Shaft (1971) Review

Raphael Pour-Hashemi has reviewed the Region 2 release of Shaft (1971).

The original Blaxpoitation classic that served to be remade in 2000. Available stand-alone or in a box set with two sequels. Starring Richard Roundtree as the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks.

It would be lazy to describe John Shaft, the protagonist of the film, to the words of Isaac Hayes’ Theme From Shaft. Instead, one should think of Shaft (Richard Roundtree) as a black Philip Marlowe, equipped with the same womanising charm and quick-talking wit. Shaft inadvertently finds himself hired by wealthy Harlem gangster Bumpy (Moses Gunn), who is distressed to find that his daughter has been kidnapped. The main suspects are Italian Mafia trying to move into Bumpy’s turf, and so Shaft has to enlist the help of some black revolutionary friends as well as keeping on the right side of Insp. Androzzi (Charles Cioffi) in order to earn a substantial reward and rescue Bumpy’s daughter.

It’s often very hard to judge the merits of a film that was severely influential in its time and yet no longer has the impact or charm it once possessed. Shaft is a film in this vein. Here is a film that single-handedly started the seventies film movement of Blaxpoitation and opened the eyes to ignorant white audiences who refused to believe that black people could make their own movies and still garner high box office grosses. However, here also is the same film that now feels incredibly tame. The pace is often very slow, and the action is similar to that of a television detective series. The hip language of the film is laughable in its dated aesthetic quality, and the themes of the film, particularly the racial issues, have either mutated or been made redundant in our contemporary times. However, Shaft certainly manages to hit more notes than the awful John Singleton contemporary remake starring Samuel Jackson, a film that would have you believe that the whole of America is verging on the brink of a race war again.

Shaft was directed by Gordon Parks and written by Ernest Tidyman, the man who received a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar that year for his work on The French Connection. Richard Roundtree, who portrayed Shaft in the film, managed to become a famous star of the seventies off the back of the film, and became a role model to aspiring black actors struggling to make a break in the industry. However, the main star of Shaft, and the man who became an overnight success story, is musical composer/performer Isaac Hayes. Hayes’ own blend of funk/soul, coupled with the instantly recognisable Theme From Shaft, produced a soundtrack that is still regarded as landmark.

For it’s historical cinematic importance, Shaft clearly has a right to be seen by a film scholar. However, time has not been kind to the film, and it’s more interesting as the originator of Blaxpoitation and as a period pace as opposed to a gritty, urban thriller with racial overtones.

Academy Awards 1971
Best Original Song – Isaac Hayes (Theme From Shaft)

Academy Award Nominations 1971
Best Original Score – Isaac Hayes

Presented in matted anamorphic widescreen 1.77:1 or unmatted 4:3 fullscreen (which contains more information) the PAL picture is on the whole less grainy and more appealing to the eye as opposed to the identical NTSC Region 1 release. Some dirt and grain does appear throughout however.

Presented in mono, the sound mix is inconsistent and lacks definition on a clarity scale. Conversations between two people are rarely balanced in volume or tone, and only the music appears to sound exactly as it was intended. Granted, this may be the fault of the film’s original sound mix, but don’t expect to be impressed by the sound when watching Shaft.

Menu: A static menu incorporating stills from the film as well as different portions of Isaac Hayes’ score for each individual menu page.

Packaging: The usual Warner snapper casing with identical cover artwork to that of the Region 1 version. Chapter listings appear on the inner side of the cardboard casing.


‘Soul In Cinema – Filming Shaft On Location’ – Featurette: An interesting eleven minute featurette filmed in 1971 that explores the production of the film, and features some interviews and conversations from Gordon Parks among others. Worthy of most attention however, is some excellent rehearsal footage of Isaac Hayes and his band performing some numbers from the soundtrack and highlighting just how talented the man can be when he’s not providing voice-overs for gross satirical animation shows.

Theatrical Trailer: An interesting 1971 trailer for the film if only for the fact that it is three minutes long and manages to explain most of the plot points to the audience.

Cast & Crew: A relatively poor Cast & Crew page, devoted to one page of brief text explaining only the most major of players.

Awards: An even more pointless text page explaining the fact that Isaac Hayes won the 1971 Oscar for Best Song for Shaft.

If only to put the dire remake to even more shame, Shaft should be watched once at least. It’s an important film and yet is very dated, and it’s interesting to note how some films are timeless whenever you watch them whereas some films can’t help but have their time stamped all over them. Shaft is also substantially lightweight on extras, and shouldn’t be purchased unless you are already a fan of the film, as there is little re-watch value.

Raphael Pour-Hashemi

Updated: Dec 30, 2001

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