Oscar night came around in 1972, the big thrill was not necessarily seeing Charlie Chaplin, but hearing Hayes himself perform the Shaft tune live with dancers and a smoke-and-light show. The recent attempt (1999?) to recapture this moment with an Oscar medley wasn't very successful, especially when the smoke machine went haywire and the number ended like the disastrous rehearsal in the musical The Band Wagon.

Equally disrespectful but done in a comic tone, Cotton Comes to Harlem had preceded Shaft, but didn't hit as big. Pure rage seemed to be the raw material of Sweet Sweetback's Badass Song, a barely coherent thriller that also had already been released and was slowly picking up steam. Instead of Shaft's giving whitey the finger, Badass' open message was to Off the Pig and let the chips fall where they may. Soon this 'debate' of points of view would be distilled by the all-homogenizing system into generic Blaxploitation pix, where macho males carried ever-bigger guns and the women were sass-talking sex traps. The new freedom of the screen meant liberation, but a new sexist stereotyping at the same time. The freshness wore down quickly, to the grim and nihilistic (Across 110th Street) the cheesily exploitative (Coffy, et. al) and the rude and crude (the independent Dolemite series). Savant once saw a string of Dolemite trailers, whose obscene narration tracks were offensive and wonderful at the same time (to us trailer-makers, at least). One special high point was the later Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold, which combined 'big mama' Blaxploitation glamour with what was Savant's first non-Bruce Lee look at wild, stunt-filled Hong Kong action filmmaking.

Warner's DVD of Shaft (released concurrently with its less interesting sequels, Shaft's Big Score and Shaft in Africa) is a solid Warner's disc. The image looks better than the original prints, but still has plenty of authentic grain and murky blacks, the film's original look. Shot flat, the doublesided disc has a full frame version on one side and a matted widescreen on the other. The mono sound is also clear, but the music could really have benefitted from a quick stereo remix. The title theme in particular comes of as rather underwhelming, esp. when compared with its impact on vinyl. The disc includes trailers for all three Shaft movies. The 'documentary' Soul In Cinema is a promo from the original release that has director Gordon Parks and composer Isaac Hayes staging 'candid' conversations and music auditions, but is amusing enough. It shows on TCM frequently.

Perhaps the only really special thing about the original Shaft was the fact that its racial content was new for a Hollywood film; black stars and films are now bigtime and mainstream, although the last thing on Hollywood's mind is diverstiy. Shaft was as important for its time as were films like For Love of Ivy, which showed that black actors could be just as charming as whites in a fantasy Doris Day romantic environment. Say what you will about the exesses of the time, but in 1971, some movies were pushing in new directions, and steering themselves with and without the boxoffice as their guide.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Shaft rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good
Supplements: Trailers, TV spots, featurette Soul In Cinema
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: July 29, 2000

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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