Rated R for nudity, sexuality, violence, and racism. Okay, let's unpack a lot of that. I always equated Shaft with heavy nudity and sexuality. I mean, it's in the name and in the theme song. But if you snip about fifteen seconds of this movie out, you could pull a James Bond PG. It's not all that dirty. But it's also something that maybe you shouldn't be openly showing to children. I don't know. You do you. R.
DIRECTOR: Gordon Parks
I started watching Shaft a few years ago and then it disappeared from the ol' streaming service. The same thing happened with Big Trouble in Little China. I mean, I'm ashamed that I broke my own rules and watched the remakes without watching the originals. It's not like I've even avoided Blaxspoitation films. I genuinely love Black Samurai and recently discoverd Dolemite. But watching this subgenre in this order kind of skewed up my historical context for Blaxspoitation as a whole.
I mean, Shaft has always been the go-to name drop for Blaxspoitation. And I always took the reason for that is because of how mainstream the movie is. I mean, it starts up with the MGM logo. It made bank. Isaac Hayes won an Academy Award for Best Original Song because of the "Theme to Shaft." It's part of the cultural canon despite --and I'm ashamed to say this flippantly --not being the most amazing movie. I mean, it's fine. I'll get into all of that in a bit. But for a detective film that really mirrored a lot of the detective films of the era --movies like Klute or The French Connection --it doesn't offer much in terms of story. But what it does have is a charismatic protagonist with John Shaft. That's what makes people go to the theaters. There's a reason why Samuel L. Jackson was Richard Roundtree's replacement for the 2000 version of Shaft. These are people that oozed charisma and personality, and in ways that might not be traditionally endearing. John Shaft was a force of nature and that's what made him endearing. He was going to be wise while refusing to take anyone's nonsense throughout the film.
I honestly found myself being frustrated with the story pretty hard. And that's on me. Thank God for epiphanies, am I right? There was a clear moment where I had to tell myself to stop thinking about the movie. I often do this, especially in cheaper detective stories, where I'm expecting such complexities that I ignore the fact that this story is a lot more simple than I want it to be. There were so many times in Shaft where I just had to stop asking, "Hey, who is that guy?" and "Why is Shaft here?" and realize that it could all be chalked up to, "It doesn't matter. Shaft is being cool." Shaft --and this is a compliment --doesn't need to have a clear A-to-B-to-C progression. Information comes out of nowhere and Shaft simply knows to avoid the trap that has been setup for him. How did he know that two guys were going to be staking out his apartment from the No-Name Bar? I'm sure Shaft fans could explain it pretty coherently. But from my perspective, it was just that Shaft is smart and knows that people would be looking out for him. I did worry that the poor hippie was going to bite it in that moment. It would have been quite callous of him to set up that burnout for a grizzly death. But alas, no. Shaft somehow knew that those two guys would be at the No-Name and that's as much thought as I should have put into it.
In terms of Shaft's moral compass, I'm a little lost. We get the idea that, as a private eye, he has to undertake some shady jobs. With this story, he's asked to return the kidnapped daughter of a Harlem mob boss from the Mafia. Okay, while he doesn't necessarily like his clientele, he acknowledges that a mob boss's daughter may not have any culpability in the deeds her father takes place in. But he also throws dudes out windows. (I actually believe that he doesn't so much throw dudes out of windows as allows dudes to throw themselves out of windows by dodging them.) But he also comes across as a hero in this movie. I don't have a problem with that, but the movie really keeps his morality kind of ambiguous. Sure, he fights these bad guys when they come to his door, but that is almost out of self-preservation. Sure, he is friends with that one police officer (who oddly threw me for a loop when it came to his allegiance to Shaft until the final act for some reason. I kept waiting for an inevitable betrayal that never really showed up). But does this make any of his actions overtly moral.
I say this because of the bloodshed that follows Shaft, especially in that finale. Shaft and his squad take out a lot of Mafia guys in the final act. It's actually pretty brutal. Also, his squad doesn't necessarily get away scot free when it comes to casualties. Shaft walks away from the violence at the hotel, makes a phone call ending on a joke, and ends the movie like it was a big success. But people died in the returning of this girl. He turned people who were marching for a cause into mercenaries for the daughter of a drug dealer. I get that her life is worth the risk, but Shaft is the one who comes out of this mostly unharmed. (He takes a bullet earlier in the film.) Shaft's allure --at least, part of his allure --stems from his ability to read a room. I alluded to that earlier, his preternatural ability to sense danger and to respond to that danger. Yet he keeps putting other people in harm's way. There's something very cold about that that makes him morally ambiguous. Part of me really wants to cast a positive light on Shaft, but it is a bit weird what he forgives.
Also, cheats on his girl? "He's a complicated man, and no one understands him but his woman"? Okay, the complicated sure is in line with what I just wrote. But it seems like Shaft had a lady at home and then he just casually slept with another lady who berated him? That's a choice. Here I am, writing that, also knowing that I've written about almost every James Bond movie so far. But with Bond, when he's monogamous, he's really monogamous. It's the part that he does have someone he cares about and still moves on. It's meant to be that voyeuristic thrill, of a man's man being promiscuous and that sells tickets. But again, I can't help but question if Shaft is hero or anti-hero. It seems like Parks isn't casting him in a light of morally grey. Rather, he is our heroic protagonist. Maybe I'm shoehorning in my very specific morality coupled with my cultural standards, but it's all a bit off for me.
But Shaft kind of rules. Again, I stress that you have to shut off your brain. Either that, or I have to get way smarter and pay more attention to beats in the narrative to understand the complexities of a movie that may not be asking me to look at it from a complex situation. If Shaft is the epitome of cool, look at it as such. He's a cool guy that gets the job done. Sure, it may not be the most efficient way of getting the job done, but it certainly is the coolest. I mean, that molotov cocktail made no sense, but it still was the coolest part of the film.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.