Shaft Film Review
The original Shaft was released in 1971 and was directed Gordon Parks and stars Richard Roundtree is John Shaft, a private investigator who sneaks through New York to find the daughter of a black mobster. The original Shaft is considered one of the pioneering films in the blaxploitation genre. Shaft displays some of the core foundations that many other blaxploitation films utilize including the anti-hero theme, vulgarity, and strong violence. Shaft also incorporates numerous camera techniques including the use of the upward tilt to show Shaft as a powerful authority, and utilizing short, fast cuts when violence happens.
After viewing the documentary Badass Cinema is class, I noticed many core blaxploitation concepts in Shaft. The first of these techniques is depicting Shaft as a dark and charismatic anti-hero. The film Badass Cinema brought up the point that the general tone in movies before the blaxploitation movie expansion was that of a defeatist. Instead of having a clear hero who feels defeated, the film Shaft portrays John Shaft as a charismatic, smooth-talking figure. Gordon Parks also hints that John Shaft may not be a clean-cut hero because of his connections to numerous villains and the gangster Bumby Jonas, played by Moses Gunn. Nonetheless, director Gordon Parks makes it clear John Shaft is the primary hero in the film through the use of the upward tilt camera technique. Multiple times throughout the film, when Shaft is walking down the street, the camera angle is tilted up making the viewer feel he is looking up to Shaft. The most notable scene that utilizes this technique is the montage where John Shaft is walking down the street asking people for information about a possible suspect, Ben Buford. This technique makes it so the viewer feels Shaft is a man of authority and power and the clear badass anti-hero.
The second major idea I saw in Shaft is the amount of vulgarity and the intensity of violence. The previous films I have seen from the 1970s and 80s did not contain the extreme vulgarity and violence that Shaft did. I believe this vulgarity and violence helps separate the blaxploitation genre from others. According to a review by Robert Ebert, “The strength of Parks’s movie is his willingness to let his hero fully inhabit the private-eye genre, with all of its obligatory violence, blood, obscenity, and plot gimmicks.” Clearly the director Gordon Parks wanted the violence/vulgarity to be a key component of Shaft. The evidence for this can be seen near the beginning of the movie where one of the police detectives, after talking to Shaft, commented that John Shaft ‘has a lot of mouth’ on him. This vulgarity/violence helps separate blaxploitation movies from mainstream viewers and attract many people to seeing the film itself.
Although a major part of Shaft is the violence and sex appeal, I agree with Robert Ebert when he states director “Parks isn’t especially good at action direction, but the heart of a private-eye movie is in the mood scenes, anyway, and he supplies a scene in a bar and another one with the Harlem rackets boss that are very nice.” Near the beginning of the film when Shaft fights two gangsters in his office, I couldn’t help but notice the cuts in this action scene were incredibly short, often causing discontinuity by rapidly changing the view to different angles. Don’t get me wrong, I felt that action scenes provided a lot of suspense in Shaft and provided excellent entertainment, however, I can’t help but think the suspense level could be increased even further if their were smoother cuts and more continuity. I also agreed with Robert Ebert in that the mood scenes like the one where Shaft confronts the mobsters in the bar provide some of the most suspenseful moments in the film.
Overall, I enjoyed Shaft immensely. While viewing it, I noticed many of the themes Quentin Tarantino and other experts discussed in the documentary Badass Cinema. I also enjoyed analyzing the cinematic techniques used to depict Shaft as a powerful and charismatic anti-hero. The violence, vulgarity, and action scenes provided many entertaining scenes and an extremely enjoyable experience overall. I can’t wait to watch the re-make!