Going into this week’s film, the only thing I could’ve told you for sure is that it has an incredibly catchy theme. Can the film Shaft keep up with its theme song…and will I ever be able to return to a time when its melody isn’t echoing in my brain?
A 1970s private eye searches for the missing daughter of a local mobster while trying to uncover the truth about a brewing race war.
As the theme song tells us right off the bat, Shaft is a Black private eye, sex machine, and all-around bad mother. Currently, Shaft is watching his back as a couple of so-called cats from Harlem have been trying to track him down. Add to this a relationship with the police that oscillates between peace and hostility, and the situation is downright precarious.
It turns out there have been quite a few violent clashes between gangs lately, but the police have been unable to determine what exactly is brewing. When Shaft catches up with Flashy Plaid Coat and his partner, who have been tasked with tracking him down, it becomes clear that local mobster Bumpy Jonas is involved.
Because he sent one of Bumpy’s guys hurling through a window, Shaft is pressured by the police to find out what he can and fill in the details for them. At the same time, he’s an independent investigator and wants to maintain distance from the cops whenever possible.
The pieces start to come together when Bumpy arrives at Shaft’s office and pleads for his help. As it turns out, Bumpy’s daughter has gone missing. Bumpy suspects Black Power activist Ben Buford is involved…though, of course, his whereabouts are unknown.
After finally locating Ben, Shaft is followed, and a shootout ensues. Five of Ben’s allies are now dead, and he believes this was all orchestrated by Shaft. However, it turns out Shaft was the target of the attack. Teaming up with Ben to find out the truth, Shaft learns that a race war between rival Black and Italian gangs is building…and that Bumpy knew all along Ben had nothing to do with the kidnapping.
More sleuthing happens, Shaft shares a steamy shower scene with a random white lady, and our leading detective takes out his fridge gun for a final confrontation with the kidnappers. Can a complicated man save the day, prevent a race war, and still find time to be a sex machine?
4/5 Pink Panther Heads
To be honest, the plot and supporting characters aren’t doing a lot to earn points for this film. However, it’s impossible not to enjoy the iconic theme, the film’s groovy ’70s feel, and Richard Roundtree in the now classic role. The music, the clothes, the hair, everyone calling each other “cat”–it instantly immerses us in the ’70s.
One of the few Blaxploitation films with a Black director, Shaft is refreshingly confident and cool. Watching the film now, nearly 50 years after its release, it’s clear how ready Black audiences must have been for the character of Shaft. Proud of his Blackness, able to slip between Black neighborhoods and white police detectives with ease, and shooting down racist taunts with clever comebacks, the character is one of a kind. There’s never any doubt in our minds that Shaft is going to coast through any and all trouble that comes his way.
I will admit this is certainly not a feminist masterpiece. There are love scenes with two different women, both of which exist to show what a sex machine Shaft is. And he is constantly trading banter about his love life and plans to get laid, which gets pretty tiresome. I guess “sex machine to all the chicks” makes for a catchier verse than “treats his sexual partners with respect and recognizes when discussions about relationship expectations are needed.”