AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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Director: Gordon Parks (Dir)
Release Date:   Jul 1971
Premiere Information:   Los Angeles opening: 25 Jun 1971; New York opening: 2 Jul 1971
Production Date:   18 Jan--12 Mar 1971 in New York City
Duration (in mins):   98-100
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Cast:   Richard Roundtree (John Shaft)  
    Moses Gunn (Bumpy Jonas)  
    Charles Cioffi (Vic Androzzi)  
    Christopher St. John (Ben Buford)  
    Gwenn Mitchell (Ellie Moore)  
    Lawrence Pressman (Tom Hannon)  
    Victor Arnold (Charlie)  
    Sherri Brewer (Marcy)  
    Rex Robbins (Rollie)  
    Camille Yarbrough (Dina Greene)  
    Margaret Warncke (Linda)  
    Joseph Leon (Byron Leibowitz)  
    Arnold Johnson (Cul)  
    Dominic Barto (Patsy)  
    George Strus (Carmen)  
    Edmund Hashim (Lee)  
    Drew Bundini Brown (Willy)  
    Tommy Lane (Leroy)  
    Al Kirk (Sims)  
    Shimen Ruskin (Dr. Sam)  
    Antonio Fargas (Bunky)  
    Gertrude Jeannette (Old lady)  
    Lee Steele (Blind vendor [Marty])  
    Damu King (Mal)  
    Donny Burks (Remmy)  
    Tony King (Davies)  
    Benjamin R. Rixson (Bey Newfield)  
    Ricardo Brown (Tully)  
    Glenn Johnson (Char)  
    Alan Weeks (Gus)  
    Dennis Tate (Dotts)  
    Adam Wade (Brother #1)  
    James Hainesworth (Brother #2)  
    Clee Burtonya (Sonny)  
    Ed Bernard (Peerce)  
    Ed Barth (Tony)  
    Joe Pronto (Dom)  
    Robin Nolan (Waitress)  
    Ron Tannas (Billy)  
    Betty Bresler (Mrs. Androzzi)  
    Gonzalo Madurga (Counterman)  
    Paul Nevens (Elevator man)  
    Jon Richards (Elevator starter [Jim])  
    Gordon Parks (Harlem resident)  

Summary: 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. 

Production Company: Shaft Productions, Ltd.  
  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.  
Production Text: A Stirling Silliphant--Roger Lewis Production
Distribution Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.  
Director: Gordon Parks (Dir)
  Ted Zachary (Asst dir)
  Alan Wertheim (2d asst dir)
  Kurt Baker (2d asst dir)
Producer: Joel Freeman (Prod)
  Roger Lewis (Prod)
  Stirling Silliphant (Exec prod)
  Ernest Tidyman (Exec prod)
  David Golden (Assoc prod)
Writer: Ernest Tidyman (Scr)
  John D. F. Black (Scr)
Photography: Urs Furrer (Dir of photog)
  Ronald Lautore (Cam op)
  Larry Orlick (Asst cam)
  Ron Zarilla (Asst cam)
  Randy Munkasci (Stills)
  Lou Gerolomi (Gaffer)
  Bob Royal (Key grip)
  Jack Volpe (Dolly grip)
  Ed Quinn (2d grip)
Art Direction: Emanuel Gerard (Art dir)
Film Editor: Hugh A. Robertson (Film ed)
Set Decoration: Robert Drumheller (Set dec)
  Jack Wright, Jr. (Props)
  Robert Hart (Chief const grip)
  Hal Bock (Chief carpenter)
Costumes: Joe Aulisi (Cost des)
  Ceil Bryant (Ward supv)
Music: Isaac Hayes (Mus)
  The Bar-Kays and Movement (Rhythm by)
  Tom McIntosh (Tech asst to comp)
Sound: Lee Bost (Sd)
  Hal Watkins (Sd)
  Charles Geller (Sd rec)
  Bob Rogow (Boom man)
Make Up: Martin Bell (Makeup)
Production Misc: Steven Skloot (Unit prod mgr)
  Judith Lamb (Casting)
  David Golden (Prod supv)
  Ozzie Brown (Unit pub)
  Tom Miller (Unit pub)
  Cle Kent (Scr supv)
  Bud Brown (Auditor)
  Alan Green (DGA trainee)
  James Fanning (Transportation capt)
Stand In: Tommy Lane (Stunts)
MPAA Rating: R
Country: United States
Language: English
Series: Shaft

Songs: "Theme from Shaft ," "Soulsville," "I Can't Get Over Losing You" and "Do Your Thang," music and lyrics by Isaac Hayes.
Composer: Isaac Hayes
Source Text: Based on the novel Shaft by Ernest Tidyman (New York, 1970).
Authors: Ernest Tidyman

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc. 14/6/1971 dd/mm/yyyy LP39905

Physical Properties: Sd:
  col: Metrocolor

Genre: Drama
Sub-Genre: Blaxploitation
  with songs
Subjects (Major): African Americans
  New York City
  Private detectives
Subjects (Minor): Bartenders
  Black militant organizations
  Falls from heights
  New York City--Greenwich Village
  New York City--Harlem
  Political activists
  Urban life

Note: Although a Jun 1970 Publishers Weekly news item stated that M-G-M had already expressed interest in obtaining the rights to Ernest Tidyman’s novel for production by Stirling Silliphant and Roger Lewis, an Aug 1970 HR item reported that Herb Solow, then M-G-M’s production head, was about to start an independent production company and would be making Shaft as his “initial venture.” Later contemporary sources reported that Silliphant and Lewis would be producing the film in conjunction with Tidyman, although Tidyman is not listed as a producer in the onscreen picture’s credits. According to a May 1972 Publishers Weekly report, when M-G-M and Tidyman’s Shaft Productions, Ltd. joined to make the first “Shaft” film, the agreement between the novelist and the studio “included provision for at least three Shaft movies.” When Lewis subsequently left M-G-M for Warner Bros. and could not produce the first movie full-time, Joel Freeman was brought in as the line producer.
       The film differs significantly from the Tidyman novel on which it was based. In the book, "Ben Buford" agrees to help "John Shaft" and "Bumpy Jonas" so that the Mafia will not gain control of Harlem, rather than for monetary gain. In the ending confrontation between Shaft and the mobsters, only Shaft and "Willy" go after "Marcy," while Ben and his supporters start a riot in an exclusive, white neighborhood to distract the police away from Shaft's mission.
       Additionally, "Ellie Moore," Shaft's main girl friend, is white in the book, whereas in the film, she is African American. The race of "Linda," the girl Shaft picks up in the No Name Bar, is also reversed, as she is African American in the book but white in the film. [In later 1970s interviews, the filmmakers noted that they received many complaints from black women about Shaft’s sexual encounter with a white woman, and in the subsequent films, Shaft’s paramours were always black.] The bartender of the No Name Bar, "Rollie," is black in the novel, but in the film is a white friend of Shaft who nonchalantly declares that he is gay. In the book, Shaft is very antagonistic toward homosexuals.
       According to a modern interview with Tidyman’s son, the author was dismayed with the changes made for the film, as he felt the studio was trying too hard, in an unauthentic way, to make the character more ethnic. Tidyman wrote six other novels featuring the Shaft character, which were published between 1972 and 1975. Tidyman, a prominent, white novelist and screenwriter, received an NAACP Image award for his creation of Shaft.
       According to director Gordon Parks’s autobiography, Ron O’Neal had been considered for the part of Shaft, but was rejected because he was too light-skinned. Parks makes a cameo in the picture as a Harlem resident questioned by Shaft about the location of Ben. As noted by contemporary sources, the picture was shot entirely on location in New York City, including in Harlem, Greenwich Village and Times Square. According to studio press notes, all of the film’s “non-location interiors” were constructed and shot in the old City Hospital on Welfare Island. In his autobiography, Parks stated that because of the potential for budget overruns due to the extremely cold weather, studio officials wanted to shoot in Los Angeles, but Parks threatened to quit the project unless it was filmed in New York.
       Shaft marked the first major film role of theater actor and model Richard Roundtree. [Roundtree had previously appeared in a bit role in the 1970 film What Do You Say to a Naked Lady? , see below.] Roundtree received mixed reviews, as did the film, with New York magazine stating that he made “an authentic star debut” while the Village Voice termed him a “failure” and a “James Bond in blackface.” The picture also marked the motion picture debuts of Gwenn Mitchell and Drew Bundini Brown, well-known as a trainer of boxer Muhammed Ali, and the only film role of Sherri Brewer.
       According to Filmfacts , Shaft was one of 1971’s highest grossing pictures, with over six million dollars in domestic rentals. In Jul 1972, NYT noted that the film had grossed more than $18 million in the United States and Canada, and that due to its success, M-G-M “was able to pull itself out of the fiscal red sea.” In reporting on the film’s progress, a Jul 1971 Var article noted that up to that point, it was estimated that eighty percent of the film’s audience had been black, and that a large part of its success was due to a “black-owned ad agency, the UniWorld Group.” The article explained that UniWorld’s strategy was to screen the film for “every level of the black community” before it opened in various cities, as well as to make sure that “a clearly identifiable black voice” was used for radio and television ads. In discussing his concept of the film’s potential audience in the May 1971 Publishers Weekly article, producer Joel Freeman stated: “The first Shaft film is aimed much more directly at a black audience. The language is very pointedly black, which is what we wanted. Later on, if Shaft succeeds, we will open the series up and send Shaft anyplace. That’s when we expect to start picking up our real white audience.”
       Shaft was one of the most popular and influential examples of the “Blaxploitation” genre, which began in 1971 and usually featured African-American characters in a gritty, urban setting. [For more information about Blaxploitation films, see the entry below for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song .] Shaft , as with other Blaxploitation films, was controversial, especially during the 1970s, with many black and white film critics arguing that it presented shallow, stereotyped characters. Other critics lauded it, however, feeling that it gave black moviegoers the opportunity to enjoy the exploits of a powerful and successful black man who was comfortable with his racial identity.
       Isaac Hayes was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Dramatic Score and won an Academy Award for Best Original Song for “Theme from Shaft ,” making him the first African-American composer to win an Oscar. A Mar 1972 DV article reported that after the song “Theme from Shaft ” was submitted by M-G-M for consideration, a “special meeting of the Academy music committee” had to be called to “consider its eligibility” due to the song being predominantly instrumental, with a repetitive theme, and having minimal lyrics. The song and the film’s score gained great popularity, with both the song and the soundtrack album becoming number-one hits and winning two Grammy Awards and a Golden Globe for Hayes. In addition, Hayes won Best Musical Score at the 1971 NAACP Image Awards, where the picture took Film of the Year honors and Joel Freeman was named Producer of the Year.
       Shaft was the first in a series of three films featuring the character. According to the pressbook for Shaft , Roundtree originally had a contract for three sequels, but only two were produced. Roundtree starred in all three "Shaft" pictures, with Moses Gunn and Brown reprising their roles in the second film. The second picture, entitled Shaft’s Big Score! (see below), was directed by Parks, co-produced by Tidyman and released by M-G-M in 1972. Tidyman turned his screenplay for the film into a novel of the same name that was published to coincide with the picture’s release. In 1973, Shaft and Shaft’s Big Score! were re-released theatrically as a double bill. The third film, Shaft in Africa (see below), was the only one in the series not to feature a script by Tidyman. Directed by John Guillermin and released by M-G-M in 1973, the film had an original screenplay by Stirling Silliphant.
       Tidyman’s character was also the inspiration for a series of seven, ninety-minute television movies that aired on CBS from 9 Oct 1973 to 19 Feb 1974, all starring Roundtree. A parody of the original film, called Shafted! , was released in 1999. Directed by Tom Putnam, the comedy starred David James Alexander as a white man convinced he is a black superhero. In 2000, Paramount released a film very loosely based on Tidyman’s original novel. Also called Shaft , the picture, updated to 2000, was directed by John Singleton and starred Samuel L. Jackson as the police detective nephew of the “original” Shaft who joins his uncle’s private detective firm. Roundtree reprised his role of Shaft for the 2000 release, which used Hayes's theme song and featured a cameo by Gordon Parks as “Mr. P.” 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Box Office   12 Jul 1971.   
Daily Variety   8 Jan 1971.   
Daily Variety   20 Jan 1971.   
Daily Variety   9 Jun 1971.   
Daily Variety   22 Nov 1971.   
Daily Variety   9 Mar 1972   p. 1, 6.
Ebony   Jun 1971   pp. 128-29, 132, 134.
Filmfacts   1971   pp. 346-48.
Hollywood Reporter   2 Aug 1970.   
Hollywood Reporter   4 Jan 1971.   
Hollywood Reporter   11 Jan 1971.   
Hollywood Reporter   15 Jan 1971   p. 16.
Hollywood Reporter   19 Jan 1971.   
Hollywood Reporter   12 Mar 1971   p. 14.
Hollywood Reporter   10 Jun 1971.   
Hollywood Reporter   22 Jun 1972.   
Los Angeles Herald Examiner   26 Jun 1971.   
Los Angeles Times   25 Jun 1971.   
Los Angeles Times   18 Feb 1973   Section V, p. 16.
Los Angeles Times   7 Jan 1991.   
Motion Picture Herald   14 Jul 1971.   
New York   5 Jul 1971.   
New York Times   3 Jul 1971   p. 20.
New York Times   11 Jul 1971   The Arts, p. 1, 4.
New York Times   25 Jul 1971   The Arts, p. 13.
New York Times   22 Aug 1971.   
New York Times   12 Mar 1972.   
New York Times   4 Jun 1972.   
New York Times   18 Jul 1972.   
New York Times   13 Aug 1972   p. 9.
New York Times   12 Sep 1972.   
New York Times   27 Sep 1972.   
New York Times   17 Dec 1972.   
Newsweek   19 Jul 1971.   
Publishers Weekly   15 Jun 1970.   
Publishers Weekly   3 May 1971   pp. 22-23.
Publishers Weekly   22 May 1972.   
Time   26 Jul 1971.   
Variety   16 Jun 1971   p. 15.
Variety   28 Jul 1971.   

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