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Shaft is a 1971 Americanmarker blaxploitation film directed by Gordon Parks and released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. An action film with elements of film noir, Shaft tells the story of a black private detective, John Shaft, who travels through Harlem and to the Italian mob in order to find the missing daughter of a black mobster. It stars Richard Roundtree as Shaft, Moses Gunn as Bumpy Jonas, 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 1971 novel of the same name.

The movie is widely considered a prime example of the blaxploitation genre. The Shaft soundtrack album, recorded by Isaac Hayes, was also a success, with the "Theme from Shaft" winning the 1971 Academy Award for Best Original Song, and according to the American Film Institute is the 38th best song from a movie of all time.

In 2000, Shaft was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congressmarker as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".


The film opens with a credit sequence depicting Shaft, a private detective, emerging from the New York Citymarker subway and walking through Times Square, with scenes characterizing early 1970s New York. Shaft visits a shoeshine parlor, who is informed that some gangsters are looking for him. Police lieutenant Vic Androzzi meets Shaft outside the parlor: he has heard of the gangsters and tries to get info on them, without success. After the lieutenant leaves, Shaft spots one of the men waiting for him in his office building. Shaft sneaks up on him, and forces this gangster into the elevator to his office, where another gangster is waiting. They get into a fight. One of the gangsters is thrown out the window; the other is interrogated. The other person reveals to Shaft that Bumpy, the leader of an uptown gang leader, wanted to meet Shaft - with the intent to knock out Shaft at his office.

The scene cuts to the police station where Vic and his superior are waiting. Shaft, reluctant to give up any information, lies to the officers about the fight, claiming it was a friend who got into an accident. He is allowed to return to the streets for "the next 48 hours."

Shaft next 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 get her back. He starts by looking for a man named Ben Buford, who is revealed to have been part of "the movement" with Shaft, years ago, and eventually finds out that Ben's group is holding a meeting. Shaft then returns home to his wife.

The evening of the meeting, he runs into Vic at a hot dog stand, and is tailed by a fingerman to the meeting. Ben's other members, and the fingerman, are murdered by unknown assailants; Ben and Shaft quickly hide elsewhere in the building. Ben confronts Shaft, thinking he was set up, but they refrain from fighting.

Shaft is told by Vic after the shooting that Shaft himself was the target, not Ben, and that there are brewing tensions between the "uptown" hoods belonging to Bumpy Jonas and the "downtown" Mafioso, culminating with a couple of murders. Vic states those who know, know it's "hood against hood" on the inside, but the perception is black against white to the general public, with the possibility of things escalating into full-blown race war on the streets of the city. He also shows Shaft some pictures of two of the Mafioso men who just got to New York. Vic pleads to Shaft to just clue him in to what's going on, though Vic already knew Bumpy was looking for Shaft.

Shaft and Ben later meet Bumpy at his uptown office where Shaft ups the price for the job, based on his new-found information. Bumpy states that the reason for turning him on to Ben's is because Shaft is going to need an army to get his daughter back, and "Ben's got one," he claims. After negotiations with Bumpy on a new price, they both leave his office.

Shaft retires to the "No Name Bar", across the street from Shaft's apartment in Greenwich Villagemarker. In the bar, he notices two men there who look like the Mafiosi from the pictures Vic showed him, having some drinks while looking at Shaft's apartment window. Shaft takes over the bar from the bartender, and calls the cops without them knowing. As the cops arrive to arrest the two men, one of them spits on Shaft's face which he responds by breaking a bottle of scotch over the man's head.

Shaft takes home one of the ladies from the bar and she spends the night with him. The next morning, he visits Vic, and the two men from the previous evening sets up a rendezvous with them for later in the day. When Shaft returns home, he wakes the woman up, and as she leaves his place, she complains about his rotten manners out of bed, leading to a verbal spat that ends quickly.

A few seconds after the woman leaves, Vic comes in echoing the woman's spat to Shaft. Vic tells Shaft that the room that he was in at the station house was bugged and has come to arrest him, but instead leaves. Shaft and Ben get back together and meet up at Café Reggio, from which they go to the apartment where Marcy Jonas is being held to make sure she's alive. Once there, a gunfight ensues where two hoods get killed and Shaft takes a bullet in the shoulder. Ben and one of his men help Shaft back to his apartment. After getting medical attention at home from a doctor working underground with Shaft (Shaft refuses to go to any hospital because the hospital will notify police about his gunshot wound.), 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 that his daughter is fine and he is going to need some taxicabs to meet him at the same hotel for the getaway.

Ben's men all dress as workers at the hotel (cooks, waiters, elevator operators, etc) as to not arouse suspicion. Shaft and one of Ben's guys go to the roof and get set up to enter from a window 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, they spirit Marcy out of the hotel into one of the waiting taxicabs, as the others get away in the remaining cabs, while Shaft walks to a phonebooth to call Vic. Shaft tells him that "his case just busted wide open", to which Vic tells Shaft to close it for him. Shaft tells Vic that he won't and declares, "I guess you're gonna have to close it yourself.... shitty!" (referring to the earlier spat with his one-night stand when Shaft the woman to close the door) howling in laughter and walking away as the closing credits roll.

Production for Shaft

According to Melvin Van Peebles, the original production was of a white detective story, but after the success of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), the original script was scrapped in favor of an adaptation of Ernest Tidyman's 1970 novel Shaft, which focused on an African-American detective. Tidyman, who was 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 and Academy Awards

The film was a surprising and runaway box-office success, grossing $12 million, with a budget of only $1,125,000. Isaac Hayes won an Academy Award for Best Original Song and was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song for "Theme from Shaft". Hayes also won a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score.


Two sequels were made: Shaft's Big Score in 1972, and Shaft in Africa in 1973. These were followed by a series of TV movies starring Roundtree as Shaft on CBS during the 1973-1974 TV season.

In 2000, a sequel 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.

Pop culture references

On The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Shaft is Will's hero and several episodes 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. Another episode includes a Shaft-themed wedding for Will and his fiancee, Lisa, in which Isaac Hayes guest-starred as a bishop about to wed the two. After Lisa and Will decide not to be married, Will comments, "Your Isaac Hayes impression stinks!" After they leave the chapel, Hayes remarks, "I thought it was pretty good!"

In The Princess Diaries, the princess of Genovia's best friend remarks to the royal bodyguard, "You know you look like Shaft," to which he replies, "I know."

In a Simpsons episode, Bart and Lisa sing Isaac Hayes' theme song to the film at a karaoke bar.

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 an episode of Good Eats, Alton Brown performs a parody of the film's theme song about puff pastry.

In a Scrubs episode, a parody of Theme from Shaft is performed.

In a Two and a Half Men episode, Alan, Gordon, Jerome and Herb all sing the "Theme from Shaft" as a barbershop quartet.

In the online game Shift 4, the song is parodied over the closing credits.

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.

The 1992 Dead Milkmen Album, Soul Rotation contains a song titled "Shaft in Greenland" which describes the way an urban hero such as John Shaft might cope with the Greenlandic tundra.


  1. "Baadasssss is back!", article on the Observer, available here; last access 8 april 2007.

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