Thoughts On SHAFT, SHAFT’S BIG SCORE, and SHAFT IN AFRICA
The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a streaming service, revivals of out-of-print DVDs, and factory-pressed Blu-rays. Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!
One of the first blaxploitation heroes, it may be a little obscured by time now how historically relevant Shaft is. Not so much in terms of his stories or even in the gritty urban setting he occupied (such crime tales had been done before), but specifically in portraying a black lead character in the same way that you could a white one — like James Bond, Shaft is smart, smooth, tough, and has a style of his own. But he’s also deeply flawed: argumentative and disagreeable to a fault, and a promiscuous womanizer. But at the end of the day, he’s the hero.
Director Gordon Parks is probably best known for Shaft and its immediate sequel, but he was also a prominent photojournalist, and he knew how to interestingly capture both the drab, dingy New York of the 1970s and the drama of the characters and script. His deft hand enabled the success of Shaft and helped launch one of American film’s most vibrant genres (or subgenre, if you want to be picky about it).
That genre would flourish and become a targeted market with many films, good and bad, cashing in over the course of 70s, but Gordon Parks has one important, authentic distinction from many of his wonderful contemporaries like Jack Hill, Larry Cohen, Arthur Marks, and even John Guillermin (who directed Shaft in Africa).
Independent studios like AIP put out lots of great blaxploitation films, but the only statements the top brass really cared about were bank statements. Even in this genre primarily created for the black market, the producers and directors were typically white, which is where some of the truth in the “exploitation” criticism of the genre carries the most merit.
Not so with Parks, who was the real deal. As Richard Roundtree put it in a recent interview with WBUR, “Well, Gordon Parks is Shaft. The way he moved, the way he talked. He is the most sophisticated, smooth person that I have ever met. And to be in his presence and to be a part of something that he has his stamp on is magical to me.”
Director: Gordon Parks
The opening sequence of Shaft lets you know off the bat: private investigator John Shaft is a bad mother. If you can’t tell from the way he jaywalks through busy NYC traffic without looking, then the famous theme song by Isaac Hayes hammers the point home.
Shaft is hired to find a kidnapped girl, but the interesting part isn’t so much the case as his client: bigtime gangster “Bumpy” (a deliciously smarmy, cigar-chomping Moses Gunn), who would rather hire a PI than get the police involved in his dirty business. For his part, Shaft also has a tenuous relationship with the cops, who are his biggest allies and obstacles in equal measure.
But with an untrustworthy crook framing the story, Shaft has to be sharp on his feet — he suspects that he may be set up as a pawn in a bigger game where the players are unknown.
One element that does come off pretty badly is Shaft’s constant womanizing. It’s not just the simple fact that he does it, but that some of his conquests seem to be in love with him and operating under the belief that they’re in a relationship — and they deserve better.
And while the film has some action and firefights, its overall tone is more of a detective mystery. The film ends with a raid in which Shaft and a militant group raid the bad guys’ complex, and the scene plays out with several minutes of quiet, stealthy setup before guns suddenly start blasting. It’s intended to be anticipatory, but loses a little steam.
Nevertheless, Shaft remains a great film, and certainly an immensely impactful and influential one. Oh, and look for a brief supporting role for blaxploitation’s busiest character actor, Antonio Fargas.
SHAFT’S BIG SCORE (1972)
Director: Gordon Parks
Shaft returns, with Parks not only in the director’s chair, but providing the soundtrack this time around.
The sequel’s story falters a bit with a confusing and convoluted web of rival gangsters and conniving criminals, including Bumpy and his crew, who return, and new characters played by Wally Taylor and Joseph Mascolo. The focus of their fighting is a quarter-million dollars which has mysteriously disappeared, hidden by its owner before he was bumped off by one of his rivals. Shaft gets dragged in from the jump — the deceased was a friend. Meanwhile, a suspicious police captain (Julius Harris) is leaning on Shaft to cooperate with their investigation.
While the narrative isn’t quite as potent this time, the movie is a much bigger and better production with more action and spectacle. Where Shaft’s Big Score shines brightest is in its big finale. Whereas the first film had a somewhat lengthy setup and a brief climax, Big Score features a massive, sustained chase sequence. Shaft grabs the cash from the baddies, then makes his getaway by car, speedboat, and on foot against an army of gangsters (including a shooter in a helicopter) on his tail.
SHAFT IN AFRICA (1973)
Director: John Guillermin
I expected Shaft’s third outing to be a step down, based on its reputation, loss of Parks as director, and what certainly sounds like a gimmicky concept. In actuality, this was the most entertaining film of the trio. It’s certainly less serious and grounded that the prior entries, but after two gritty NYC-set dramas, the slicker and lighter tone is actually a nice change-up — even it it does stray from the established spirit of things.
There’s no doubt that Shaft in Africa sounds like a novelty — “The Brother Man in the Motherland”, declares the poster. Some franchise sequels go to space; this blaxploitation series goes to the Horn of Africa.
But it plays very much like the James Bond series, which clearly inspired it. Bond is assigned missions which take him to locations across the globe where he does spy stuff and hooks up with numerous women; Shaft gets the same treatment. An African nation, impressed with Shaft’s exploits, approach (coerce) him to go undercover on their behalf to help take down a modern slavery cartel; a journey which will take him by plane, bus, camel, boat, and on foot through Ethiopia, the Red Sea and Mediterranean Sea, and finally France, to track down the head of the operation.
It’s a whole different kind of movie for John Shaft, and the plot strains credulity to be sure, but it’s a blast, and even has a socially conscious undercurrent.
We (particularly “we” who are Americans) tend to be focused on our own domestic viewpoint, but the ghettoization of the black poor by the ultra-rich is not just an urban or American problem, but symptomatic of attitudes which treat people with dark skin as lesser human beings.
And that’s the real black exploitation.
Shaft’s Big Score, Shaft in Africa, and the “Shaft Triple Feature” collecting the original trilogy were released on Blu-ray by Warner Archive earlier this year, joining the original Shaft which hit Blu-ray back in 2012.
Weirdly, they opted to use modern home video key art for the first film but illustrated vintage poster artwork for the sequels. It would look better if they stuck to one motif or the other.
Each movie is housed on its own disc, with the Shaft disc being identical to the prior release.
Special Features and Extras — SHAFT
Soul in Cinema: Filming Shaft on Location (10:50)
Go behind the scenes of the filming of the No Name Bar scene (depicting how a bottle-smashing stunt is performed with a blood pack affixed to the bottle), a recording session with Isaac Hayes and his band, and the stairwell fight in which white stuntmen sub in for black actors — quoth Parks, “let them be brothers for an afternoon”.
Shaft TV Movie: The Killing (1:13:48)
The second of a 7-episode long-format TV movie series that ran from 1973–74. (The full run is available on MOD DVD from Warner Archive).
SD Trailers of all three original Shaft films – Shaft (3:13), Shaft’s Big Score (3:07), and Shaft in Africa (3:01).
Special Features and Extras — SHAFT’S BIG SCORE
HD Theatrical Trailer (3:09)
Note both sequel discs feature HD Trailers of the respective films, whereas the trailers on the older Shaft disc were in SD.
Special Features and Extras — SHAFT IN AFRICA
HD Theatrical Trailer (3:03)
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Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.