Cast & Crew
Christopher St. John
One winter morning in New York City, tough, black private detective John Shaft learns that two hoods from Harlem are looking for him. Police lieutenant Vic Androzzi, with whom Shaft has a sparring friendship, questions him about the men and the rumors he has heard about trouble brewing uptown, but Shaft refuses to discuss any potential problems in the black community with the police. After he moves on, Shaft spots one of the Harlem men waiting for him in the lobby of his office building and, overpowering him, marches him up to his office. There, Shaft surprises the man's partner, and in the ensuing fistfight, the first man crashes through the window and falls to his death.
Shaft questions the remaining man, who admits that Harlem racketeer Bumpy Jonas ordered them to bring Shaft uptown. After being taken to the police station, Shaft is questioned by Byron Leibowitz, Androzzi's impatient superior, but Shaft refuses to talk. Alone with Androzzi, Shaft still will not reveal anything, and Androzzi, who is sincerely concerned about the devastation that would be caused by a race war, lets Shaft go when he states that he will "think about" keeping Androzzi informed of whatever he may learn. Shaft then calls Bumpy and coldly informs him that the racketeer can find him at his office.
Later that evening, Bumpy, accompanied by henchman Willy, goes to see Shaft, to whom he reveals that his daughter Marcy has been kidnapped. Bumpy, who controls the majority of the narcotics, gambling and prostitution in Harlem, states that Marcy is an innocent college student, but Shaft, who despises Bumpy, is reluctant to accept his business. Bumpy theorizes that Marcy has been taken by the Lumumbas, a black militant organization headed by Ben Buford. Shaft, a childhood friend of Ben, scoffs, but Bumpy asserts that the Lumumbas need the potential ransom money, and that only Shaft, who moves confidently between the white and black enclaves of New York, can find Marcy.
Moved by Bumpy's tears for his daughter, Shaft accepts the job, but only on the condition that he be in total control of the operation. Later that evening, Shaft tracks Ben to a rundown apartment on Amsterdam Avenue, but does not spot a man who is following him. Shaft slips by Ben's lookouts and confronts his former friend, who angrily calls him a "Tom" when he explains his mission. As they are arguing, they hear machine-gun fire in the street as Ben's two lookouts are gunned down. While Ben's three other men head for the roof, Shaft takes Ben to hide in a neighboring apartment.
The three men are killed, but Shaft and Ben escape. As they are running away, Shaft notices the dead body of the man who was following him and wonders if it was Ben or himself who was the assassins' target. After hiding Ben at a friend's house, Shaft confers with Androzzi, who informs him that while Bumpy has been rapidly recruiting more "crew," numerous Mafia hitmen have entered the city recently, and that it was probably Mafia men who came after him at Ben's. Androzzi fears that there is a war brewing between Bumpy and the Mafia, and that even though the violence would be between criminals, it could still provoke a race riot. Shaft obliquely admits that he is working for Bumpy, then, in the morning, takes Ben to confront the racketeer.
Bumpy confesses that he knows Marcy is being held by the Mafia, which wants control of Harlem's narcotics traffic. Bumpy further explains that he steered Shaft toward Ben because Ben has an army of men who would be more useful to Shaft than his own, untrained, uneducated gangsters. Ben proclaims that he would not risk the life of any "brothers" to save Marcy just because she is black, but then bargains with Bumpy for $10,000 per man, including the five already killed, so that he can have money to free jailed members of his movement. Bumpy also agrees when Shaft demands $20,000 for his services, and later, after Shaft and Ben have left, Shaft instructs Ben to organize his supporters, who must follow his orders exactly. In the evening, Shaft spots two white gangsters watching his apartment from a bar across the street.
The detective easily outwits the two, who prove to be Mafia enforcers from Detroit, and has them arrested. In the morning, Shaft confronts the two men in Androzzi's office and commands them to tell their boss that he wants to see Marcy in person to prove that she is unharmed. After the men reluctantly give Shaft a phone number in order to arrange a meeting later that day, he leaves. At Shaft's apartment, however, Androzzi warns him that the police captain had bugged Androzzi's office and now knows about Marcy's kidnapping and the Mafia's part in it. After arranging for Ben and two of his men to meet him in Greenwich Village, Shaft calls the number given to him by the two thugs and meets one of the Mafia's representatives. The man takes him to a nearby apartment building, to which they are followed by Ben, and Shaft is shot and beaten when he attempts to rescue Marcy.
One of Ben's men trails the gangster fleeing with Marcy, while the others find Shaft and take him to the home of his girl friend, Ellie Moore. With the help of boxing trainer Dr. Sam, Ben and Ellie resuscitate Shaft and bind his wounds. Shaft then organizes some of Ben's "brothers" at the hotel where Marcy is now being held. While some of the Lumumbas, disguised as kitchen staff and room service and elevator attendants, assume strategic positions, Shaft climbs to the roof with one of the men. Entering the attic, Shaft prepares a fire bomb, then lowers himself out the window down to the gangsters' room. Throwing in the incendiary device, Shaft crashes through the window and guns down several men, while in the hallway, Ben and his group use guns and a firehose to defeat the other guards. Shaft and Ben hustle Marcy into a waiting cab, and after everyone has departed, Shaft calls Androzzi. As the police sirens begin to wail, Shaft informs Androzzi that the case has busted wide open. When Androzzi tells him to close it, Shaft, repeating a joke they had shared earlier, laughingly replies, "Looks like you're going to have to close it yourself, Shitty," then saunters off into the night.
Christopher St. John
Drew Bundini Brown
Benjamin R. Rixson
John D. F. Black
Hugh A. Robertson
The Bar-kays And Movement
Jack Wright Jr.
Lasting from 1971 until roughly 1977, blaxploitation gave work to dozens of formerly sidelined black actors and offered moviegoers a wealth of larger-than-life Afrocentric characters with equally mythic-sounding names: from Slaughter and Foxy Brown to Truck Turner and Cleopatra Jones. With a catalogue well into the double digits, blaxploitation honored every conceivable film category (including westerns, musicals and horror) and ranged wildly in quality from the sublime (Cotton Comes to Harlem , The Mack , Cooley High ) to the ridiculous (Abby , Black Belt Jones , Top of the Heap ). The impact of Shaft on Hollywood cannot be underestimated; when Martin Scorsese was shopping his script for Mean Streets (1973), Roger Corman offered to produce as long as the characters were rewritten as black. Shaft was followed by two sequels in as many years and a short-lived (seven episodes) CBS television series - all starring Richard Roundtree as "the cat who won't cop out/When there's danger all about."
The son of a New Rochelle sanitation worker, Richard Roundtree attended Southern Illinois University on a football scholarship but was led astray after performing in campus theatricals. While paying his rent in Manhattan by waiting tables, he followed up on a tip for a modeling gig that paid $40 an hour and found himself walking the runway of the Ebony Fashion Fair. In Los Angeles, Bill Cosby advised the young hopeful to hone his craft as an actor in New York. Taking Cosby's advice, Roundtree enrolled in classes at the Negro Ensemble Company. He made his film debut in Allen Funt's What Do You Say to a Naked Lady (1970). His salary for Shaft was a mere $12,000, but a year later he was able to quadruple his asking price to return in Shaft's Big Score (1972). After Shaft in Africa (1973), Roundtree had prominent roles in Man Friday (1975) with Peter O'Toole and the Roots (1977) miniseries but never again enjoyed A-list status, keeping busy instead as a jobbing character actor. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993, Roundtree underwent treatment and in remission became a spokesman for early detection and prevention.
When Richard Roundtree auditioned for the role of John Shaft, director Gordon Parks (being rewarded by MGM with this assignment after the success of his semi-autobiographical The Learning Tree, a 1969 adaptation of his 1963 novel) had him wear a fake moustache. On the first day of shooting, however, Parks was alarmed to find Roundtree ordered to shave off the facial hair he had grown prior to shooting on the order of producer Joel Freeman. Although Sidney Poitier had broken the color barrier on black-skinned leading men in Hollywood films, he did it clean shaven and presentable to white audiences; Parks (who sported his own flamboyant cookie duster) wanted John Shaft to make it on his own terms, to be the first black movie hero to sport his own sense of style, from his flapping leather "maxi" to his macho handlebar moustache. After Parks confronted Freeman, who admitted he had no good argument as to why he had ordered Roundtree to shave, Shaft got to keep his moustache.
While Shaft is now considered a quintessential New York movie, Parks also had to fight to keep the production based there. With winter setting in at the start of principal photography in January of 1970, newly-hired MGM studio boss Jim Aubrey (who had been brought onboard to keep spending in line and save the studio from impending bankruptcy) feared that cameras frozen by Eastern frost would create problems and delays and bloat the film's modest budget. (The shift westward would also have entailed firing everyone on the payroll except Richard Roundtree.) Flying to Hollywood with less than twenty-four hours before the first day of shooting, Parks sat down with Aubrey (whose reputation for merciless decision-making had earned him the nickname "The Smiling Cobra") and through a combination of charm, perseverance, threats (that he'd quit if he had to film in Los Angeles) and bullsh*t (including unsupportable claims that he had at his disposal state-of-the-art cameras with built-in heaters) convinced Aubrey that he could bring the film in under budget. With the studio executive's tempered blessing ("If you screw up, your ass is mine"), Parks turned right around and headed back east. He brought Shaft in on time and under budget. And the rest is New York history.
Producer: Joel Freeman
Director: Gordon Parks
Screenplay: John D.F. Black; Ernest Tidyman (screenplay and novel)
Cinematography: Urs Furrer
Art Direction: Emanuel Gerard
Music: Isaac Hayes, J.J. Johnson
Film Editing: Hugh A. Robertson
Cast: Richard Roundtree (John Shaft), Moses Gunn (Bumpy Jonas), Charles Cioffi (Vic Androzzi), Christopher St. John (Ben Buford), Gwenn Mitchell (Ellie Moore), Lawrence Pressman (Sergeant Tom Hannon), Victor Arnold (Charlie), Sherri Brewer (Marcy), Rex Robbins (Rollie), Camille Yarbrough (Dina Greene), Margaret Warncke (Linda), Joseph Leon (Byron Leibowitz).
C-101m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Richard Harland Smith
Gordon Parks: Photographer by Skip Berry
A Choice of Weapons by Gordon Parks
Voices in the Mirror: An Autobiography by Gordon Parks
A Hungry Heart: A Memoir by Gordon Parks
"Gordon Parks: Each day is still too short in the wide-ranging life of the master multitasker" by Roy Rowan, Smithsonian magazine, Volume 36, Issue 8, November 2005
A Choice of Colors: Spike Lee and the African American Filmmakers by K. Maurice Jones
"I'm Talking About Shaft" by Michael Parker, Southern Culture Volume 12, Number 3, Fall 2006
Richard Roundtree interview by Tavis Smiley, May 2008
Crime Movies by Carlos Clarens
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock'n'Roll Generation Saved Hollywood by Peter Biskind
Reprinted by permission of Donald Bogle from his film reference
work, Blacks in American Films & Television: An Illustrated
Encyclopedia (Simon & Schuster)
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
Shaft (1971) Reprinted by permission of Donald Bogle from his film reference work, Blacks in American Films & Television: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (Simon & Schuster)
Hey, where the hell are you going, Shaft?- Sergeant Tom Hannon
To get laid, where the hell are you going?- John Shaft
Have a chair, John.- Vic Androzzi
I don't like your chair.- Shaft
That's some cold shit, throwing my man Leroy out the window. Just picked my man up and threw him out the Goddamn window.- Willy
I got to feeling like a machine, and that's no way to feel.- Shaft
Quit playin' with yourself, Willy.- Shaft
During the scene where Bumpy Jonas visits Shaft at his office, a door adjacent to the office says "Skloot Insurance" - named for Steven P. Skloot, a production manager on the film.
Shaft is seen reading a copy of Essence Magazine in his girlfriend's apartment; director Gordon Parks is one of the co-founders of Essence Magazine. The magazine is spotted when Shaft is engaging in a conversation with a blind newsstand vendor during the opening sequence. Gordon Parks has a cameo in the film - as a landlord when Shaft is looking for Ben Buford.
The woman who shouts "Shut your mouth!" in the film's theme song is Telma Hopkins from Tony Orlando & Dawn and "Family Matters" (1989) fame.
Isaac Hayes originally auditioned to play the title role. Producers cast Richard Roundtree, but were so impressed with Hayes that they asked him to write the now legendary score to the film.
Although a June 1970 Publishers Weekly news item stated that M-G-M had already expressed interest in obtaining the rights to Ernest Tidyman's novel for production by Stirling Silliphant and Roger Lewis, an August 1970 Hollywood Reporter item reported that Herb Solow, then M-G-M's production head, was about to start an independent production company and would be making Shaft as his "initial venture." Later contemporary sources reported that Silliphant and Lewis would be producing the film in conjunction with Tidyman, although Tidyman is not listed as a producer in the onscreen picture's credits. According to a May 1972 Publishers Weekly report, when M-G-M and Tidyman's Shaft Productions, Ltd. joined to make the first "Shaft" film, the agreement between the novelist and the studio "included provision for at least three Shaft movies." When Lewis subsequently left M-G-M for Warner Bros. and could not produce the first movie full-time, Joel Freeman was brought in as the line producer.
The film differs significantly from the Tidyman novel on which it was based. In the book, "Ben Buford" agrees to help "John Shaft" and "Bumpy Jonas" so that the Mafia will not gain control of Harlem, rather than for monetary gain. In the ending confrontation between Shaft and the mobsters, only Shaft and "Willy" go after "Marcy," while Ben and his supporters start a riot in an exclusive, white neighborhood to distract the police away from Shaft's mission.
Additionally, "Ellie Moore," Shaft's main girl friend, is white in the book, whereas in the film, she is African American. The race of "Linda," the girl Shaft picks up in the No Name Bar, is also reversed, as she is African American in the book but white in the film. [In later 1970s interviews, the filmmakers noted that they received many complaints from black women about Shaft's sexual encounter with a white woman, and in the subsequent films, Shaft's paramours were always black.] The bartender of the No Name Bar, "Rollie," is black in the novel, but in the film is a white friend of Shaft who nonchalantly declares that he is gay. In the book, Shaft is very antagonistic toward homosexuals.
According to a modern interview with Tidyman's son, the author was dismayed with the changes made for the film, as he felt the studio was trying too hard, in an unauthentic way, to make the character more ethnic. Tidyman wrote six other novels featuring the Shaft character, which were published between 1972 and 1975. Tidyman, a prominent, white novelist and screenwriter, received an NAACP Image award for his creation of Shaft.
According to director Gordon Parks's autobiography, Ron O'Neal had been considered for the part of Shaft, but was rejected because he was too light-skinned. Parks makes a cameo in the picture as a Harlem resident questioned by Shaft about the location of Ben. As noted by contemporary sources, the picture was shot entirely on location in New York City, including in Harlem, Greenwich Village and Times Square. According to studio press notes, all of the film's "non-location interiors" were constructed and shot in the old City Hospital on Welfare Island. In his autobiography, Parks stated that because of the potential for budget overruns due to the extremely cold weather, studio officials wanted to shoot in Los Angeles, but Parks threatened to quit the project unless it was filmed in New York.
Shaft marked the first major film role of theater actor and model Richard Roundtree. [Roundtree had previously appeared in a bit role in the 1970 film What Do You Say to a Naked Lady?, see below.] Roundtree received mixed reviews, as did the film, with New York magazine stating that he made "an authentic star debut" while the Village Voice termed him a "failure" and a "James Bond in blackface." The picture also marked the motion picture debuts of Gwenn Mitchell and Drew Bundini Brown, well-known as a trainer of boxer Muhammed Ali, and the only film role of Sherri Brewer.
According to Filmfacts, Shaft was one of 1971's highest grossing pictures, with over six million dollars in domestic rentals. In July 1972, New York Times noted that the film had grossed more than $18 million in the United States and Canada, and that due to its success, M-G-M "was able to pull itself out of the fiscal red sea." In reporting on the film's progress, a July 1971 Variety article noted that up to that point, it was estimated that eighty percent of the film's audience had been black, and that a large part of its success was due to a "black-owned ad agency, the UniWorld Group." The article explained that UniWorld's strategy was to screen the film for "every level of the black community" before it opened in various cities, as well as to make sure that "a clearly identifiable black voice" was used for radio and television ads. In discussing his concept of the film's potential audience in the May 1971 Publishers Weekly article, producer Joel Freeman stated: "The first Shaft film is aimed much more directly at a black audience. The language is very pointedly black, which is what we wanted. Later on, if Shaft succeeds, we will open the series up and send Shaft anyplace. That's when we expect to start picking up our real white audience."
Shaft was one of the most popular and influential examples of the "Blaxploitation" genre, which began in 1971 and usually featured African-American characters in a gritty, urban setting. [For more information about Blaxploitation films, see the entry below for Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.] Shaft, as with other Blaxploitation films, was controversial, especially during the 1970s, with many black and white film critics arguing that it presented shallow, stereotyped characters. Other critics lauded it, however, feeling that it gave black moviegoers the opportunity to enjoy the exploits of a powerful and successful black man who was comfortable with his racial identity.
Isaac Hayes was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Dramatic Score and won an Academy Award for Best Original Song for "Theme from Shaft," making him the first African-American composer to win an Oscar. A March 1972 Daily Variety article reported that after the song "Theme from Shaft" was submitted by M-G-M for consideration, a "special meeting of the Academy music committee" had to be called to "consider its eligibility" due to the song being predominantly instrumental, with a repetitive theme, and having minimal lyrics. The song and the film's score gained great popularity, with both the song and the soundtrack album becoming number-one hits and winning two Grammy Awards and a Golden Globe for Hayes. In addition, Hayes won Best Musical Score at the 1971 NAACP Image Awards, where the picture took Film of the Year honors and Joel Freeman was named Producer of the Year.
Shaft was the first in a series of three films featuring the character. According to the pressbook for Shaft, Roundtree originally had a contract for three sequels, but only two were produced. Roundtree starred in all three "Shaft" pictures, with Moses Gunn and Brown reprising their roles in the second film. The second picture, entitled Shaft's Big Score! (see below), was directed by Parks, co-produced by Tidyman and released by M-G-M in 1972. Tidyman turned his screenplay for the film into a novel of the same name that was published to coincide with the picture's release. In 1973, Shaft and Shaft's Big Score! were re-released theatrically as a double bill. The third film, Shaft in Africa (see below), was the only one in the series not to feature a script by Tidyman. Directed by John Guillermin and released by M-G-M in 1973, the film had an original screenplay by Stirling Silliphant.
Tidyman's character was also the inspiration for a series of seven, ninety-minute television movies that aired on CBS from October 9, 1973 to February 19, 1974, all starring Roundtree. A parody of the original film, called Shafted!, was released in 1999. Directed by Tom Putnam, the comedy starred David James Alexander as a white man convinced he is a black superhero. In 2000, Paramount released a film very loosely based on Tidyman's original novel. Also called Shaft, the picture, updated to 2000, was directed by John Singleton and starred Samuel L. Jackson as the police detective nephew of the "original" Shaft who joins his uncle's private detective firm. Roundtree reprised his role of Shaft for the 2000 release, which used Hayes's theme song and featured a cameo by Gordon Parks as "Mr. P."
Awarded an Oscar in 1972 for Isaac Hayes' theme song, "Shaft."
Released in United States 1995
Released in United States 1998
Released in United States November 1997
Released in United States Summer July 2, 1971
Shown at Brisbane International Film Festival July 30 - August 9, 1998.
Shown at Exground On Screen Film Festival in Wiesbaden, Germany November 14-23, 1997.
Based on the Ernest Tidyman novel "Shaft" (New York, 1970).
Released in USA on video.
Selected in 2000 for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.
Re-released in United Kingdom July 21, 2000.
Released in United States 1995 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum) as part of program "Blaxploitation, Baby!" June 23 - August 10, 1995.)
Released in United States 1998 (Shown at Brisbane International Film Festival July 30 - August 9, 1998.)
Released in United States Summer July 2, 1971
Released in United States November 1997 (Shown at Exground On Screen Film Festival in Wiesbaden, Germany November 14-23, 1997.)