Shaft

Released:  1971

Cast:  Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn, Charles Cioffi, Christopher St. John

Oscar Wins:  Best Music, Original Song (Isaac Hayes — “Theme from Shaft”)

Oscar Nominations:  Best Music, Original Dramatic Score (Isaac Hayes)

SUMMARY:  John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) is a private detective in New York City, who one day learns that notorious gang leader Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) is looking for him.  When he returns to his office after a meeting with police Lt. Vic Androzzi (Charles Cioffi), Shaft sees two of Bumpy’s thugs waiting for him.  In the ensuing fight, one of the thugs goes flying out of the window, which causes the other to surrender.  The surviving thug reveals that Bumpy wants to talk to Shaft at his Harlem headquarters.  The death of the man who fell from Shaft’s office does not go unnocticed by the police, but Androzzi gives Shaft 48 hours to work on the case before he takes action.  Shaft first meets with Bumpy, and learns that his only child, a daughter who is his pride and joy, has been kidnapped.  Bumpy agrees to pay any sum of money necessary to bring her back.  On a tip from Bumpy, Shaft next tracks down Ben Buford (Christopher St. John), who is the head of an underground subversive group.  Buford is in hiding, but Shaft finally finds him — only to be caught in a shootout almost immediately.  Shaft later learns that the shooters, who are unseen, were after him, not Buford as he assumed.  Androzzi also tells him that things in the city have gotten extremely tense between Bumpy’s uptown gang and the Mafia, who control the downtown.  Several murders have already occurred, and Androzzi is afraid that more conflict will result in all-out war:  because one gang is black and one is white, the situation is even more potent.  Androzzi even knows that several new Mafia men have just come into town, and shows Shaft their pictures.

Before long, Shaft notices that the two new guys are tailing him and watching his apartment from a nearby bar.  Shaft bribes the bartender to trade jobs temporarily, and delays the two men long enough for the police to arrive; after they’ve been arrested he goes to the police station to interview the two men, and learn where Bumpy’s daughter is being held.  He is able to do this, but his methods attract the attention of the police.  Fortunately, Androzzi knows enough of what is going on, and does not arrest Shaft.  Shaft calls Buford, who assembles a few men, and the group goes to the location they’ve been given.  When Shaft and Buford burst in, several guards in the room are killed, and Shaft is shot in the shoulder.  However, a third guard is able to take Bumpy’s daughter Marcy and escape cleanly.  After having the bullet removed by an underground doctor, Shaft calls in the cavalry.  He tells Buford to round up as many men as he can, then calls Bumpy to arrange transportation, and assure the man that his daughter is safe.  Shaft knows that Marcy is now being held in a hotel suite, and is extremely well-guarded.  To get inside, Buford’s men dress up as various hotel employees, while Shaft and one other men get on the roof:  from there, they plan to rappel down to Marcy’s room.  When he is level with the room, Shaft throws an explosive inside, which attracts the attention of all the guards.  Buford’s men then take over the entire floor, shooting some of the guards and holding the rest at gunpoint.  Shaft grabs Marcy and marches her out to a waiting getaway car.  After she drives away, he calls Androzzi to let him know that there’s a big mess that needs to be dealt with.

MY TAKE:  This movie marked the start of the blaxploitation era in Hollywood, and it’s probably the most successful.  Think about it:  only four years earlier, In the Heat of the Night was released.  It featured a black police detective working in the South, and facing all the prejudices you would expect.  Real life wasn’t much different:  Sidney Poitier wouldn’t film south of the Mason-Dixon line.   Remember the Titans is set in 1971.  Thus, the idea of a black hero, especially one who is not accompanied by a white costar, was certainly noteworthy.  The funny thing about Blaxploitation movies (by definition, aimed at black audiences) is that they became popular with both black and white audiences, and this is very true of this film — it even won an Oscar.  Of course, it’s easy to see why:  it’s just a good movie.  Shaft is a good detective, and doesn’t let the law stand in the way of solving a case.  Ironically, at least one member of the police department, Androzzi, is completely aware of this and doesn’t try to stop him.  Maybe he knows that Shaft is doing it to solve the case, or maybe he knows it won’t make any difference.  Whatever the reason, Androzzi seems to leave most of his job up to Shaft.  There’s several interesting issues in the movie:  first of all, Shaft is hired by a gangster.  The man’s daughter has been kidnapped, and she doesn’t have anything to do with his various illegal operations, but he’s still working for a known criminal.  I would probably have trouble with this.  Secondly, although it is really a fight between two gangs, the conflict between Bumpy and the Mafia looks, from the outside, like a race issue, and in 1971, has the potential of sparking a huge problem.  This is what Androzzi is afraid of :  that the two gangs will get involved in a war over gang issues, but the public will see it as a race war, and join in.  Thankfully, Shaft is able to divert this problem, at least for a while.  It’s probably a safe bet that the Mafia will try to retaliate for the men that were killed in Shaft’s raid.  Speaking of which, that was my favorite part of the movie.  It was really well planned, and I love watching scenes where a rather elaborate plan is perfecty executed.  There are a few casualties, but really, Shaft and Buford and the men get out, with Marcy, without much damage.

RATING:  Good adventure/mystery.

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