From The Grindhouse Cinema Database
In 1971 MGM Studios greenlighted this benchmark classic following the success of Melvin Van Peebles' low budget hit Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song. When this movie was released, black people saw Shaft giving a cabbie the finger in anger and went crazy. This wasn't Bullitt or The Man With No Name, this was a character that represented them.
Richard Roundtree stars as John Shaft, a tough private eye from New York City that gets caught in the center of a turf war between the Mafia and their rival Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) a Harlem gangster patterned after real life criminal Bumpy Johnson. When Shaft is targeted at his office by some thugs but survives the hit, his police contact Lt. Vic Androzzi (Charles Cioffi) tries to find out exactly what is happening. Shaft plays it very cool and doesn't give the cops much of anything except attitude. This aspect of the character is part of what made it such a big hit with urban audiences. Shaft later meets up with Bumpy who needs his help because his daughter Marcy has been kidnapped by the Italians. He wants Shaft to rescue her from her captors. As Shaft investigates the kidnapping trying to locate Marcy, we get a firsthand look at how he operates around town. SHAFT is just a no nonsense badass dude. The type of person every man aspires to be. He gets the ladies and takes care of business without backing down from anyone, especially THE MAN.
While the plot for SHAFT was actually rather straight forward (an update of the hardboiled crime films of the 40s and 50s) the cultural impact it had was probably more important than how groundbreaking it was in terms of the storyline. It would be a box office hit and much like Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars and the spaghetti westerns, it kicked off a whole new movie genre known as Blaxploitation. Director Gordon Parks Sr.'s son would direct another crime classic Super Fly a year later.
The iconic funk based score for SHAFT by Isaac Hayes is of course a huge part of its legacy and has been a big part of pop culture since its release. The main theme is now one of the most well known and loved in cinema history earning a place as the 38th greatest movie song of all time from the American Film Institute.
SHAFT would be followed by two sequels Shaft's Big Score and Shaft In Africa. While both were entertaining genre movies, nothing would re-create the impact of the original supercool hit. In 2000, Samuel L. Jackson played John Shaft's nephew in a new reboot of SHAFT and Richard Roundtree made a cameo appearance.
Peter Roberts is the co-founder/editor-in-chief of the Grindhouse Cinema Database (GCDb) and contributor to the GCDb's sister site Furious Cinema. He is an avid film fan that has been immersed in the world of entertainment and pop culture his entire life.