• Sam Fleming


Shaft is a superhero movie without a superhero. One of the greatest Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, Gordon Parks’ Shaft set a new standard for what the genre could be. Shaft is one of the most beautifully shot movies I have ever seen, and what it lacks in technical quality, it makes up for with energy and cinematographic greatness. Watching it now, it becomes clear how many movies in the Blaxploitation era borrowed from its structure and what a sea change it was in Black filmmaking.

Shaft is a film about a private detective named John Shaft who finds out gangsters are chasing after him for an unknown reason. We follow Shaft’s adventures through a variety of different cities as he tries to outsmart gangsters, pimps, and the cops until he gets pulled into a nefarious plot orchestrated by one of Shaft’s old arch-nemeses. We meet a variety of different gangsters and various women who Shaft pursues, following his wild and reckless life. Everyone seems to be out to get him, but Shaft constantly finds new and creative ways to outsmart everyone in a world that is trying to destroy him.

John Shaft is smooth-talking and arrogant; a cool but not especially kind subject. His interactions with everyone are almost completely self-serving, and he holds grudges like nobody else. Behind every one of his interactions, there is a deep distrust, building a constant tension into the film. But Shaft does care for his people. An impending race war is always on the horizon in the film, and John Shaft makes it clear that even though he is just in all of this for the money, he knows where his allegiances lie. Almost all the white people in the film are overtly racist, making the enemy even clearer.

The film excels most when showing Shaft’s day-to-day. He prowls the streets of Harlem, with Gordon parks using wide-angle shots to show the vast expanse of the city. Each shot is designed to show the amount of power that Shaft has over Harlem. When he walks, the camera tracks him closely; he is the center of attention in every room he walks into. A lot of the movie is just Shaft walking from place to place, but Gordon Parks shows the beauty in the everyday life of Harlem. Even when he’s just strolling, Shaft always has a quip up his sleeve. When a police officer asks him where he’s going he calmly replies, “To get laid. Where the hell are you going?”

Even without the cinematography, Shaft’s score keeps you engaged throughout. Written by Isaac Hayes, every scene is brought to life by subtle guitar licks and intense basslines. Every moment of tension is perfectly captured by the score. The soundtrack is almost like another character in the story, taking up moments of silence and at times interacting with the characters themselves.

Shaft has been remade a couple of times since 1971, but nothing can touch the original. The sheer fun and authenticity of the story powers the film. The racial tensions aren’t hidden behind what a major studio wants you to see, Shaft forces you to look racism right in the face and watch as John Shaft beats the shit out of it. Shaft is a masterpiece through and through and one of Gordon Parks' crowning achievements.

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