What's the Big Deal?: Shaft (1971)

The title song in Shaft sums up it pretty eloquently: "Who's the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks? Shaft! You're damn right." So Shaft is one bad son-of-a-gun. But what is it about the film that bears his name that keeps it near the top of the list whenever African American cinema is discussed? Shut your mouth and let's investigate.

The Context

The Learning Tree was the first movie released by a major studio to have been directed by a black man. That's the mildly interesting part of the trivia. The alarming part is that this didn't happen until 1969.

The director, Gordon Parks (1912-2006), was a photographer, poet, journalist, musician, and activist. He was Malcolm X's daughter's godfather. He was the co-founder of Essence magazine. He was the first African American to work at Life magazine. He composed and choreographed a ballet dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. He was a jazz pianist. He directed The Learning Tree (based on his own 1963 novel), earning some critical acclaim but not a lot of box-office attention. Two years later, he made Shaft, and blaxploitation was born.

More or less, anyway. Sweet Sweetback's Badaaaass Song, an independent film by Melvin Van Peebles, hit theaters 10 weeks before Shaft did, but not everyone considers it "blaxploitation" -- perhaps because there's no official definition of what "blaxploitation" is. Loosely speaking, though, it refers to movies with primarily black casts, usually set in inner-city ghettoes amid drug dealers and pimps, in which the white characters are antagonists and are often racist, corrupt, incompetent, or dumb. The films were low-budget, tended to be fraught with sex and violence, and featured simple plots. In other words, blaxploitation movies were exploitation films (see also: "grindhouse") that focused on black characters and targeted black audiences.

Shaft was a big hit for MGM, earning $13 million at the box office (on a budget of $500,000) and securing a Best Original Song Oscar for Isaac Hayes' now-legendary title song. Reviews in the mainstream press were mostly favorable. The film's star, Richard Roundtree -- a stage actor and sometime model making his big-screen debut -- became a counterculture icon.

The Movie

John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) is a private detective in New York City who's hired by a gangster named Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) to find Bumpy's daughter, who's been kidnapped. Shaft makes sexytimes with ladies, beats up some dudes, and is generally a cool mofo.

What it Influenced

Somewhere between 150 and 200 blaxploitation films were made between 1971 and 1979, and they all trace their roots back to Shaft.

Once it had been established that urban black moviegoers were eager to see movies about urban black characters -- the sort of obvious truism that counts as an epiphany in Hollywood -- all the other studios rushed to copy MGM's success.

True, Sweet Sweetback's Badaaaass Song had been a big hit, too -- but that was an indie film, not a studio production, and its attitude was too militant for mainstream Hollywood, regardless of how many tickets it sold. Shaft, meanwhile, was more balanced. The black protagonist always comes out ahead, is always the hippest and smartest guy in the room, and constantly proves his superiority over the white police officers. But he doesn't hate whitey, doesn't hold a grudge, isn't particularly angry at anyone or anything. He appealed to black moviegoers without scaring white movie-studio executives. That was the formula Hollywood wanted to emulate, at least at first.

It's hard for those of us born after 1971 to fathom how groundbreaking this kind of thing was in its day. Prior to this, you hardly saw black characters in movies who weren't servants, slaves, yes-men, criminals, or buffoons. Black main characters were exceedingly rare in Hollywood films; black main characters who had active sex lives were rarer still. Basically, black moviegoers almost never saw anything on the big screen that reflected their lives.

Now, suddenly, that was changing. Here were movies filled with black actors and actresses, with African Americans playing the good guys AND some of the bad guys. The men were successful with the ladies, and the ladies loved their men. They listened to funk and soul music. There were exaggerations, of course, and the genre's detractors (including the NAACP) claimed that blaxploitation reinforced negative stereotypes about blacks. But for African Americans in the country's biggest cities, this was much, much closer to their real lives than anything they'd seen before.

The films often provided some wish fulfillment, too, as the black protagonists struck back against overtly racist oppressors or outsmarted their white antagonists. After 60 years of movies either ignoring black people or misrepresenting them, now the tables were being turned. Fair is fair, after all.

As with most genre trends, blaxploitation grew more ludicrous and one-dimensional as it went on, as the copycats disregarded the nuances and homed in on the sensational elements. It wasn't long before the genre became a parody of itself and got to be what its detractors had claimed it was all along: dumb trash that made black people look bad.

Shaft itself spawned two sequels, Shaft's Big Score (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973), as well as a short-lived TV series. Roundtree starred in all of these, and reprised his role for a cameo in John Singleton's 2000 quasi-sequel, which had Samuel L. Jackson -- the era's pure embodiment of the Shaft ideal -- as the private dick's nephew.

None of these Shaft properties were as important as their imitators, however. Parks' son, Gordon Parks Jr., made Super Fly (1972), which established the flamboyant stereotypes of black drug dealers and pimps (and their cars and clothes) that persist in pop culture to this day, particularly among hip-hop artists. Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), both starring Pam Grier, had strong, independent black women at the center of their badass stories, which was a departure for Hollywood and a change of pace for blaxploitation, too.

Quentin Tarantino is a professed admirer of grindhouse and exploitation films, including blaxploitation. All of his movies have references to the genre; Jackie Brown, starring Grier, is a straight-up homage to it. We've seen affectionate parody of blaxploitation in movies like I'm Gonna Git You Sucka (1988), Pootie Tang (2001), Undercover Brother (2002), and Black Dynamite (2009).

He bristles at the comparison, but Tyler Perry is making films now that in many ways continue the blaxploitation tradition. Perry's movies deal with melodramatic social issues among African Americans, and many of them feature broad humor in the form of Perry himself in drag as a no-nonsense grandmother named Madea. The films cater (some would say pander) to black audiences, who still, 40 years after Shaft, don't get to see many Hollywood movies made with them in mind.

What to Look for

If you've seen any of the private-detective-oriented film noir classics (e.g., The Maltese Falcon), you've already got the gist of Shaft's plot. Shaft is basically a black, 1970s version of a Humphrey Bogart character, the lone wolf who sticks his neck out for no one but is ultimately loyal to the side of truth and justice.

That's another reason for the film's success. Despite its obvious differences from what audiences were used to, its basic story line and character types were familiar and beloved. It was revolutionary, but not too revolutionary.

Continuing in that vein, it may be surprising how infrequently race is an issue. Shaft is a black man who has to work in a white man's world, and he's perfectly content with that. One of his more militant black acquaintances accuses him of "thinking like a white man" -- of being a sellout, an Uncle Tom -- and Shaft's terse, pointed reply is that his friend isn't thinking at all, and that not thinking at all is going to get him killed. Shaft works with the (mostly white) police when he has to, but he prefers to work alone. And when he must seek help from a group of black militants with whom he used to associate, he keeps himself at arm's length from their radicalism. Again, here was a hero who could appeal to black audiences without turning off white audiences, and vice versa.

What's the Big Deal?

Few would claim that Shaft is a "great" film. In terms of story, character, and direction, it's nothing special. It's a Big Deal because of its cultural impact, kicking off the blaxploitation genre and getting mainstream Hollywood interested in black audiences for the first time. The effects of Shaft and its successors on movies, music, and culture were deep and penetrating, just like Shaft himself.

Further reading: This 1972 article from Time magazine talks about the film's success and immediate impact; here's Time's review from a year earlier. Here is Roger Ebert's 1971 review.

On the subject of blaxploitation in general, including Shaft's role, here are one, two, three useful articles.

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