Shaft (1971) Jun 10, 2019 14:45:02 GMT -5
Post by StevePulaski on Jun 10, 2019 14:45:02 GMT -5
Directed by: Gordon Parks
Directed by: Gordon Parks
A low-angle shot from the opening scene of Shaft.
When it comes to the blaxploitation genre, one of the main points of fascinations isn't so much the profound examples of terrific filmmaking but the underlying boldness of black directors fighting tooth and nail to make African-Americans not just the focal point but the heroes in major motion pictures. Considering many of these films were made amidst the hotbed of racial tensions in the Civil Rights era in the United States, even the most narratively simplistic films of the genre were a sly act of retaliation to the Hollywood machine. One must admire the convictions of directors like Mario Van Peebles, Ossie Davis (Cotton Comes to Harlem), and Gordon Parks and his son for their acts of defiance that led to some memorable motion pictures.
Parks' Shaft — which followed his 1969 drama, The Learning Tree, an impressive but under-seen film that produced meager box office returns — is not the most impressive film in the conventional sense. It's plagued by poor sound and a terribly uninteresting plot, but its strongest points go beyond mere plot. An accomplished photographer and photojournalist, what Shaft lacks in grace it makes up for in craft, and Parks' visual prowess buoys what is otherwise a meek action crime film.
There isn't much in the way of plot to begin with, after all. The film follows a slick private eye named John Shaft (Richard Roundtree), who is recruited by a Harlem crime boss named Bumpy (Moses Gunn), who is at a crossroads after being threatened by the Mafia. His daughter has been kidnap and his sense of security and power isn't near as strong as it once was, which prompts him to hire Shaft to aid in the search party. Also in our suave leader's ear is Androzzi (Charles Cioffi), who tracks him down in the very beginning and tries to gauge where his loyalty rests. But Shaft plays by his own rules, and through a combination of blunt force, intuition, and womanizing, gets where he needs to be over the course of the film.
A good example of Parks' eye for visual clarity is the opening montage of Shaft walking through the bustling streets of New York City. During this extended sequence, Parks captures our protagonist at all angles, with a variety of shots breaking up any foreseen monotony the moment might've had if it were conceived with more predictable pans and long-shots. Parks creates an aura for Shaft before he even utters word, asserting his power and confidence through low-angles and aerial shots that show him walking fearlessly into traffic, narrowly evading speeding cars. This kind of placement and crispness comes into play even in more confined settings, such as when Shaft breaks through an apartment window, or hustles up and down flights of stairs. Parks assures us that we'll never be in the dark with him at the helm.
Looking elsewhere in Shaft and trying to find entertainment on a level comparable to the craftsmanship demonstrated by Parks and cinematographer Urs Furrer makes for an underwhelming assignment. By and large, the film does little for the blaxploitation genre by reinventing the wheel in a cinematic sense. Editor Hugh A. Robertson (who go edited Midnight Cowboy and became the first African-American editor to be nominated for an Oscar) adds some psychedelic touches on the film's famous sex-scene, but for the most part, the film is a standard actioneer, with the stylistic hallmarks of a daytime procedural. The characters are one dimensional, the dialog is serviceable (and, as mentioned, hampered by poor sound), and the level of my investment ultimately ebbed and flowed, though no fault of Roundtree. When you get past Parks' impeccable skills behind the camera, and the fact that the commentary on black culture is middling and Shaft himself could theoretically be of any race or background, the end result is a film noteworthy because of its place in history as opposed to the sum of its parts.
Starring: Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn, Charles Cioffi, Christopher St. John, and Gwenn Mitchell. Directed by: Gordon Parks.