One winter morning in New York City, tough, black private detective John Shaft learns that two hoods from Harlem are looking for him. Police lieutenant Vic Androzzi, with whom Shaft has a sparring friendship, questions him about the men and the rumors he has heard about trouble brewing uptown, but Shaft refuses to discuss any potential problems in the black community with the police. After he moves on, Shaft spots one of the Harlem men waiting for him in the lobby of his office building and, overpowering him, marches him up to his office. There, Shaft surprises the man’s partner, and in the ensuing fistfight, the first man crashes through the window and falls to his death. Shaft questions the remaining man, who admits that Harlem racketeer Bumpy Jonas ordered them to bring Shaft uptown. After being taken to the police station, Shaft is questioned by Byron Leibowitz, Androzzi’s impatient superior, but Shaft refuses to talk. Alone with Androzzi, Shaft still will not reveal anything, and Androzzi, who is sincerely concerned about the devastation that would be caused by a race war, lets Shaft go when he states that he will “think about” keeping Androzzi informed of whatever he may learn. Shaft then calls Bumpy and coldly informs him that the racketeer can find him at his office. Later that evening, Bumpy, accompanied by henchman Willy, goes to see Shaft, to whom he reveals that his daughter Marcy has been kidnapped. Bumpy, who controls the majority of the narcotics, gambling and prostitution in Harlem, states that Marcy is an innocent college student, but Shaft, who despises Bumpy, is reluctant to accept his business. Bumpy theorizes that Marcy has been taken by the Lumumbas, a black militant organization headed by Ben Buford. Shaft, a childhood friend of Ben, scoffs, but Bumpy asserts that the Lumumbas need the potential ransom money, and that only Shaft, who moves confidently between the white and black enclaves of New York, can find Marcy. Moved by Bumpy’s tears for his daughter, Shaft accepts the job, but only on the condition that he be in total control of the operation. Later that evening, Shaft tracks Ben to a rundown apartment on Amsterdam Avenue, but does not spot a man who is following him. Shaft slips by Ben’s lookouts and confronts his former friend, who angrily calls him a “Tom” when he explains his mission. As they are arguing, they hear machine-gun fire in the street as Ben’s two lookouts are gunned down. While Ben’s three other men head for the roof, Shaft takes Ben to hide in a neighboring apartment. The three men are killed, but Shaft and Ben escape. As they are running away, Shaft notices the dead body of the man who was following him and wonders if it was Ben or himself who was the assassins’ target. After hiding Ben at a friend’s house, Shaft confers with Androzzi, who informs him that while Bumpy has been rapidly recruiting more “crew,” numerous Mafia hitmen have entered the city recently, and that it was probably Mafia men who came after him at Ben’s. Androzzi fears that there is a war brewing between Bumpy and the Mafia, and that even though the violence would be between criminals, it could still provoke a race riot. Shaft obliquely admits that he is working for Bumpy, then, in the morning, takes Ben to confront the racketeer. Bumpy confesses that he knows Marcy is being held by the Mafia, which wants control of Harlem’s narcotics traffic. Bumpy further explains that he steered Shaft toward Ben because Ben has an army of men who would be more useful to Shaft than his own, untrained, uneducated gangsters. Ben proclaims that he would not risk the life of any “brothers” to save Marcy just because she is black, but then bargains with Bumpy for $10,000 per man, including the five already killed, so that he can have money to free jailed members of his movement. Bumpy also agrees when Shaft demands $20,000 for his services, and later, after Shaft and Ben have left, Shaft instructs Ben to organize his supporters, who must follow his orders exactly. In the evening, Shaft spots two white gangsters watching his apartment from a bar across the street. The detective easily outwits the two, who prove to be Mafia enforcers from Detroit, and has them arrested. In the morning, Shaft confronts the two men in Androzzi’s office and commands them to tell their boss that he wants to see Marcy in person to prove that she is unharmed. After the men reluctantly give Shaft a phone number in order to arrange a meeting later that day, he leaves. At Shaft’s apartment, however, Androzzi warns him that the police captain had bugged Androzzi’s office and now knows about Marcy’s kidnapping and the Mafia’s part in it. After arranging for Ben and two of his men to meet him in Greenwich Village, Shaft calls the number given to him by the two thugs and meets one of the Mafia’s representatives. The man takes him to a nearby apartment building, to which they are followed by Ben, and Shaft is shot and beaten when he attempts to rescue Marcy. One of Ben’s men trails the gangster fleeing with Marcy, while the others find Shaft and take him to the home of his girl friend, Ellie Moore. With the help of boxing trainer Dr. Sam, Ben and Ellie resuscitate Shaft and bind his wounds. Shaft then organizes some of Ben’s “brothers” at the hotel where Marcy is now being held. While some of the Lumumbas, disguised as kitchen staff and room service and elevator attendants, assume strategic positions, Shaft climbs to the roof with one of the men. Entering the attic, Shaft prepares a fire bomb, then lowers himself out the window down to the gangsters’ room. Throwing in the incendiary device, Shaft crashes through the window and guns down several men, while in the hallway, Ben and his group use guns and a firehose to defeat the other guards. Shaft and Ben hustle Marcy into a waiting cab, and after everyone has departed, Shaft calls Androzzi. As the police sirens begin to wail, Shaft informs Androzzi that the case has busted wide open. When Androzzi tells him to close it, Shaft, repeating a joke they had shared earlier, laughingly replies, “Looks like you’re going to have to close it yourself, Shitty,” then saunters off into the night.