Detective John Shaft is a man who needs no introduction. He’s tough, he’s sexy, he’s one-hundred percent cool in a way that only Shaft (1971) can serve.
Coming out of an era of blaxploitation films, Gordon Parks’ film serves as a symbol of style. It presents Black power, sexuality, and strength in African-American identities through a pulpy, culturally familiar masculine hero who faces not only the film’s conflict but a white-dominated world as well. While this is a film known for many parodies, becoming the butt of a joke for its self-aware titling, it communicates the exact message young black viewers needed in this time period and, as such, commits no foul that white-centric crime dramas have not already done.
The story is simple: John Shaft is a detective tasked with returning a crime-leader’s daughter. He fights his way through his mission and uses power or sexuality to present an intimidating form of identity. Again, the narrative isn’t exactly complex, as it goes the route you would probably expect from any action film going from the initial assignment to a happy ending. What happens in between and, more interestingly, happens because of Shaft, is what has fascinated viewers, empowering some and creating a problematic situation for others.
The issues surrounding Shaft come from a look at its messages on black identity with a particular emphasis on expressions of masculinity. John Shaft is reliant on violence and suave in a way that could only exist in the context of this film. The presentation of a character so hyper-sexualized and imaginary is empowering in the sense that we have so many similar representations in white-centric cinema, however, for some, the imagery feels inauthentic. This has less to do with the fact that African-Americans are shown on screen in a significant light – it’s worth noting that Richard Roundtree’s Shaft is one of the first times a black actor played a leading role in a major motion picture – but more with the fact that what is being shown is not a figure that everyone can identify with. In some ways, Shaft communicates the stereotypical messages surrounding a black masculine identity: ultra-sexuality and a reliance on violence.
But where this bothers some, I think Shaft is aware of these flaws in a way that presents them less as deterministic than as celebratory. The film is self-aware from its theme by Isaac Hayes to its present cultural considerations as an over-the-top, fun, and undeniably sexy movie. It’s been the source for comedic critique, acting as a reference for Black Dynamite (2009), a film and series which takes the character of Shaft to a whole new level.
Plus, who’s not a fan of Shaft? The guy knows what he wants and, in a certifiably cool and stylish way, he gets it.
dir. Gordon Parks
Screens Friday, 10/21, 7:00PM @ Harvard Film Archive