“Shaft” (1971) was Hollywood’s first blaxpoitation film to become a hit. It starred the then unknown Richard Roundtree. It is most famous for the Isaac Hayes song that opens the film:
Who’s the black private dick
That’s a sex machine to all the chicks?
You’re damn right
You see this cat Shaft is a bad mother-
(Shut your mouth)
But I’m talkin’ about Shaft
(Then we can dig it)
The parts in parentheses were sung by Stax singers Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson, who later became the Dawn of Tony Orlando & Dawn.
The opening scene shows John Shaft, a black New York City detective in a long brown leather coat, walking through Times Square as the song plays. A wonderful opening but then it becomes like a late-night movie. Shaft tries to save the daughter of a Harlem crime lord to prevent all-out war with the Mafia. It only gets good again towards the end.
Blaxpoitation films were made by Hollywood in the 1970s for black audiences. They were mostly crime dramas with black leads. Pam Grier made her name starring in them. They pushed stereotypes of blacks as oversexed, badass and violent. Shaft himself is a good example of all three.
Civil rights leaders condemned it but black audiences loved it: back then almost no film had a hero who was unashamedly black.
“Shaft” had a black director, Gordon Parks, and two white screenwriters. One of them, Ernest Tidyman, created the character as a sort of black James Bond, writing seven books about him. Tidyman is one of the few whites to win an NAACP Image Award.
Sex machine to all the chicks: He has a main chick, Dina, who wears a wedding ring, another one on the side, Ellie, and, to put the “all” in “all the chicks”, he picks up a white chick at a bar for a one-night stand and has a shower scene with her.
Ellie: I love you
Shaft: Yeah, I know. Take it easy.
Shaft lives in a huge, well-furnished apartment and always takes the taxi – like he is made of money. He reads Essence magazine and uses what seems like too much slang. He likes to say “Right on!” and holds up his fist, like some bad stereotype of the 1970s. Everyone is cat, dude or baby. That slang, I later found out, was put in over the protests of Tidyman. But in the end it did not matter: the language was picked up by black teenagers. So was Shaft’s habit of crossing the street without looking.
In the opening scene, at the newsstand, you can see Naomi Sims on the cover of Essence.
It is amazing how much New York looks the same nearly 40 years later.
The film cost a little over a million to make but brought in $12 million! Two sequels and a short-lived television series dutifully followed. In 2000 John Singleton brought it to the next generation with Samuel L. Jackson playing John Shaft’s nephew.