Saturday, September 14, 2013

Shaft (1971)

Director: Gordon Parks                                  Writers: Ernest Tidyman & John D.F. Black
Film Score: Isaac Hayes                               Cinematography: Urs Furrer
Starring: Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn, Christopher St. John and Charles Coiffi

Expectations can be brutal things, especially when they don’t measure up to reality. I had been listening to Isaac Hayes’ soundtrack to Shaft since the mid seventies and though I had never seen the film I somehow had the feeling that it must be great. In my mind I always imagined Albert Popwell from the Dirty Harry films in the title role, and the rich music from the Stax soundtrack filling the theater. When I finally did see the film a few years ago I couldn’t believe how bad it was. Even the music. It turns out that after the film was completed in L.A., Isaac Hayes took the Bar-Kays back to Memphis and re-recorded the film music for release as an album. And Richard Roundtree was terrible. The script didn’t help, I’m sure, but I couldn't shake the thought of how much better Albert Popwell would have been.

Well, recently I revisited Shaft and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s a great little movie. One of the early blaxploitation films--Sweet Sweetback is generally considered to be the first--it resonates with the same kind of apocryphal reality that informs films like Dirty Harry and The Godfather, and set the stage for the dozens of films that would follow, from Superfly to Jackie Brown. In Isaac Hayes’ opening song he says that Shaft is a complicated man. True enough. He’s a private detective in Manhattan who has relationships with both the white and black worlds in New York City, but belongs to neither. White cops in the city want to pump him for information because they can’t find out what’s going on in Harlem, and Shaft is not shy about showing his contempt for them. But he has little love for black organized crime either, which does not make it a sure thing when crime boss Bumpy Jonas comes to see him about a job.

Richard Roundtree plays John Shaft, who demonstrates his considerable skills in getting around the city, finding out some hoods are after him, and sending one of them out his office window in the first few minutes of the film. The great Moses Gunn plays Bumpy Jonas, the crime boss from Harlem whose daughter has been kidnapped. He needs Roundtree to get her back and will pay any price. Roundtree acquiesces, but it seems clear that it’s more for the daughter than for Gunn. Charles Coiffi plays the police detective Vic Androzzi, who has been hearing rumblings about a battle in Harlem that he’d like to stop before a bloodbath ensues, a situation Roundtree winds up diving headfirst into. Christopher St. John is the Black Panther-type radical who had been a friend of Roundtree’s years ago, and now fate has thrust them together to conclude the investigation.

In the haze of my early disappointment, I didn’t realize how well the script is written. It’s actually better than a lot of film writing for today’s blockbusters because it all makes sense. This isn’t surprising as it’s based on the novel by Ernest Tidyman, who won an Academy Award for best screenplay that same year for The French Connection and would go on to pen High Plains Drifter for Clint Eastwood. The direction by Gordon Parks is good, though some of the studio interiors are less than convincing. The exteriors in New York City are magnificent, however, and one of the highlights of the film. My one criticism of Roundtree is when he makes a wisecrack and laughs hysterically, seemingly out of the blue. It’s a little off-putting, but the rest of his performance is quite good. I’m very glad I went back to the film to reevaluate, because Shaft is a quality production and really demonstrated that serious black filmmakers in the seventies had a vision that was not only artistic but entertaining.

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