Reprinted by permission of Donald Bogle from his film reference
work, Blacks in American Films & Television: An Illustrated
Encyclopedia (Simon & Schuster)
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When his daughter (Sherry Brewer) is kidnapped by the mob, a Harlem underworld boss (Moses Gunn) hires a black detective named John Shaft to find the girl. That's the basic plotline of this once immensely popular film, which is not much different from a conventional white detective story. But black audiences loved watching Richard Roundtree's exploits as Shaft: he handles the ladies with proper aplomb, rubs out the baddies with appropriate macho skill, and struts his wares in his leather coat with sheer confidence and glee, all to the bop and sway of Isaac Hayes' pulsating score. Here's a black man who knows who he is and is not about to take anything from anybody. Seen today, the women in Shaft are poorly drawn; mostly, they seem to be there to serve as testaments to Shaft's virility. As is the case with other heroes of the blaxploitation era, Shaft has not only a black woman but a white one as well. At times, the use of the white female character might be read as a defiant response to those fragile, virginal white heroines of D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. Now the idea is that the white woman has been pulled down from her pedestal and that indeed she can now be had.
Parks'' direction is neither surprising nor innovative and certainly lacks the pictorial lushness of his earlier film The Learning Tree. At times Shaft  looks downright tacky. Yet it must be admitted that Parks' strong identification with Shaft as a slick, pretty, sexy dude gives the picture unexpected heat and zip; it's doubtful if any white director would have taken as much relish in the hero's derring-do.
Curiously enough, though, no doubt because Shaft is at heart a man-of-the-law-type hero, this film in later years has proven far more acceptable to the large white audience than such features as Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song and Super Fly (neither of which has ever had a television network showing as did Shaft, both of which have true underground, outlaw heroes, free of traditional bourgeois values). Later Shaft was even turned into a routine television private eye series.
Added note: at the time of Shaft's release, its studio, the great MGM, was in the midst of financial difficulties. MGM thought Shaft might make a little bit of money. Of course, it made a mint and helped keep MGM in business. Also: Isaac Hayes won an Oscar® for Best Song, one of the most famous in movie history.
Producer: Joel Freeman, David Golden
Director: Gordon Parks
Screenplay: Ernest Tidyman, John D. F. Black
Cinematography: Urs Furrer
Film Editing: Hugh A. Robertson
Art Direction: Emanuel Gerard
Music: Isaac Hayes, J.J. Johnson
Cast: Richard Roundtree (John Shaft), Moses Gunn (Bumpy Jonas), Charles Cioffi (Vic Androzzi), Christopher St. John (Ben Buford), Gwen Mitchell (Ellie Moore), Lawrence Pressman (Sergeant Tom Hannon).
C-100m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Donald Bogle