3 April 2004 | JamesHitchcock
A historic film, but not a good one
`Shaft' was a ground-breaking film in its day, but its interest for a modern audience is largely historical. For several decades, Hollywood had operated an unofficial colour bar, with black actors being confined to minor roles, often as servants or working-class characters. Things had started to change somewhat in the sixties, with black actors starting to appear alongside whites in major roles. `In the Heat of the Night' is a good example, but even here Sidney Poitier does not carry the film on his own. A white actor, Rod Steiger, is given equal prominence alongside him. Moreover, this is an `issue' movie with a race-relations theme- the sort of film in which one might expect to find a black actor taking a leading role.
`Shaft' takes the process a stage further. Both the star, Richard Roundtree, and most of the supporting cast, are black. White actors are only seen in comparatively minor roles. Although the film is centred upon New York's black community, it is not specifically an `issue' movie about racism in the way that `In the Heat of the Night' is. A black man is seen, for almost the first time, as not only the main focus of the film but also as a strong, confident man of action. The hero John Shaft, a black private detective, triumphs over white villains; there is even a mixed-race love scene between him and a white woman, something which Hollywood would tend to shy away from even today, and which must have seemed particularly shocking in the early seventies.
Unfortunately, when seen as a film rather than as a historical landmark, `Shaft' is not particularly good. The plot, which concerns Shaft's search for a gangster's kidnapped daughter and ends with him tangling with the Mafia, is routine private eye stuff. Richard Roundtree makes a cool, stylish hero, but the rest of the cast are not up to his standard. The direction also struck me as having been poorly handled, particularly the action scenes. The film seems to have been made on a low budget, and it shows. There are similarities to other `tough guy' detective films of the era, such as `The French Connection', `Bullitt' and the `Dirty Harry' series (all of which featured white protagonists) but all of those were much more professionally handled. Many of my criticisms of `Shaft' could, in fact, be made, with even greater force, against the `blaxploitation' genre is general. Nevertheless, those films pointed the way that later black actors were to follow. When we consider that the likes of Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Samuel Jackson have become major stars in all sorts of roles, not merely as action heroes, we realise that a debt is owed to films like `Shaft'. 5/10.