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,Shaft's Big Score!

Shaft's Big Score (1972)

After ignoring African American audiences since the birth of the film industry, Hollywood made a sudden about-face in the 1970s when films like Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), a colorful, street smart cop drama directed by Ossie Davis and starring Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques, and Melvin Van Peebles independently-made blast of righteous anger Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971) became big hits. An explosion of cheaply made action films with black heroes immediately followed, a genre that was branded with the dismissive term "Blaxploitation."

While most of these films were produced on low budgets by small companies on the margins of the industry, the big studios also got in on the action. MGM bought a novel about a black private eye in New York by author Ernest Tidyman and quickly put Shaft (1971) into production with Gordon Parks, an acclaimed Life magazine photographer and author turned filmmaker, behind the camera. For the lead role of the tough, handsome John Shaft, they cast a virtual unknown: Richard Roundtree, who shot to stardom as the first cool African American action hero in a major studio film. The film crossed over to both black and white audiences and became a major hit for the studio, so MGM immediately ordered a sequel. "Although I had a feeling of 'been there, done that,' the studio promised me a temptingly bigger budget, and I gave in to the temptation" recalled Parks in his memoir A Hungry Heart. "We plunged in preproduction immediately."

Shaft's Big Score! (1972) brought back Roundtree as Shaft (complete with his slick wardrobe and trademark brown leather jacket) and Moses Gunn as Harlem mobster Bumpy Jonas, and author Tidyman, who had since earned an Academy Award for the screenplay The French Connection (1971), returned to write and produce. Julius Harris, a tall, striking black actor, got his first big break in as the investigating police detective, Captain Bollin, and went on to a busy career in the seventies in films like Super Fly (1972, directed by Parks' son), Black Caesar (1973), and the James Bond hit Live and Let Die (1973).

Isaac Hayes, who scored an Oscar® for his funky theme song and a Grammy for his score to the original Shaft could not be coaxed back for the sequel (though he did contribute the song "Type Thang"). The multi-talented Parks, who was also a composer in his own right, scored the film and wrote a handful of original songs (including the theme song, "Blowin' Your Mind") in addition to directing.

What begins as a revenge film -- Shaft goes looking for the man or men who killed his good friend, a funeral director and beloved local businessman who secretly ran the Harlem numbers racket -- lands him in the middle of a mob war as the syndicate tries to move in on the Harlem underworld. Between fistfights, shoot-outs, and other action scenes, Shaft is the ladies' man (a "sex machine to all the chicks," as Isaac Hayes says in the Oscar®-winning theme song,). "In the original, Shaft picks up a white girl in a nightclub and takes her home," noted co-producer Roger Lewis. "Yet to our surprise, black women objected to the scene in every theater we checked. They identified with Shaft and didn't want him playing around with white women." In the sequel, Shaft continues to flirt, seduce, and bed the beautiful women he meets in the course of his case, including the sister of the victim, but this time around they are all black women.

The studio bumped the budget up by more than $1 million over the original film and Parks spent it on more impressive production values and an action-packed finale. There's a careening car chase through the city to the waterfront, a speedboat chase, and a helicopter that hounds Shaft to the climactic shootout in a Brooklyn shipyard. It's downright lavish compared to the original Shaft, but Parks keeps it rough and gritty with his New York locations and urban atmosphere.

The film didn't replicate the blockbuster status of Shaft but it was a success in its own right. Film critic Roger Ebert praised the polish that Parks brought to the film: "The quality shows. This time director Gordon Parks uses Panavision, surrounds his hero with a talented cast, and pours on the special effects."

Roundtree returned to play the character in one final sequel, the 1973 Shaft in Africa, and in a short-lived TV series, before moving on to a long career on the screen, including roles in the landmark TV mini-series Roots and David Fincher's Seven (1995). But to many fans, he will always be the man, John Shaft.

By Sean Axemaker

Sources:
"Black Films Are In, So Are Profits," George Gent. The New York Times, July 18, 1972.
"A Hungry Heart," Gordon Parks. Atria Books, 2005.
"Voices in the Mirror," Gordon Parks. Doubleday, 1990.
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