Take a formula private-eye plot, update it with all-black environment, and lace with contemporary standards of on-and off-screen violence, and the result is “Shaft.” The Stirling Silliphant-Roger Lewis presentation, very well produced in N.Y. by Joel Freeman, was directed by Gordon Parks with a subtle feel for both the grit and the humanity of the script. Excellent cast, headed by newcomer Richard Roundtree, may shock some audiences with heavy dose of candid dialog and situation. Strong B.O. prospects loom in urban black situations, elsewhere good.
Ernest Tidyman’s novel, adapted by himself and John D.F. Black, concerns the kidnap by the Mafia of Sherri Brewer, daughter of Harlem underworld boss Moses Gunn. Roundtree, as a black Sam Spade, is hired by Gunn to find her. Understanding but tough white cop Charles Cioffi, whose outstanding characterization singlehandedly upgrades the plot from strictly racial polemic, works with Roundtree in avoiding a gangland confrontation which, to outsiders, would appear to be a racial war.
Christopher St. John is excellent as a black militant Roundtree enlists to help rescue the girl. En-route to this climactic caper, Roundtree is seen in a variety of incidental situations which give depth to his character. This debut is a smash.
In his second feature film after a long career as a still photographer, Parks shows some excellent story-telling form, with only minor clutter of picture-taking-for-its-own-sake. Urs Furrer’s Metrocolor lensing is sharp, moody and right on target. Hugh A. Robertson trimmed to a good 98 minutes.
Considering the fast-paced early reels, the film may, to some audiences, begin to slow down towards the climax, and the last scene is a bit protracted, though not unduly harmful. However, to those who dig the opening footage, the rest will play like any good general audience entertainment film.
Isaac Hayes, assisted by Tom McIntosh, soul-scored, with rhythm by the Bar-Kays and Movement.
1971: Best Song (‘Theme from Shaft’)
Nomination: Best Original Score