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Late one night, Cal Asby, an African-American insurance salesman and funeral parlor owner in Queens, New York, removes a large sum of money from his office safe and hides it in a coffin in the funeral home next door. Asby then calls an old friend, private detective John Shaft, and, telling him that he is in trouble, begs him to come immediately. Shaft agrees, and although he does not tell Asby that Arna, Asby's sister, is in bed with him, he does promise to ensure her safety. Just as Shaft drives up outside Asby's office, however, Asby turns on a lamp, triggering an explosion that kills him. Later, as firefighters are clearing up the wreckage, Shaft quarrels with African-American police captain Bollin, whom Shaft calls a "black honky." After Shaft stalks off, Johnny Kelly, Asby's partner, greets Bollin, who reveals he knows that Kelly was unhappy with Asby's plan to use company profits to establish a child care clinic in Harlem. Inside, Kelly examines the safe and discovers that the money is missing, much to his horror. The next day, Italian-American mob chieftain Gus Mascola arrives at his penthouse suite and learns that Kelly cannot repay the $250,000 that he owes for past gambling debts. Mascola, who fancies himself a refined gentleman, chastises his right-hand man, Andy Pascal, for his impatience and racism, yet instructs Kelly to obtain the money quickly. At Asby's funeral, Shaft runs into Harlem racketeer Bumpy Jonas and his bodyguard, Willy, with whom Shaft shares a mutual animosity although they have worked together previously. Shaft then escorts Arna and Kelly to the Asby home, which they discover has been ransacked. When the perpetrator runs out, Kelly blocks Shaft from chasing him while pretending to help. Suspicious, Shaft tells Arna that he wants to inspect Asby and Kelly's partnership papers, then warns Kelly that he will be protecting Arna. As Shaft is leaving, Bollin appears and asks him to come to the precinct. There, Bollin reveals that Asby and Kelly were running a numbers racket with the insurance and funeral parlor as profitable fronts, but as long as they kept their scam clean, without drugs or prostitution involved, he looked the other way. Now that Asby is dead, however, Bollin fears that Bumpy or Mascola will take over the Queens territory and increase the crime level. Although Bollin suspects that Shaft may be involved with one of the gangsters, he asks him to help, and Shaft coolly agrees. Upon leaving, Shaft finds one of the numbers runners and forces him to reveal where Kelly runs his operation. Meanwhile, Kelly is with his mistress, Rita, whom he slaps when she threatens to leave him. Kelly gets a phone call summoning him to a meeting with Mascola, and after he departs, Shaft arrives and Rita, seeking revenge against Kelly, flirts with him. While Shaft and Rita are having sex, Kelly talks with Mascola, who demands not only to be repaid but to be cut in as an equal partner on the numbers racket. Kelly is reluctant, telling the mobster that he is worried about Shaft's interference on Arna's behalf, but after Mascola promises to "take care" of Shaft, Kelly agrees to a 50-50 partnership. Kelly also informs Mascola that the money had to have been removed from the insurance office and put into the funeral parlor before the explosion, which Kelly had orchestrated. Later, Shaft goes over the partnership papers with Arna and explains that although her brother was involved in gambling, he was reinvesting in the community, unlike the greedy Kelly. He also tells her that Asby had agreed to buy Kelly out, and that Kelly was going to use the money to pay his debts. Shaft believes that Kelly instead killed Asby to gain control of the businesses and the numbers racket, as well as to retain the $250,000 to pay Mascola. As they are talking, two gunmen sent by Mascola arrive to murder Shaft but he outwits them and, after killing the assassins, takes Arna to hide at his apartment. Meanwhile, in Harlem, Kelly offers Bumpy a partnership in the Queens numbers game if he will help him break with Mascola. Knowing that the action will cause a major turf war, Bumpy agrees but demands a 60-40 split. At night, Shaft goes to Mascola's nightclub, which fronts for his gambling operations in the back rooms. Seeing Shaft at the club, Kelly, who is attempting to double-cross both Mascola and Bumpy, confronts Mascola, asking why Shaft is not dead. Mascola reveals that Shaft killed the two men he sent, and when he declares that their deal is off, Kelly lies that Shaft works for Bumpy and is there to muscle in on his territory. Infuriated, Mascola has his men beat Shaft badly, then orders him to tell Bumpy to stay in Harlem. Shaft relays the message to Bumpy, and as they are talking, machine-gun fire sprays Bumpy's office, prompting the racketeer to order Willy to assist Shaft in retaliating. The next day, Willy and Shaft, posing as window washers, enter Mascola's apartment and beat him and Pascal. At night, Shaft hides in the funeral parlor, after which Kelly comes to search for the missing money. He learns from the janitor that Asby entered the coffin showroom with a paper bag, then returned empty-handed to his office, and so deduces that Asby hid the money in the coffin in which he was later buried. Taking two men with him, Kelly goes to the cemetery. When Shaft returns to his apartment, he discovers that it is being watched by the police and persuades Rita, who has left Kelly, to drive his car so that he can escape undetected. With her excellent driving skills, Rita outmaneuvers the police, then takes Shaft to the cemetery. Meanwhile, two of Mascola's hoods have alerted their boss about Kelly's actions, after which the mobster, Pascal and others take a helicopter to the cemetery. They arrive just after Kelly has raised the coffin and, holding him at gunpoint, make him put the money into a leather bag. Pascal shoots Kelly and his men but the gangsters are in turn held up by Shaft, who grabs the bag and Mascola. With Rita driving, they speed away, followed by Pascal, who has commandeered a car, and another hoodlum in the helicopter. Pascal eventually abandons his damaged vehicle, and after sending Rita to safety, Shaft takes Mascola to a marina, where he appropriates a speedboat. Shaft handcuffs Mascola to the craft, then navigates up the river as he attempts to elude the helicopter. The boat is hit by gunshots, however, with Shaft barely managing to get clear before the craft explodes, killing Mascola. After hiding the bag, Shaft clambers over the docks in a cat-and-mouse chase with both Pascal and the helicopter. Despite being injured, Shaft kills Pascal and then shoots the helicopter, setting it ablaze. It crashes to the ground in a ball of fire and the police soon arrive to investigate. Shaft, who has hidden his weapon with the bag, refuses to divulge the money's whereabouts to Bollin, but hints that it will be going to Harlem for the health clinic.