Monday, September 11, 2006

SHAFT (1971)

One of the triad of seminal 70's "blaxploitation" films (which, oddly enough, all begin with the letter "S"), the other two being SUPERFLY and SWEET SWEETBACK'S BADASSSSS SONG. Of the three, SHAFT comes the closest to having a traditional Hollywood narrative, with a good-guy hero (not an unorthodox anti-hero as in the other two films) and a fairly straightforward private-eye plotline. In fact, what surprised me most about this film was how similar it was to an old-fashioned Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe movie, set in New York City rather than California. John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) is the black private investigator who manages to work with "the man" (the white cops) and still keep his street cred with friends, clients, and informers. Bumpy, a powerful Harlem gangster (Moses Gunn) strongarms Shaft into trying to find his kidnapped daughter, the one who's going to go to college and get a better life. At first, Bumpy claims the culprit must be Ben Buford (Christopher St. John), the leader of a black radical group, but when Shaft contacts him, a bunch of Buford's men get slaughtered and Buford joins up with Shaft to go after the real villains, some Mafia hoods new to town who want to muscle in on Bumpy's trade. Shaft, who feels he's been used by Bumpy, is reluctant to continue, but a cop friend of Shaft's (Charles Cioffi) is afraid that the gang activity could be mistaken for a "race" war, so Shaft follows the case to its bloody climax. A long and excessively violent sequence at the beginning involving a man falling to his death from Shaft's office window makes little narrative sense, and the final battle, which involves lots of men and guns and a high powered water hose, is ludicrous, but both scenes work in that 70's "ultraviolence" way. The film was obviously shot on a B-movie budget, but most of it seems to have been done on the streets of NYC and it makes for an interesting window into that specific time and place. The opening, with Shaft strutting through Times Square, shows him pass 7 or 8 movie marquees, with films ranging from big Hollywood hits of the day to more squalid action thrillers to porn; it seems to be self-conscious announcement that this movie will fit right in with the grand Times Square tradition. Shaft gets to tell off Whitey a few times (and bed and dump a trampy white girl whom a flamingly gay bartender fixes him up with) and throw attitude everywhere, and Roundtree is very good as an updated Chandleresque "private dick who's a sex machine with all the chicks"--did you really think I'd write this review without quoting a line from that fabulous theme song by Isaac Hayes? Despite all the violence (and the two short sex scenes), what really got my blood racing was when the opening riff of the theme song kicks in at the very end. Not as raw and subversive as SUPERFLY, but more fun. [TCM]

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