Not just a complicated man, but a complicated movie, famous for posing the question: “Who’s the black private-dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?”
Shaft! Now, you might be asking yourself, “What is it that’s so complicated about Shaft?” Well, the 1971 film is generally credited as the progenitor of Blaxploitation, but Shaft was preceded by several films that are pretty clear-cut precursors of the Blaxploitation boom of the 70s. Released the same year as Shaft, Melvin Van Peebles‘ is also often cited as the beginning of Blaxploitation. And 1970’s ‘s Baadasssss SongThey Call Me MISTER Tibbs, a sequel to In the Heat of the Night, has a bit more soul than its predecessor and is probably just on the cusp of what would become traditional Blaxploitation fare, but is more indicative of Dirty Harry than Shaft. For me, however, the spark that started Blaxploitation a blazin’ was actually 1970’s Cotton Comes to Harlem, which I will return to eventually.
For now, back to Shaft; the reason I understand the widely accepted idea that Shaft was the beginning of Blaxploitation is because Shaft was the first studio-backed Blaxploitation film. Even though Sweetback and Shaft were being made simultaneously, Shaft was produced by MGM. And it’s MGM’s attempt to cash in on black audiences that seems to be a clearly defined beginning of Blaxploitation cinema. And Shaft is a bad motha…
But, I digress… regardless of what film marks the beginning of Blaxploitation, I love Shaft. Richard Roundtree plays a strong character. A great protagonist, Shaft isn’t a pimp or a drug-dealer or any other kind of criminal. He’s intelligent and confident and courageous. In the tradition of hard-boiled detectives, John Shaft is up there with the likes of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.
Again, the music is great, thanks to Issac Hayes, not just the iconic theme but the entire score. The plot makes sense. The film isn’t ridiculous or over the top or campy. If there were no such thing as Blaxploitation, Shaft would still be another great detective movie. Can you dig it?