Shaft (1971) (R)
There's something attractive about how unfussy and unpretentious "Shaft" is. It relies on its story to make it enjoyable while crafting characters that are neither commentary nor caricatures. It is a fine example of pure entertainment, carried out in an unconventional way.
Not bothering with politics, "Shaft" introduces its title character as a black detective who is great with the ladies. Somewhat fashioned in the James Bond mold, John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) has pieces of every famous detective in his character while still being his own man. Probably the most notable similarity is between John Shaft and Sam Spade, which reaffirms the noir feeling that director Gordon Parks carelessly throws into the movie.
Men are looking for John Shaft. Cops are looking for Shaft. Gangsters are looking for Shaft—he's a popular man. At the beginning of the movie, Shaft is questioned by cops who want to know why a couple of shady characters were looking for him...he shrugs them off and goes to find two hoodlums waiting for him at his office. After a brief scuffle, in which one of them is thrown out the window, Shaft decides to give them a chance.
They carry the calling card of a mob boss named Bumpy Jones (Moses Gunn) who sends his greetings and would like to set up a meeting with Shaft.
The real reason that everyone wants to get to know the detective more intimately is fairly simple—Bumpy's daughter has been kidnapped and he wants her back and he's willing to pay any price. The only downside is that he has no idea who's grabbed the girl or where she's being held. So he decides to use his money to buy himself a detective.
Shaft doesn't say no to money; but we get the idea that he just likes being the best. He lives for the thrill of it, for the adrenaline. He doesn't search these situations out, they just seem to find him on their own accord.
Racism is a large issue that remains, properly, untouched for most of "Shaft". Though racist slurs do appear rarely and the ethnicity of the characters is brought up multiple times, the script calmly addresses it near the beginning and then moves on.
One of Shaft's colleague is questioning him about the body that was thrown from the window and Shaft makes a quick jab about being black. The man hold up a black pen next to Shaft's face. "You ain't so black" he says. Shaft responds by holding up a white porcelain cup next to the man's face: "And you ain't so white either, baby."
Then, it remains unspoken for a long time. It's brought up again when Shaft realizes that the kidnapping of Bumpy's daughter has lined up a media frenzy for racism and my mind goes back to a scene from "In Bruges" in which a war is predicted of black versus white.
Yet "Shaft" is just a movie designed to entertain, and it does just that. It's smart, funny, sassy, and irresistible.
It could have probably been an even shorter film, but those are small fries compared to the catchy score and the non-showy performances. Richard Roundtree is just delightful and "Shaft" is plain fun.
Posted by Micah Jones