Sunday 13 January 2013

Shaft (1971)

Q. "Who is the man / Who would risk his neck for his brother man?"

Film has given us any number of possibles here, so perhaps we should try a different question.  Points off for rhyming 'man' with 'man', by the way.

Q. "Who's the cat who won't cop out / When there's danger all about?"

Macavity?  Thomas O'Malley, perhaps?  We need something more specific.

Q. "Who's the black private dick / Who's such a sex machine with all the chicks?"

Ah.  I have only one answer here, and it's the one the song brands 'damn right'.  Shaft!

"You ain't so black"

"And you ain't so white, baby"

I had the soundtrack on LP long before I saw the film, and you too likely know the song better than the movie.  The passage of time has rendered Isaac Hayes' Academy-Award-winning theme tune a little camp, and when I finally saw 'Shaft' I was slightly disappointed how little the film seemed to match it.  I think I'd expected blaxploitation to be somehow more fun, more self-parodic.  As with 'Yellow Submarine' (1968) I'd seen this sort of thing pastiched and referenced so much I expected the original to be aware of its own legendary status.  I suspect the 'Shaft' remake of from the year 2000 will be somewhat closer to the knowingly iconic piece I was expecting.

It's a crime film, as you may either know or guess.  Shaft is a detective, and he doesn't like to be messed around.  Being black in downtown New York and being a one-man detective agency (because he doesn't like to work for the man), people try to mess him around quite a lot.  From his opening 'up yours!' to an impatient taxi-driver, and his hurling an aggressive client out of the office window, John Shaft strives constantly, defending his right to get on with his job unhassled.

They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother...

In British fiction, I think it's relatively unusual for characters' ethnicities or colour to be important to their stories.  UK-style multiculturalism prefers colour-blind scripts where characters' names rather than actions or allegiances tell us their ethnic origin.  (The one exception that comes to mind is another crime thriller, 'Gangsters', from 1976-78, a willfully absurd TV series about Indian, Pakistani and Chinese gangs in 70s Birmingham).  In America, however, in film and TV across the decades, skin-colour seems to have far more bearing on characters and their predicaments.  Shaft is reluctant to work too closely with Lt Anderozzi of the NYPD, especially if working against the black Bumpy Jonas.  In the sequel 'Shaft's Big Score!' (1972) he condemns a black cop for being a 'honky'.  It's almost convenient that in this film and its two sequels the major villains turn out to be white.

It was this racial subtext (and, indeed, text) that I wholly missed the last time I watched this film.  Had I watched it in the 1970s it would have been far more obvious to me, but viewing this in the noughties I took it simply as a slightly ordinary crime drama about characters versus characters, rather than John Shaft as a black detective in a town where that means anonymity, lack of credibility, and a need to fight hard.

Is it a good film?  Well, it's moderately interesting and exciting.  It doesn't aspire to be as cinematic as its sequels (both were made in wider widescreen, and with far more spectacle, exploding helicopters and such - though I think this is the more engagingly directed), but Shaft himself is a very strong and enjoyable hero.  He's quick to anger, yes, but knows how to keep his cool when it's to his advantage.  He has an enjoyably immature sense of humour and always looks great - watching the Shaft films followed by a pair of films set in the Berlin underworld of the 1930s, I suffered a great deal of coat-envy.  In short, the film itself is a fair thriller but a touch drab, and it's Richard Roundtree's performance as John Shaft that really seized my attention, coaxing me me to return to the film and to seek out the sequels.

Compelled to watch it for yourself?  Oh, I see, you just wanted the theme tune? Well, suit yourself

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