‘Who’s the black private eye who’s a sex machine to all the chicks?’
Once Hollywood studios understood the box-office potential for films depicting the African-American experience, due in part to SWEET SWEETBACK’s huge earnings, they began to make movies specifically for a black audience. SHAFT was originally developed for a white cast and was quickly adapted to tap into this exciting new market. The studio desperately needed a hit after a string of almost crippling failures. Enter Richard Rowntree as the personable cool-cat private dick John Shaft.
From the opening, with Scientology’s Mr Cool Isaac Hayes’ emblematic theme pulsing, we are shown Shaft rolling through New York City like he own the streets. He gives the finger to a reckless motorist and effortlessly deflects the quizzing from the local precinct cops who he’s all too familiar with.
Soon though, the anticipation of the sassy trouble we could thrill to turns into a disengaged restlessness. SHAFT is a plodding procedural that drags like a gimp leg. His aggressive attitude towards ‘the man’ and the strong-arm criminal black brothers promises fireworks but the action is way too sparse and the plot is unengaging. A threatened turf war between black gangsters and the mafia for control of the city sounds like cool exploitation – except that it’s limited to exposition dialogue. Shaft’s police pal Vic warns him: “Could be we’d have tanks and troops on Broadway if this thing breaks out!” If only. Hell, I’d settle for at least one good shootout to keep me going. Instead, we are treated to slow gradual unfolding of the usual clichés. Shaft pays for information from an informant (Antonio ‘Huggy Bear’ Fargas) and a bar pick-up of a female companion.
This leads to another of the problems with the movie. Progressive as it may be for black male actors, SHAFT does ‘jack shit’ for female representation. After a brief moment of social commentary when our hero tosses off a cool throw-away about his problems to his girlfriend (“Yeah, I got a couple of ‘em. I was born black and I was born poor”), you realise that’s probably the only moment of disarming non-sexual engagement he has with a female character. He’s irresistible to the ladies - ebony and ivory alike, but it ain’t so clear why. In the theme lyrics he’s described as ‘a complicated man’ to give him a sexy mystique yet he’s anything but complex. The women in his life are treated like hi-fi systems; convenient one-dimensional sources of pleasure to be turned on, enjoyed and then discarded when he leaves without any interest in them. Surely the writer Ernest Tidyman and director Gordon Parks had the screen time to given them some personality without eclipsing the all-important ‘love machine’ at the story’s centre? Even the waitress he doesn’t shag who serves him in a restaurant is dismissed as a vacant disengaged airhead. Bring on Pam Grier and the other personable women in the genre. Their energy is sorely missing here.
At last, the pace picks up fleetingly at the end with the iconic sequence where Shaft smashes Tarzan-style through a window and blasts the hood who’s holding a mobster’s innocent daughter hostage – but it’s all too late. By then, you’re longing for more of that ultra-cool theme tune and some pep to the proceedings that dribbled away.
Ultimately SHAFT is an important film for what it represents rather than how it’s executed. The studio deserves credit for belatedly building a commercial film around a strong, nobody’s-fool black hero (and a soundtrack gig for Hayes that won him the first Oscar for a non-acting black artist). A new generation of exploitation film-makers would pick up the baton and run with it faster and better...
Richard Rowntree has the insouciant badass charm as pioneer poster-boy of Blaxploitation in (Sam) spades but - disappointing? You’re damn right.