Today’s movies are a trilogy that helped define the era and ushered in a Black Hero Original: John Shaft..complete with an Oscar Winning theme song and two sequels.
Shaft is a 1971 American “blaxploitation” film directed by Gordon Parks, released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. An action film with elements of film noir, Shaft tells the story of a private detective, John Shaft, who travels through Harlem and to the Italian mob neighborhoods in order to find the missing daughter of a mobster. It stars Richard Roundtree as Shaft, Moses Gunn as Bumpy Jonas, Drew Bundini Brown as Willy, Charles Cioffi as Lt. Vic Androzzi, Christopher St. John as Ben Buford, and Gwenn Mitchell and Lawrence Pressman in smaller roles. The movie was adapted by Ernest Tidyman and John D. F. Black from Tidyman’s 1970 novel of the same name.
The Shaft soundtrack album, recorded by Isaac Hayes, was also a success, winning a Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture; and a second Grammy that he shared with Johnny Allen for Best Instrumental Arrangement; Television or Other Visual Media|Grammy Award for Best Original Score; the “Theme from Shaft” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song and has appeared on multiple Top 100 lists, including AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs.
Widely considered a prime example of the blaxploitation genre, Shaft was selected in 2000 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
John Shaft, a private detective, emerges from the New York City subway and walks through Times Square, with scenes characterizing early 1970s New York. Shaft visits a shoeshine parlor, and is informed that some gangsters are looking for him. Police Lt. Vic Androzzi meets Shaft outside the parlor and unsuccessfully tries to get information from him on the two gangsters. After Androzzi leaves, Shaft spots one of the men waiting for him in his office building. He commandeers the first gangster, forcing him into his office where the second gangster is waiting. After a quick fight, Shaft throws one of them out the window, while the other surrenders and reveals to him that Bumpy, the leader of an uptown gang, wanted to meet Shaft and knock him out at his office.
At the police station, Shaft lies to Lt. Androzzi and his superior about the fight, by saying that his friend was in an “accident”. He is allowed to return to the streets for 48 hours. Shaft arranges a meeting with Bumpy, the leader of these gangsters, in his office. It turns out Bumpy’s daughter has been kidnapped, and Shaft is asked to enable her safe return. Shaft starts his investigation by looking for a man named Ben Buford, who is revealed to have been part of “the movement” with Shaft years ago, and eventually finds out that Ben’s group is holding a meeting. Shaft then returns home to his girlfriend where they make love.
The evening of the meeting, Shaft is tailed by a fingerman to the meeting, where an ambush ensues. Shaft and Ben escape from the carnage but Ben’s group and the fingerman are murdered by unknown assailants. Ben confronts Shaft, thinking he was set up, but they refrain from fighting and move on.
Shaft is told by Vic after the shooting that Shaft himself. and not Ben, was the target, and that tensions brewing between the “uptown” hoods belonging to Bumpy Jonas and the “downtown” Mafiosi have culminated in a couple of murders. Vic states it’s “hood against hood” by those who know, but the perception is black against white to the general public, with the possibility of an escalation into full-blown race war on the streets of the city. He also shows Shaft some pictures of two of the Mafia men who just arrived in New York. Vic begs Shaft to explain what’s going on, though Vic already knew Bumpy was looking for Shaft.
Shaft and Ben later meet Bumpy at his uptown office where Shaft ups the price for the job, based on his newfound information from Vic. Bumpy states that the reason for turning him on to Ben is because Shaft is going to need an army to get his daughter back, and “Ben’s got one”.
Shaft retires to the “No Name Bar”, across the street from Shaft’s apartment in Greenwich Village. In the bar, he notices two men there who resemble pictures shown him by Vic of the Mafiosi watching Shaft’s apartment. Shaft takes over the bar from the bartender and calls the cops without the knowledge of the two Mafiosi. As the cops arrive to arrest the two men, one of them spits in Shaft’s face. Shaft responds by breaking a bottle of scotch over the man’s head.
After spending the night with one of the women from the bar, Shaft visits Vic and the two Mafiosi the following morning. When Shaft returns home, he wakes the woman up, and as she leaves his place, she complains about his rotten manners out of bed, leading to a brief verbal spat.
A few seconds after the woman leaves, Vic comes in echoing the woman’s spat to Shaft. Vic tells Shaft that the room that he was in at the station house was bugged and he is supposed to bring him in for questioning, but instead leaves. Ben and Shaft go to the apartment where Marcy Jonas is being held to make sure she’s alive. Once there, a gunfight ensues during which two hoods get killed and Shaft takes a bullet in the shoulder.
Shaft goes home and receives medical attention from a doctor working underground with him (Shaft refuses to go to any hospital because the hospital will notify police about his gunshot wound.) Shaft tells Ben to round up his men and meet him at the hotel where Marcy has been taken, to prepare to get her back. He also calls Bumpy to tell him his daughter is fine and he is going to need some taxicabs to meet him at the hotel for the getaway.
Shaft’s plan resembles a military commando-style operation. Ben’s men all dress as hotel workers (cooks, waiters, elevator operators, etc.) to avoid arousing suspicion. Shaft and one of Ben’s men go to the roof and prepare to enter the room where Marcy is being held captive. Shaft’s plan is to cause a distraction with an explosive thrown through the window of Marcy’s room while Ben and his men come down the hall and deal with the Mafia men as they leave their rooms.
The rescue plan is successful. Marcy is spirited out of the hotel into one of the waiting taxicabs. As the others get away in the remaining cabs, Shaft walks to a phone booth to call Vic. Shaft tells him his “case just busted wide open”, to which Vic responds that Shaft should close it for him. Shaft tells Vic that he won’t, declaring, “I guess you’re gonna have to close it yourself … shitty!” (referring to the earlier spat with his one-night stand when Shaft asks the woman to close the door on the way out, a remark Vic overheard and teases him about), howling in mocking laughter and walking away as the closing credits roll.
Shaft’s Big Score
Shaft’s Big Score! is a 1972 action film directed by Gordon Parks. It is the second entry in the trilogy starring Richard Roundtree as the private-eye John Shaft. Ernest Tidyman once more supplied the screenplay. The first film’s composer Isaac Hayes was unavailable, so Parks, the returning director, did the score himself. The film was produced on a budget of $1,978,000.
While New York is never at a loss for criminal activity, things take a turn for the worse when the corrupt co-owner of a funeral parlor and insurance agency kills his partner, a personal friend of John Shaft, only to discover that the money he was planning to steal to pay his gambling debts is missing. He makes a deal with the mobster he owes (Joseph Mascolo) to split the business but also makes the same deal with crime lord Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn). The bullets start flying when the hoods find they’ve been played against each other, and Shaft is forced to clean up the mess.
Shaft in Africa
Shaft in Africa, released in 1973, is the third film in the blaxploitation trilogy of films that starred actor Richard Roundtree as John Shaft. John Guillermin directed and Stirling Silliphant did the screenplay. The cost went up to $2,142,000, but the gross fell to $1,458,000. MGM quickly sold the property to television, but the television series was cancelled after just seven episodes.
At home in his New York City apartment, John Shaft is drugged with a tranquilizer dart, then kidnapped and persuaded by threats of physical force, the promise of money, and the lure of a pretty tutor to travel to Africa (much of the movie was filmed in Eritrea), assuming the identity of a native-speaking itinerant worker. His job is to help break a criminal ring that is smuggling immigrants into Europe then exploiting them. But the villains have heard that he is on his way.
Shaft must pass a test before being hired for the job; the test involves him surviving in a small, overheated room without water, and a floor covered in deep sand, mimicking the supposed conditions of Africa. Shaft ingeniously covers himself with the sand, thereby avoiding heatstroke and winning the contract from his employer. Shaft must then embark upon a mission to infiltrate and destroy a human trafficking and slavery ring in West Africa and France.