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Shaft (1971 film)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Gordon Parks
Produced by Joel Freeman
Screenplay by Ernest Tidyman
John D. F. Black
Based on Shaft 
by Ernest Tidyman
Starring Richard Roundtree
Moses Gunn
Music by Isaac Hayes
Johnny Allen
Cinematography Urs Furrer
Edited by Hugh A. Robertson
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release dates
  • July 2, 1971 (1971-07-02)
Running time
100 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $500,000[1]
Box office $13 million[1]

Shaft is a 1971 American blaxploitation film directed by Gordon Parks, released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. An action film with elements of film noir, Shaft tells the story of a private detective, John Shaft, who travels through Harlem and to the Italian mob neighborhoods in order to find the missing daughter of a black mobster. It stars Richard Roundtree as John Shaft, Moses Gunn as Bumpy Jonas, Drew Bundini Brown as Willy, Charles Cioffi as Lt. Vic Androzzi, Christopher St. John as Ben Buford, and Gwenn Mitchell and Lawrence Pressman in smaller roles. The movie was adapted by Ernest Tidyman and John D. F. Black from Tidyman's 1970 novel of the same name.

The Shaft soundtrack album, recorded by Isaac Hayes, was also a success, winning a Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture; and a second Grammy that he shared with Johnny Allen for Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Arrangement; Grammy Award for Best Original Score; the "Theme from Shaft" won the Academy Award for Best Original Song and has appeared on multiple Top 100 lists, including AFI's 100 Years…100 Songs.

Widely considered a prime example of the blaxploitation genre,[2][3][4][5][6] Shaft was selected in 2000 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."


John Shaft, a private detective, is informed that some gangsters are looking for him. Police Lt. Vic Androzzi meets Shaft and unsuccessfully tries to get information from him on the two gangsters. After Androzzi leaves, Shaft spots one of the men waiting for him in his office building. He commandeers the first gangster, forcing him into his office where the second gangster is waiting. After a quick fight, Shaft dodges one of them who goes out the window, while the other surrenders and reveals to him that Bumpy, the leader of an uptown gang, wanted to meet Shaft and knock him out at his office.

At the police station, Shaft lies to Lt. Androzzi and his superior about the fight, by saying that his friend was in an "accident". He is allowed to return to the streets for 48 hours. Shaft arranges a meeting with Bumpy, the leader of these gangsters, in his office. It turns out Bumpy's daughter has been kidnapped, and Shaft is asked to enable her safe return.

After tracking down Ben Buford as Bumpy suggested, Shaft is told by Vic after the shooting that Shaft himself, and not Ben, was the target, and that tensions brewing between the uptown hoods belonging to Bumpy Jonas and the downtown Mafiosi have culminated in a couple of murders. but the perception is black against white to the general public, with the possibility of an escalation into full-blown race war on the streets of the city. He also shows Shaft some pictures of two of the Mafia men who just arrived in New York. Vic begs Shaft to explain what's going on, though Vic already knew Bumpy was looking for Shaft.

Streetwise, Shaft surmises that mobsters are watching his pad from a local bar. Shaft pretends to be a barkeep and calls the police to have the mobsters arrested. Shaft later goes to the police station to set a meeting to find where Bumpy's daughter is being held captive.

Vic tells Shaft that the room that he was in at the station house was bugged and he is supposed to bring him in for questioning, but instead leaves. Ben and Shaft go to the apartment where Marcy Jonas is being held to make sure she's alive. Once there, a gunfight ensues during which two hoods get killed and Shaft takes a bullet in the shoulder.

Shaft goes home and receives medical attention from a doctor working underground with him Shaft tells Ben to round up his men and meet him at the hotel where Marcy has been taken, to prepare to get her back. He also calls Bumpy to tell him his daughter is fine and he is going to need some taxicabs to meet him at the hotel for the getaway.

Shaft's plan resembles a military commando-style operation. Ben's men all dress as hotel workers to avoid arousing suspicion. Shaft and one of Ben's men go to the roof and prepare to enter the room where Marcy is being held captive. Shaft's plan is to cause a distraction with an explosive thrown through the window of Marcy's room while Ben and his men come down the hall and deal with the Mafia men as they leave their rooms.

The rescue plan is successful. Marcy is spirited out of the hotel into one of the waiting taxicabs. As the others get away in the remaining cabs, Shaft walks to a phone booth to call Vic.



Melvin Van Peebles claimed that the success of his film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song caused Shaft to be changed from a "white movie" into a "black one".[7] In fact, filming of Shaft began in January 1971, several months before the release of Van Peebles' film, with Roundtree already confirmed in the lead part.[8][9][10] The story is set in the same month, as shown by a calendar on Shaft's office wall.

Tidyman, who is white, was an editor at The New York Times prior to becoming a novelist. He sold the movie rights to Shaft by showing the galley proofs to the studio (the novel had not yet been published). Tidyman was honored by the NAACP for his work on the Shaft movies and books.


Box office performance

The film was one of only three profitable movies that year for MGM, grossing what Time magazine called an "astonishing" $13 million on a budget of $500,000.[1] It not only spawned several years of "blaxploitation" action films, it earned enough money to save then-struggling MGM from bankruptcy.[11]

Critical reception

Shaft was well received by film critics and is considered by many as one of the best films of 1971.[12][13][14][15] It currently holds a 88% "Fresh" rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes.[16]

In July 1971, Time magazine called the film a "window-rattling thriller" that's a "fast-moving pleasure" despite "a few too many racial jokes."[17] Roger Ebert gave the film 2½ stars (of a possible four), mentioning issues he had with Parks' direction but pointing out the film "savors the private-eye genre, and takes special delight in wringing new twists out of the traditional relationship between the private eye and the boys down at homicide."[18] In a March 2001 BBCi retrospective, Michael Thomson noted "[t]he film was hammered at the time for not being a full exposé of the black urban experience, and for being just a black version of a '40s Hollywood gumshoe thriller, yet Shaft certainly has a black sensibility ... and, even now, it seems radical to have a movie in which almost all the actors are black. However, the film's violence, to which many objected at the time, will not cause much shock-horror in today's audiences. The attraction to them will be the stylish conversation and attitudes, as well as Richard Roundtree, who lends Shaft the right amount of charisma, swagger and untouchability."[19]

Awards and other honors

Isaac Hayes won the Academy Award for Best Original Song and was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song for "Theme from Shaft".[20] In 2004, the song was named the 38th greatest movie song of all time by the American Film Institute.[21] Hayes also won a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score, the Grammy for Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture and was nominated for the Original Dramatic Score Oscar, as well as the BAFTA Award for Best Film Music. The film's score was also selected as a possible candidate for AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores.[22] Richard Roundtree was nominated for the Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer (Male), and he also received an MTV Lifetime Achievement Award for his portrayal in the Shaft Trilogy.[20] The character John Shaft was considered a possible candidate for AFI's 100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains.[23] The film itself was also a candidate for AFI's 100 Years…100 Thrills.[24]

In 2000, Shaft was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[25][26] In 2003, Shaft was chosen as one of The 1000 Best Movies Ever Made by The New York Times.[27]


Main article: Shaft (album)

The soundtrack album for Shaft was released as a double album by Stax Records' Enterprise label. The album consists mostly of instrumentals composed by Isaac Hayes, though three vocal selections are included: "Soulsville", "Do Your Thing", and "Theme from Shaft". The soundtrack became Hayes' best-known work, and the best-selling LP ever released on a Stax label.[28]

The soundtrack was a commercial and critical success (see awards section above). The "Theme from Shaft" won the Academy Award for Best Original Song at the 44th Academy Awards and appeared on the Cashbox Top 100 number-one singles, Billboard's Hot 100 number-one singles, and RPM's number-one singles in Canada. According to the American Film Institute, the theme is 38th on AFI's 100 Years…100 Songs list.


Two sequels were made: Shaft's Big Score in 1972, and Shaft in Africa in 1973. These were followed by a short-lived 1973-74 television series titled Shaft on CBS, also starring Roundtree.

In 2000, a new film, Shaft, was made featuring Samuel L. Jackson in the title role. Jackson plays the nephew of Richard Roundtree's character; Roundtree returns as John Shaft, still a private eye, trying to get his nephew to join him.


On February 18th, 2015, it was announced that the film would be rebooted by New Line Cinema.[29]

Pop culture references

Already in 1972, Pam Grier's character in Hit Man starred in a pornographic film she believed was a screen test for Shaft.

In the British gangster film Sexy Beast, Don Logan (played by Ben Kingsley) tells Gal Dove (played by Ray Winstone) that his fake name is "Roundtree, like Smarties, like Shaft."

On The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Shaft is the idol of the fictional Will Smith, and several episodes[specify] make references to the film. In one episode Will denies that Shaft is a fictional character and claims he is real, parodying how young children deny that the cartoon characters they love are not real. "The Wedding Show (Psyche!)", a fifth season episode, includes a Shaft-themed wedding for Will and his fiancee, Lisa.

In The Simpsons episode One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish, Bart and Lisa sing Isaac Hayes' theme song to the film at a karaoke bar.[30] In Glee, episode Throwdown, Sue Sylvester refers to student Matt Rutherford as "Shaft" when she is listing off the minorities in the glee club. In the episode "Fists of Furry" of Eek! The Cat, a parody of the theme song is played to the character Sharky.

In the Mystery Science Theater 3000 presentation of Mitchell, Joel and the robots perform a variation of Isaac Hayes' "Shaft" theme during that film's opening credits. In Good Eats, Alton Brown performs a parody of the film's theme song about puff pastry. In the final Father Ted episode "Going to America," the song is played by an elated Ted, perking up a depressive priest in the process.

It was noted by Quentin Tarantino during the 2012 Comic-Con panel that Broomhilda von Shaft and Django Freeman from his movie Django Unchained are intended as the great-great-great-great grandparents of John Shaft, from the Shaft movie series.[31]


  1. ^ a b c "Show Business: Black Market". Time. April 10, 1972. Retrieved 2010-10-31. 
  2. ^ Briggs, Joe Bob (Spring 2003). "Who Dat Man? Shaft and the Blaxploitation Genre". Cineaste 28 (2). Retrieved April 11, 2015. 
  3. ^ Clark, Randall (2014) [1995]. At a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The History, Culture, and Politics of the American Exploitation Film. New York: Routledge. pp. 152–153. ISBN 978-0-415-83865-8. 
  4. ^ Lev, Peter (2000). American Films of the 70s: Conflicting Visions. Austin: University of Texas Press. pp. 128–132. ISBN 978-0-292-74715-9. 
  5. ^ Repino, Robert; Allen, Tim (June 3, 2013). "Blaxploitation, from Shaft to Django". Oxford University Press. Retrieved April 11, 2015. 
  6. ^ Stoddard, Brad L. (2013). "Shaft". In Cortés, Carlos E. Multicultural America: A Multimedia Encyclopedia. Los Angeles: Sage Publications. pp. 1924–1925. ISBN 978-1-4522-1683-6. 
  7. ^ "Baadasssss is back!". The Observer. 5 June 2005. Retrieved 2010-10-31. 
  8. ^ "Filming of Shaft on in New York". The Calgary Herald. Jan 27, 1971. 
  9. ^ "Roundtree plays detective". Toledo Blade. March 28, 1971. 
  10. ^ "First 1971 Movie Is Ready to Shoot: Times Square Scenes for 'Shaft' Set for Monday". The New York Times. January 5, 1971. 
  11. ^
  12. ^ "The Greatest Films of 1971". AMC Retrieved March 8, 2011. 
  13. ^ "The Best Movies of 1971 by Rank". Retrieved May 21, 2010. 
  14. ^ "The Best Movies of 1971". Retrieved May 21, 2010. 
  15. ^ "Most Popular Feature Films Released in 1971". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved May 21, 2010. 
  16. ^ "Shaft Movie Reviews, Pictures". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved May 21, 2010. 
  17. ^ "Cinema: Summer Coolers". Time. July 26, 1971. Retrieved 2010-10-31. 
  18. ^ Ebert, Roger (January 1, 1971 [sic]). "Shaft". Chicago Sun-Times.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  19. ^ Thomson, Michael (6 March 2001). "Shaft (1971)". BBCi. Retrieved 2010-10-31. 
  20. ^ a b "Shaft: Award Wins and Nominations". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved May 21, 2010. 
  21. ^ "AFI's 100 Years... 100 Songs" (PDF). Retrieved May 21, 2010. 
  22. ^ "AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores Official Ballot" (PDF). Retrieved May 21, 2010. 
  23. ^ "The 50 Greatest Heroes and the 50 Greatest Villains of All Time: The 400 Nominated Characters" (PDF). Retrieved May 21, 2010. 
  24. ^ "America's Most Heart-Pounding Movies: The 400 Nominated Films" (PDF). Retrieved May 21, 2010. 
  25. ^ "African American Films in the National Film Registry". Retrieved May 21, 2010. 
  26. ^ "Shaft Among 25 Films Picked By Library Of Congress For 2000 National Film Preservation Registry". Retrieved May 21, 2010. 
  27. ^ "The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made". The New York Times. April 29, 2003. Retrieved May 21, 2010. 
  28. ^ Bowman, Rob (1997). Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records. New York: Schirmer Books. pp. 229–233. ISBN 0-8256-7284-8. 
  29. ^ "Shaft Reboot In The Works At New Line". 
  30. ^ "The Simpsons: One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish Movie Connections". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved May 21, 2010. 
  31. ^ "‘Django Unchained’ A ‘Shaft’ Prequel? So Says Quentin Tarantino: Comic-Con". Deadline Hollywood. July 14, 2012. Retrieved January 20, 2013. 

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