Directed By: Gordon Parks
Starring: Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn, Charles Cioffi
Tag line: "The mob wanted Harlem back. They got shaft...up to here"
Trivia: Isaac Hayes originally auditioned to play the title role. Producers cast Richard Roundtree, but were so impressed with Hayes that they asked him to write the now legendary score to the film
When Melvin van Peebles wrote and directed his independent sensation, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song in 1971, he did more than make a movie; he gave birth to a new way of thinking. Prior to Sweet Sweetback, Hollywood rarely, if ever, produced a film in which an African American lead character battles tooth and nail against white corruption. Sweet Sweetback proved a box-office success, and the powers that be took notice, sending up a cry for more movies catering to the “Black experience”. Less than three months later, Shaft would answer the call.
Richard Roundtree stars as John Shaft, a New York private eye with attitude. One day, Shaft receives a tip that something big is going down in Harlem, and that local crime boss Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) is a part of it. When Shaft starts poking around for more information, it leads to a confrontation with some of Bumpy’s men, one of whom ends up falling to his death from Shaft's office window. Brought in by the police for questioning, and with a possible murder rap hanging over his head, Shaft contacts Bumpy and arranges a face-to-face, but what he doesn't yet realize is he's not just taking on a Harlem crime lord, but the New York mafia as well.
Roundtree is ultra-charismatic as Shaft, delivering on the film’s lofty tag line, “Hotter than Bond, cooler than Bullitt”. At one point, Shaft is told two guys from Harlem are looking for him, and what’s more, they’re packing heat. He spots one of the two hanging around in the lobby of his office building and gets the jump on him, beating his would-be assailant to a pulp before finally dragging him upstairs. Once there, Shaft confronts the other gunman, who was lying in wait for him, leading to an action-packed fistfight that ends with one of the thugs inadvertently jumping out the window, plummeting two stories to his death. Shaft even maintains his bad-ass attitude when taken to police headquarters for questioning in connection with this incident. Lt. Vic Androzzi (Charles Cioffi), who happens to be Shaft’s only friend on the force, wants to know what's going on, and tells Shaft he’ll arrest him if he doesn’t come clean. Shaft casually gets up from his chair, puts his coat on, turns to Androzzi and says “I’ll think about it”. Roundtree’s Shaft is a throwback to the private eyes of Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler, guys who knew the streets better than the cops did, and who the cops respected enough to stay out of their way.
Based on a novel by Ernest Tidyman, who also wrote the screenplay for The French Connection, the story goes that Shaft was originally going to be just another studio action film, with an all-white (or at least mostly white) cast. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song supposedly changed all that. Whether this is true or not, I can't say (though Melvin Van Peebles swears that it is), but I'm glad things worked out the way they did. Sitting here trying to imagine Shaft without Richard Roundtree, or Isaac Hayes' incredible title song, certainly among the greatest themes in cinematic history, is practically impossible.
Take them out of the equation, and you have nothing at all.