John Shaft, a private detective, is informed that some gangsters are looking for him. Police Lt. Vic Androzzi meets Shaft and unsuccessfully tries to get information from him on the two gangsters. After Androzzi leaves, Shaft spots one of the men waiting for him in his office building. He commandeers the first gangster, forcing him into his office where the second gangster is waiting. After a quick fight, Shaft dodges one of them who goes out the window, while the other surrenders and reveals to him that Bumpy Jonas, the leader of a Harlem-based organized crime family, wanted Shaft brought uptown to Harlem for a meeting.
At the police station, Shaft lies to Lt. Androzzi and the Detective assigned to the second gangster's death at Shaft's office, by saying that his friend was in an "accident". He is allowed to return to the streets for 48 hours. Shaft arranges a meeting with Bumpy, the leader of these gangsters, in his office. It turns out Bumpy's daughter has been kidnapped, and Shaft is asked to ensure her safe return.
After tracking down Ben Buford as Bumpy suggested, a big shoot out ensues; Shaft is told by Vic after the shooting that Shaft himself, and not Ben, was the target, and that tensions brewing between the uptown hoods belonging to Bumpy Jonas and the downtown Mafiosi have culminated in a couple of murders. But the perception is black against white to the general public, with the possibility of an escalation into full-blown race war on the streets of the city. He also shows Shaft some pictures of two of the Mafia men who just arrived in New York. Vic begs Shaft to explain what's going on, although Vic already knew Bumpy was looking for Shaft.
Streetwise, Shaft surmises that mobsters are watching his pad from a local bar. Shaft pretends to be a barkeep and calls the police to have the mobsters arrested. Shaft later goes to the police station to set a meeting to find where Bumpy's daughter is being held captive.
Vic tells Shaft that the room that he was in at the station house was bugged and he is supposed to bring him in for questioning, but instead leaves. Ben and Shaft go to the apartment where Marcy Jonas is being held to make sure she's alive. Once there, a gunfight ensues during which two hoods get killed and Shaft takes a bullet in the shoulder.
Shaft goes home and receives medical attention from a doctor working underground with him. Shaft tells Ben to round up his men and meet him at the hotel where Marcy has been taken, to prepare to get her back. He also calls Bumpy to tell him his daughter is fine and he is going to need some taxicabs to meet him at the hotel for the getaway.
Shaft's plan resembles a military commando-style operation. Ben's men all dress as hotel workers to avoid arousing suspicion. Shaft and one of Ben's men go to the roof and prepare to enter the room where Marcy is being held captive. Shaft's plan is to cause a distraction with an explosive thrown through the window of Marcy's room while Ben and his men come down the hall and deal with the Mafia men as they leave their rooms.
The rescue plan is successful. Marcy is spirited out of the hotel into one of the waiting taxicabs. As the others get away in the remaining cabs, Shaft walks to a phone booth to call Vic. Shaft informs Vic as a result of the rescue there will be a huge mess to fix between the uptown crew and the mob in the near future. Vic says to close it for him, meaning he wants Shaft to fix the trouble. Shaft replies, "You're gonna have to close it yourself shitty" then hangs up the phone as he walks away laughing.Richard Roundtree as John Shaft
Moses Gunn as Bumpy Jonas
Charles Cioffi as Lt. Vic Androzzi
Christopher St. John as Ben Buford
Gwenn Mitchell as Ellie Moore
Lawrence Pressman as Tom Hannon
Victor Arnold as Charlie
Tony King as Davies
Sherri Brewer as Marcy Jonas
Rex Robbins as Rollie
Camille Yarbrough as Dina Greene
Margaret Warncke as Linda
Joseph Leon as Byron Leibowitz
Arnold Johnson as Cul
The film was adapted from Ernest Tidyman's novels by Tidyman and screenwriter John D. F. Black. Joel Freeman and executive producers Stirling Silliphant and Roger Lewis produced the film.
"In Tidyman's original story Shaft was white, but [Gordon] Parks cast Richard Roundtree as the eponymous hero." The entire dynamic of the film, its later success, and the future of blaxploitation films were all greatly impacted by Parks' decision. Although his monumental decision proved to be a good one, Parks' control over Shaft's direction was limited. "Blaxploitation films from Shaft onward were largely defined by a relatively greater degree of corporate control and a relatively lesser degree of autonomy on the part of the filmmaker." This film was created less to impact black consciousness and more to simply to show a "'fun film,' which people could attend on Saturday night and see a black guy winning." It was intentionally created to "appeal to a black urban audience, along with contiguous white youths."
After production, in an effort to entice a large black audience to see the film, MGM hired UniWorld, a black advertising firm, who "popularized Shaft by using the rhetoric of black power." Although this film was notable for its crossover success with both white and black audiences, UniWorld focused largely on attracting members of the African-American community. "For example, Variety reported UniWorld's advertisement description of the protagonist John Shaft as, 'A lone, black Superspade—a man of flair and flamboyance who has fun at the expense of the (white) establishment.'" They also promoted "'the behind-the-camera participation of blacks,' thereby appealing to blacks who would appreciate the film as a black production or could fantasize that blacks had somehow beat the Hollywood system and taken over Metro-Goldwyn Mayer studios."
When asked at the 2014 Virginia Film Festival how it felt to be cast as Shaft, Richard Roundtree responded that he had been extremely excited about the part at the time. He had previously been cast mostly in commercials and advertisements, and this role was a big break for him. It was not only the first major film for the actor but it was also the first time a black actor was cast in a major studio feature film.
Melvin Van Peebles claimed that the success of his film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song caused Shaft to be changed from a "white movie" into a "black one". In fact, filming of Shaft began in January 1971, several months before the release of Van Peebles' film, with Roundtree already confirmed in the lead role. The story is set in the same month, as shown by a calendar on Shaft's office wall.
Tidyman, who is white, was an editor at The New York Times prior to becoming a novelist. He sold the movie rights to Shaft by showing the galley proofs to the studio (the novel had not yet been published). Tidyman was honored by the NAACP for his work on the Shaft movies and books.
Shaft played a crucial part in the development of African-American advancement in Hollywood. In the creation of Shaft, there was a significant African-American presence, with director Parks, editor Hugh A. Robertson, and musical composer Isaac Hayes playing crucial roles. On the other hand, white men controlled the most important aspects of Shaft's production. Scenarist and writer Tidyman, writer Black, producer Freeman, and executive producers Silliphant and Lewis were all white men who heavily influenced the making of Shaft. In an analysis of Shaft, Stanly Corkin stated, "Further, the reception of the idea of blackness also becomes various, defined by any number of subject positions, and again, those cannot be fixed to any particular racially defined place of origin." In other words, the perception of race depends on the viewer and thus differs between individuals. Since different representations of race appeal to different people, the film’s white creators fabricated its representation of blackness in order to appeal to African American and white audiences alike. MGM was struggling financially during the making of this film, so making a profitable film was a necessity. "Under the devious guise of providing the Black American with a new and positive image of his/her life, these films confer upon the viewer, Black or White, little more than a pretended glamour and sophistication, the empty, repetitive wasteland of ancient Hollywood traditionalism."
Parks' decision to cast Roundtree rather than a white actor, for whom the role was written, instantly altered the presentation of race in the film. Critics, however, believed the plot was not altered enough to accommodate the change in racial dynamics. "Mark Reid, for example, argues that Shaft is a product of the (white) studio imagination and merely a 'black-skinned replica' of the white action hero commonly found in the detective genre."
One way that Shaft's blackness was showcased was through his attire. Shaft was "stylistically racialized: [He] wears clothes and affects manners that are associated with being black". Shaft was known for his elegant garb, as he was frequently draped in leather coats and turtlenecks throughout the film. Although his smooth, classy look evoked a greater interest from viewers, it in no way represented fashion typical of the black community in that era.
Further, Shaft relies upon a group of militant black nationalists in helping him complete his mission to save Bumpy's daughter. The inclusion of a group so strongly identified with the Black Power movement was clearly an effort to appeal to black audience members. However, the film presented the black nationalists as a group that failed to further the black cause, raised no awareness of the black struggle, and displayed them simply as a hired team of assailants to assist Shaft on his mission.
The filming of Shaft partly in the neighborhood of Harlem also allowed the black viewer to have a deeper connection to this film. Interestingly, the writers portrayed Shaft as a man who clearly had a good relationship with this neighborhood, yet rejected it once he became wealthy, moving to the predominantly white area of Greenwich Village. Traditional black thought in this era was that African Americans who had been prosperous financially should invest in and give back to the communities from which they came. Instead, "the implication is that the wise black (Shaft) will want to sever ties with the people of Harlem and find a place among whites." This point further indicates the false portrayal of race in Shaft, as a true black action hero of his time period would have been more loyal to his neighborhood.
The result of this inauthentic portrayal of blackness in early 1970s blaxploitation films like Shaft had an effect on black audiences viewing them. Instead of the collective nature of the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power movement in the 1960s, these films helped to usher in a decade of self-indulgence, material gain, and drug consumption. "Equally important, Riley points out that the narratives about, and images of, blacks in these new films are no more than thematic templates reworked with black casts and updated stereotypes that reconfirm white expectations of blacks and serve to repress and delay the awakening of any real political consciousness."
Although Shaft was a depiction of blackness by white creators, the movie touched on several themes that reflected the ideals of the Black Power movement. Some of the actions taken by Shaft highlighted the positive aspects of this movement, while others brought out some of its less progressive facets.
A noticeable quality of Roundtree's character was his commanding presence and the control that he displayed in almost every situation he faced throughout the film. In the Black Power movement, leaders ardently fought to gain greater presence and control for their people, because even after desegregation, African Americans were still greatly excluded from the economic, political, and cultural systems engrained in white American society. Shaft was depicted as a character that had achieved a high level of personal freedom, confidence, and control in his life, which was exciting for African American viewers. At the beginning of the film, Shaft was approached by two police officers seeking information. As the officers were depending upon his information, Shaft dictated the conversation from a position of power. Spatially, he also was much taller than the officers, further boosting his position of control. Shaft's economic independence was a crucial part of his persona. Once bankrolled by Bumpy, Shaft was often seen giving money to others, which showed that he had substantial financial security. He also had a beautiful apartment located in Greenwich Village, where rent would have been expensive. The Black Power movement frequently stressed the importance of upward social mobility.
One of the more regressive qualities of this movement was its strong focus on masculinity. This emphasis on the male effort to improve black life was accompanied by sexist beliefs by many leading activists. Their sexist views were felt to be a reaction to the hierarchical power structure already prevalent in society. Having been subjugated by white people for years, African-American men in turn treated women as beneath them. "Robyn Wiegman argues that the members of the Black Power Movement defined the politics of race within 'a metaphorics of phallic power,' which developed out of male activists' desire to counter cultural articulations of black male inferiority, and that this perspective is readily seen in the writings of influential figures such as Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and Amiri Baraka."
Shaft directly embodied this ideal of extreme black masculinity through displays of hypersexuality and misogyny. "Although Shaft lacked power in the racial sphere, by virtue of being a heterosexual male in a patriarchal system, he still maintains a semblance of power in relation to women." From the very beginning of the film, Shaft's sexuality was highlighted as an important characteristic of his persona. In this scene, Shaft was parting ways with two white officers and one asks him, "Where are you going?" "To get laid," Shaft replied. Shaft was described as a legendary "sex machine," and this dominance over females was presented as an instrument of power. Shaft not only has ample sexual relationships with women, but he treats them with no respect. "While he ha[d] a black girlfriend, which would satisfy the expectations of cultural nationalism, he is not above sleeping around and having random sex with attractive white women." In one scene, Shaft's girlfriend told him that she loves him, and Shaft memorably responded with "Yeah, I know." Also, after a white woman slept with Shaft, she told him, "You're pretty good in the sack, but you're pretty shitty afterwards. You know that?" This statement further highlights both Shaft's sexual prowess and his misogynist actions.
The third blaxploitation film released, Shaft is one of the best and most popular films of the genre. Commenting on the film shortly after its release, New York Times movie critic Vincent Canby accurately predicted the wave of blaxploitation films to follow: "How audiences react, however, has a great deal to do with the kind of movies that do get made, and having watched the extraordinary receptions given to both Sweet Sweetback and Shaft I'm led to wonder if, perhaps, the existence of what seems to be a large, hungry, black movie audience—an audience whose experiences and interests are treated mostly in token fashion by TV—might not be one of the more healthy and exciting developments on the current movie scene." Shaft greatly impacted future blaxploitation films which "crudely tried to emulate the success of Shaft and Sweetback, repeated, filled in, or exaggerated the ingredients of the Blaxploitation formula, which usually consisted of a pimp, gangster, or their baleful female counterparts, violently acting out a revenge or retribution motif against corrupt whites in the romanticized confines of the ghetto or inner city."
The film was one of only three profitable movies that year for MGM, grossing what Time magazine called an "astonishing" $13 million on a budget of $500,000.
The Los Angeles Times said the film cost $1 million and grossed $4.5 million. According to Variety by 1976 it earned $7.656 million in theatrical rentals.
It not only spawned several years of "blaxploitation" action films, it earned enough money to save then-struggling MGM from bankruptcy.
Shaft was extremely successful in theaters, which was a huge accomplishment for the then-struggling MGM studios. It was produced at a cost of $1.2 million while earning $10.8 million in its first year of distribution, $7 million in the U.S. alone. This film was wildly popular among the African-American community, as "blacks spent their money on an endless list of spinoff trinkets identified with the film such as 'Shaft suits, watches, belts and sunglasses, leather coats, decals, sweatshirts and night shirts, beach towels, posters, after shave lotion and cologne.'" Rare for blaxploitation films, Shaft was also a crossover hit, as the white community was "drawn in by the unthreatening racial politics."
The critical reception of Shaft was mixed. In general, the film was applauded for its innovation, success, and its lasting effect on the film industry. “Because of the film’s positioning securely within the parameters of industry standards, Shaft was generally applauded by the critics both black and white, as being a breakthrough production in terms of expanding black representation in commercial cinema.”
Despite his enjoyment of the movie, Vincent Canby also stated that it wasn’t a quality film, but an entertaining one.
Other critics like Clayton Riley mainly found fault in the films’ failure to “deal with Black life in serious terms.” Riley harshly stated, “Mediocre is the only word to describe the work of Gordon Parks, the director of this nonsense, inept is the kindest thing to say about the performances of Richard Roundtree as John Shaft, a Black private eye on the prowl for kicks in the Big Apple underworld.”
Later reviews were far more positive. On Rotten Tomatoes, it has a 89% rating.
Isaac Hayes won the Academy Award for Best Original Song and was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song for "Theme from Shaft". In 2004, the song was named the 38th greatest movie song of all time by the American Film Institute. Hayes also won a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score, the Grammy for Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture and was nominated for the Original Dramatic Score Oscar, as well as the BAFTA Award for Best Film Music. The film's score was also selected as a possible candidate for AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores. Richard Roundtree was nominated for the Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer (Male), and he also received an MTV Lifetime Achievement Award for his portrayal in the Shaft Trilogy. The character John Shaft was considered a possible candidate for AFI's 100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains. The film itself was also a candidate for AFI's 100 Years…100 Thrills.
In 2000, Shaft was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In 2003, Shaft was chosen as one of The 1000 Best Movies Ever Made by The New York Times.
One of the greatest factors contributing to Shaft’s wild success and lasting appeal is its incredible and memorable musical score, “a revolutionary funk/soul masterpiece,” composed by Isaac Hayes. Interestingly, Hayes actually auditioned for the role of Shaft but was asked to compose the musical score instead. “Vulgar, shallow, and crudely done, Shaft distinguished itself mainly by having the best musical score of the year. Isaac Hayes’s sensual, moody background music added to the texture of the film…”
Hayes’ soundtrack was known for its unique and catchy sound. “Instead of laying out a series of lengthy, chilled-out raps and jams, the episodic nature of a movie structure obliged him to focus on shorter instrumentals, featuring laid-back, jazz-infused riffs and solos.” For example, from the ‘Theme from Shaft,’ “The instrumental section, played by the Bar Keys and Movement, deploys pulsating bass, stuttering wah-wah guitar, Hayes’s own distinctive piano playing, a descending four-note horn motif, ascending flute runs and the now famous Pearl and Dean-style blasts of brass and strings.” “Thirty five years on, Shaft may sound dated, but it’s a sound that inspired a generation of soul musicians. Hayes’ laid back delivery and gorgeous arrangements are still breathtaking, and the album remains a quintessential slice of ‘70s soul.”
For Hayes’ remarkable composition, he received a combination of public praise, notable critical reception, and awards. Only a few weeks after the release of the film, Hayes’ soundtrack album had already earned $2 million and had gone platinum. “The Shaft theme became so popular that it was heard everywhere, from nightclubs to halftime at football games.” (Guerrero 1993) Hayes was also nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Original Dramatic Score and for Best Original Song with the ‘Theme from Shaft.’. When he won for Best Original Song, it was the first time an African American composer had won an Academy Award. “The 45-single release of the record topped the US charts, hit number 4 in the UK and is still popular today, enjoying a new lease of life as a cellphone ring tone.”
Shaft had two sequels called Shaft’s Big Score (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973), with “neither capturing the soul of the original.” (Hughes, 2006) There was also a sequel in 2000, also called Shaft, starring Samuel L. Jackson as John Shaft II, the nephew of the original John Shaft. The earlier sequels were followed by a short-lived 1973-74 television series titled Shaft on CBS. Richard Roundtree was the only person to ever play John Shaft, appearing in all four films and the television series.
In all, “Ernest Tidyman wrote six ‘Shaft’ novel sequels, including Goodbye Mr Shaft and Shaft’s Carnival of Killers"
In February 2015, TheWrap reported that Shaft would be rebooted by New Line Cinema with John Davis producing the new film. In July 2015, The Hollywood Reporter reported that Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow would be writing the script, Davis and Ira Napoliello would be producing, and Richard Brener and Samuel J. Brown would direct. The Hollywood Reporter wrote that the film "will have a comedic tone but will retain its action roots". When he was asked about that characterization of the film, Davis said "It's drama, but it's going to be drama with a lot of fun moments. A lot of lighter moments." In January 2017, Deadline reports that Tim Story will direct the film, a sequel, which will follows the son of John Shaft. The film was revealed to be entitled Son of Shaft in August 2017, with Richard Roundtree and Samuel L Jackson reprising their roles from previous films, and Jessie T. Usher portraying the son of John Shaft.