Despite the 1971 fashions and the 1971 urban hip slang Shaft is a movie that has aged surprisingly well. Partly it’s because the acting is not only generally competent, it’s also somewhat understated. The temptation to go totally over-the-top is resisted, and the dialogue is delivered with such conviction that even though it should sound embarrassing, it somehow sounds right. Richard Roundtree is even able to get away with lines like “Can you dig it, man?” Roundtree actually is extremely good – he has plenty of attitude, he doesn’t take any crap from anybody, and he’s not averse to forceful expressions of indignation (to say the least) when he encounters racism, but he doesn’t overdo it. He plays Shaft as a man who gets angry when there’s a reason to be angry, but he doesn’t play him as an angry man. In fact Shaft is basically a guy who is doing OK in life and he’s enjoying himself. It’s possible that the movie struck such a chord among black audiences at the time for precisely that reason – it has a black protagonist who is in control of his life and although he has problems like everyone else he’s having a pretty good time. Shaft of course is a movie with not only a mainly African-American cast but also an African-American director, Gordon Parks. Parks is careful not only to avoid black stereotypes but also white stereotypes as well. Most of the bad guys are white, but they’re bad guys because they’re gangsters, not because they’re white, and the black gangsters are portrayed as being just as vicious as the white ones. And the white detective who is involved in the case is a decent guy (a very good performance by Charles Cioffi in a role that could easily have become a clichéd crusty cop with a heart of gold but doesn’t).
The plot of the movie is, well really it’s so threadbare it’s hardly there at all (black gangster hires black private eye John Shaft to retrieve his daughter kidnapped by rival gangsters), but you don’t watch a private eye movie for the plot, you watch it for the atmosphere and the attitude, and in those areas Shaft delivers the goods. And it’s a great deal of fun. With wonderfully quotable 70s hipster dialogue. The print shown by TCM was very grungy. They may have cleaned it up for the DVD release. I hope not, since I’m sure Parks intended the movie to look nicely grungy. This wasn’t the first blaxploitation movie, but it was the movie that established the genre at the box office. Plus you get to hear the classic Isaac Hayes theme song for which he picked up an Oscar!