rivate detective Shaft is enlisted to find a Harlem gangster's kidnapped daughter
“Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine with all the chicks?” asks Isaac (Chef) Hayes in the Oscar-winning theme song; the answer, as is patently obvious from the title, is John Shaft (Richard Roundtree), a dude with a generously-cut brown leather jacket and a slightly Afro-ed Burt Reynolds moustache seen wandering purposefully around New York under the jazzy opening credits. Shaft is Sam Superspade, a continent away from the Californian ironies of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and far closer to the broken-nose, gals ‘n’ guns approach of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer - as the song and character name suggests, he’s a “dick” not an “eye”.
Though it launched the “blaxploitation” genre, Shaft never really lives up to its soulful on-the-streets introduction, trotting out a trite plot about a black gangster’s daughter who’s kidnapped by the Mafia as part of a plan to take over the Harlem rackets. It also pays minor attention to the politics of the ‘70s by having the hero call in a black radical group to wage war on the honky mob. The material is dressed up with grimy locations, then-unfamiliar African-American slang and fashions, a few sub-Panther political footnotes and that million-selling soul score, but former model Richard Roundtree’s Shaft (the creation of white writer Ernest Tidyman) is a humourless thug, using “chicks” (of various races) as sexual Kleenex and whupping ass with monotonous regularity.
Veteran Charles Cioffi chews scenery in the role of “The Man”, an Italian-American swine who’s such a venomous stereotype that even the nastiest black hoods look good next to him. Sequels and a TV series followed, and Roundtree wound up in Seven (1995) ; here’s a chance to revisit the original before the franchise restarts. “Can you dig it?”
A blaxploitation pic that's never quite as cool as its theme song.
Reviewed by Kim Newman