Nearly every frame of Shaft is intent on doing one thing: establishing its hero – private detective John Shaft – as a powerful, independent, innately good yet still devilish man in complete control of his own destiny. How does this differ from the many screen heroes who came before? Well, Shaft is black. And this is 1971.
A launching point for the blaxploitation era, Shaft literally worships its central figure (played with an easy smile and an easier scowl by Richard Roundtree). Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning title song sings Shaft’s praises over the opening credits. When he struts across six lanes of New York City traffic, the cars give him the right of way. The first sex scene barely notices the woman on hand: it’s Shaft who poses nude on the couch; it’s Shaft’s (much darker) skin that the camera lingers on; it’s a framed photo of Shaft that the camera drifts toward as the couple goes about their business.
This hero worship infuses even the smallest moments. Consider an early scene in which Shaft is having his shoes shined. Director Gordon Parks angles his camera so that it’s looking up from below, in reverence, as if Shaft were sitting on a throne. When he gets up to leave, the camera eagerly rises with him in the manner of a nervous bow. Long live the king.
You could accuse the movie of protesting too much if you didn’t take into account the era in which it was released. Having a black man as the hero of a major studio release was one thing; giving him this much swagger was quite another. Shaft‘s brilliance is in the way its title figure’s confidence became contagious – both in the urban theaters where it was a hit and the dozens of blaxploitation films that would follow (to say nothing of the work of Quentin Tarantino). I am Shaft, a new voice in cinema announced, hear me roar.
Outside of this electric jolt of independence, the movie follows a fairly conventional noir plot. Shaft is hired by local mob boss Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) to find Bumpy’s kidnapped daughter – though not until Shaft has made it clear that he despises everything Bumpy stands for (he tosses one of Bumpy’s men out a window to get the message across). Similarly, the case brings him in contact with a Black Panther-like militant group that he also scoffs at. Shaft serves no cause but his own.
Even so, he ultimately becomes a uniting force, bringing both of these factions together to face a new enemy threatening the neighborhood: the Italian mafia. This is where the movie’s enlightenment ends, as well as its provocative headiness. The final third follows a well-worn action pattern, with Shaft, of course, taking the lead.
Still, the movie lingers, especially in its influence. The picture’s final shot is of Shaft walking alone down the street, offering a bookend of sorts with the walk he took over the opening credits. On that earlier stroll, he passes movie marquees boasting names like Robert Redford and Dean Martin. Shaft saunters right on by, leaving such square stars behind. He’s taking us into a whole new era.