Friday, May 31, 2019

Worth Mentioning - Shaft, Can Ya Dig It?

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

The Shaft trilogy of the '70s, plus the 2000 follow-up.

SHAFT (1971)

I didn't get in on the ground floor of Shaft fandom, the movie had already been out for a dozen years before I was even born, but it was such a pop culture sensation that I was well aware of Shaft long before I finally saw it. I even knew the lyrics of the theme song. I think my first viewing came in the late '90s, around the time when it was announced that Samuel L. Jackson would be starring in a new installment in the franchise. Once I saw it, I got why it was so popular.

It didn't take long for Shaft to make me a fan. The sight of Richard Roundtree as our titular hero John Shaft walking around Manhattan while the theme song by Isaac Hayes plays draws you in immediately, it's all so cool.

As the theme song will let you know, Shaft works as a private investigator, and the first 25 minutes of the film takes a very intriguing approach to getting him to take the job that's going to make up the plot. We follow Shaft as he makes his way around his neighborhood, talking to some associates, finding out that some questionable people have been looking for him. When Shaft and these people cross paths, one of them ends up taking a dive through a window. This earns Shaft a trip to the police station, where Shaft gets Lieutenant Vic Androzzi (Charles Cioffi), with whom he has a testy working relationship, to let him go so he can figure out what's going on.

What's going on is that criminal kingpin Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) needs some help. His daughter has been kidnapped by someone - he suspects it was a group of militants led by Shaft's former friend Ben Buford (Christopher St. John) - and he needs Shaft to locate her. Shaft takes the job. $50 an hour, plus expenses.

There's the set-up, but things are going to take some major twists and turns along the way. When Shaft catches up with Ben Buford and his group the La Mumbas within the first 40 minutes, you know it's not going to be as simple as him just picking up Bumpy's daughter at their headquarters. This becomes even more apparent when gunmen show up to massacre the La Mumbas. There's something bigger going on here, something involving the Mafia and an attempt to build a small army to go up against the Mafia. Things remain very intriguing throughout.

Shaft was based on a novel written by Ernest Tidyman, and while it is kind of surprising to learn that a middle-aged white man from Cleveland brought us one of cinema's greatest and coolest African American heroes, the color of the writer is irrelevant. What Tidyman and his fellow screenwriter John D.F. Black did was give Roundtree an awesome character to play. Roundtree brought that character to life with style, exuding a calm confidence that he backs up with his capability. He's smart and tough, he has taste and style, he gets the job done, and this is another thing the theme song lets you know and Shaft proves during the movie: he's like a sex machine to all the chicks.

That really is one of the best theme songs of all time.

Shaft was directed by Gordon Parks, a photographer who became "Hollywood's first major black director". He doesn't have a ton of directing credits, but he kept so busy that it's surprising he had time to make movies at all. Beyond photography and filmmaking he was also a painter, a musician, and wrote fifteen books. With this film, he helped set off the blaxploitation boom. A lot of movies would come along that wanted to be Shaft, but few could live up to it. It's one of the first, best, and most popular of the genre.


The character of John Shaft became so popular when the first Shaft movie was released, it's surprising to see how much he was sidelined in the sequel that followed just one year later. Shaft, played again by Richard Roundtree, is basically a supporting character in Shaft's Big Score! while it feels like most of the scenes center on the shady deals a man named Johnny Kelly (Wally Taylor) makes with criminal kingpin Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) and mobster Gus Mascola (Joseph Mascolo).

Shaft does get a nice re-introduction in this movie, receiving a call in the middle of the night from his pal Cal Asby (Robert Kya-Hill) to notify him that he's being hired for a job and Asby has already dropped $5000 into his account. Shaft gets paid $50 an hour for his private eye gigs (plus expenses), so Asby must have a lot of work for him to do, but he doesn't say what the job is over the phone. While the two have their conversation, Shaft is in bed and has a naked woman lying across his lap. The woman happens to be Asby's sister Arna (Rosalind Miles).

Shaft then takes a drive over to Asby's office while the theme plays on the soundtrack - not the Isaac Hayes theme from the first movie that everyone remembers. The theme for this film is "Blowin' Your Mind", performed by O.C. Smith, and it'd probably be tough to find a member of the general audience who could quote this one.

Asby gets killed in an explosion before Shaft can find out what he wanted him to do. That explosion was rigged by Kelly, Asby's partner in his insurance and funeral home businesses and his illegal numbers racket. Kelly decided to knock his partner off and take full control of the businesses after he racked up $250,000 in gambling debts to Mascola. Unfortunately for Kelly, Asby knew he was up to something and hid the money Kelly was expecting to use to pay off those debts with in one of the caskets they had on display at the funeral home. The casket that Asby, coincidentally, gets buried in.

While Shaft figures out what was going on between Asby and Kelly, partially at the urging of a police Captain (Live and Let Die's Julius Harris) who suspects Shaft might have been in business with Asby himself, Kelly weighs his options deciding whether to partner up with Mascola or Bumpy now. Either one would allow him to expand beyond the numbers game and get into some harder crimes.

Shaft gets some good scenes in the first hour and even gets to sleep with Kelly's mistress Rita (Kathy Imrie) in the middle of his investigation, but it isn't until after the hour mark that the action really kicks in and Shaft is able to take ownership of his own movie. This is when we get to see the character we came to the sequel to see... right after he has reached his lowest point, getting beaten up at a nightclub.

I'm not saying the first hour of Shaft's Big Score! is bad, but it does feel padded out with too many minutes of chit-chat among the baddies, people sitting at desks, a funeral, Mascola playing his clarinet, and women dancing at that club. It had all the elements in place to try to replicate the success of the first movie - Roundtree, director Gordon Parks back at the helm, Shaft creator Ernest Tidyman writing the screenplay - but it feels a bit scattered. They weren't quite able to recapture the magic.

Shaft's Big Score! is a solid effort, it just can't live up to Shaft. Not even with a climactic helicopter / car / boat chase.


If you were put off by how much screen time the antagonists received in Shaft's Big Score!, as I was, the sequel that followed one year later has you covered. Shaft in Africa is pretty much all Shaft all the time. The trade-off being that the character (played again by Richard Roundtree, as it should be and always has been) gets dropped into a nonsensical plot that creator Ernest Tidyman was not involved with. Although Tidyman had other Shaft stories they could have chosen from (he wrote seven Shaft novels between 1970 and 1975), this script came entirely from the mind of screenwriter Stirling Silliphant. It does make sense that they would turn to Silliphant, though, as he was involved behind the scenes on Shaft and Shaft's Big Score!, was a veteran writer, and had won an Oscar for his adaptation of the John Ball novel In the Heat of the Night a few years earlier. That novel introduced Ball's African American detective character Virgil Tibbs, who he wrote about in seven novels and a few short stories, so you can see why an exec might think, "Silliphant had success writing for Tibbs, he can write for Shaft." Sticking with detective stories, he would go on to write for Dirty Harry as well, on The Enforcer.

Silliphant's story begins with everyone's favorite black private dick John Shaft getting ambushed by a couple mysterious fellows from Africa, knocked out with a tranquilizer dart, and put in the back seat of a car to be driven over to a meeting with African tribe leader Ramila (Cy Grant) and Colonel Gonder (Marne Maitland) of a police organization based out of Addis Ababa. So Shaft is unconscious during the title sequence set to "Are You Man Enough" by The Four Tops - a good song, but Shaft's situation while it plays isn't as cool as him walking around Manhattan in Shaft or taking a night drive through the city in Shaft's Big Score!

After passing a couple tests - stick fighting with a large man played by Frank McRae ("Cat named Shaft ain't gonna be bad with a stick."), burying himself in sand to avoid roasting under bright lights - Shaft is offered an unusual gig in a place he says is "out of his turf". Ramila and Gonder want Shaft to pose as an African native to infiltrate a human trafficking operation that has been transporting Africans out of their country, through Italy, into France, where they're forced into slave labor. For busting up these slavers, Shaft will be paid $25,000.

Shaft went on adventures in other countries in Tidyman's novels (which I would really love to read, but they're out of print). England, Jamaica. So it's not unheard of that he would work outside the U.S., and the urge to put blaxploitation's greatest hero in Africa is understandable, but this set-up makes very little sense. Ramila and Gonder need a trained investigator to do the job and the slavers know all of Africa's best investigators, so of course their top option is to turn to a man who will have to learn a whole new language in record time. You just have to let logic slide and go with it... like Shaft goes with it when he finds out his teacher will be Ramila's daughter Aleme (Vonetta McGee). She teaches him the language, and he gives this adult virgin enough pleasure in return that she decides not to go through with the traditional female circumcision she had been scheduled to have. "How in the hell you gonna know what you're missing unless you give it a little wear and tear before they take it away?"

So we follow Shaft as he makes his way through the African countryside, takes in a stray dog, catches the attention of the slavers by beating the hell out of the bastard who murders that dog in front of him, gets smuggled out of Africa, and ends up in France, where he can confront the man at the top of the evil scheme: Frank Finlay as Amafi.

Amafi is introduced while taking calls on the car phone in the back seat of his chauffeured vehicle, accompanied by his 19-year-old companion Jazar (Neda Arneric), who "sees the world only in sexual terms". Hanging up the phone, Amafi tells Jazar to "brighten my day". She proceeds to dip her head out of frame and into his lap. You know what's going on down there. Later in the film Amafi and Jazar are seen riding in the back of his car again, and this time she has an orgasm by just watching some sweaty black African slaves do some road work. It's no surprise that she and Shaft end up having a good time together.

Directed by John Guillermin instead of Gordon Parks, Shaft in Africa is a very different sort of movie than its predecessors. It doesn't have a very cool tone to it and it's a globetrotting spy story rather than a neighborhood P.I. story, but it is enjoyable in its own way. It's interesting enough, the villain and his girl are twisted, and Silliphant wrote some great dialogue.

The Shaft films of the '70s ended as a trilogy, with the character living on in a short series of TV movies. The release of theatrical features stopped because the box office dropped on this one, possibly just because it wasn't the sort of Shaft movie audiences were looking for. I wish they had tried to keep the films going, making another one more along the lines of the first two movies. But that's not how it went down. At least there was more Roundtree Shaft to come down the line.

SHAFT (2000)

The Shaft film released in mid-2000 is sometimes mistakenly referred to as a remake, and even if it had been a remake the perfect actor was cast in the title role: Samuel L. Jackson, the coolest and baddest cat in the acting profession. But this isn't a remake, director John Singleton (who also wrote the screenplay with Shane Salerno and Richard Price) did something wiser than that - he set his film in the world of the previous Shaft movies. Jackson is playing John Shaft, yes, but not the John Shaft of Shaft, Shaft's Big Score!, and Shaft in Africa. That John Shaft also appears in this movie, played once again by Richard Roundtree. Roundtree's Shaft is the uncle of Jackson's Shaft. Some may find it odd that they're uncle and nephew when Roundtree is only six years older than Jackson, but that doesn't seem off to me for a couple different reasons. For one, my siblings are a decade older than me, so I became an uncle when I was just 5 years old. Also, Roundtree does look older than Jackson, so I can buy that their age gap is wider and his Shaft might have been a mentor figure to Jackson's.

Regardless of all that, I think Singleton and his collaborators crafted an excellent story for this return of Shaft. It begins when racist rich kid Walter Wade Jr. (Christian Bale) kills a young black man outside of a swanky restaurant. This guy is such a scumbag that he even mocks the dying man while in the middle of being arrested by Jackson's Shaft, who works for the NYPD rather than being a private detective like his uncle. So Shaft punches Wade a couple times, which gets him in trouble with a higher-up. Even though the murder was witnessed by waitress Diane Palmieri (Toni Collette), she refuses to testify and goes into hiding. Wade is given a bail amount low enough that his family can easily pay for it, then he skips the country, flying off to Switzerland.

When Wade returns to the U.S. two years later, Shaft is waiting for him. And the creep makes bail again. Shaft quits the force over this outrage (by throwing his badge across a courtroom like it's a ninja star), but still makes it his mission to find Diane and get her to testify against Wade so he can be sent away for good. He goes about the endeavor with the help of associates played by the likes of Vanessa Williams and Busta Rhymes (back before he annoyed me by running Halloween: Resurrection into the ground).

During the brief time Wade was in jail, he met a criminal kingpin named Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright), who Shaft could only charge for "assaulting an officer" when Peoples poked him in the chest during a heated exchange. Shaft claims, "I feared for my life." But letting Wade and Peoples meet was a mistake, as Wade uses this new connection to put a hit out on Diane. Peoples sends not just your average henchmen after her and Shaft, but even a couple police officers he has in his pocket.

That's a fine story and Singleton tells it well, with a great cast bringing the characters to life. Wade is a pretty typical role for Bale, we've seen him play this sort of rich guy a couple times, but he is very successful at making Wade completely despicable. Wright really steals the show as Peoples, though, so much so that the film was even reworked to give him a more prominent part. Peoples is a bad guy, but Wright's performance is a lot of fun. One of his greatest moments comes when an enraged Peoples starts walking toward Shaft while holding an icepick and is so amped up that he starts stabbing himself in the chest as he goes. When he meets Wade he starts talking to him about golf and mentions being a fan of Tiger Woods, but the way he says it makes it sound like "Tiger Woo." I had just recently got a cat I named Booger around the time this movie came out, and thanks to Wright I ended up often referring to her as "Booger Woo" for the rest of her life.

Jackson is just as awesome as Shaft as you would hope for him to be, and expect him to be. He looks totally badass with his leather coats and stylized facial hair, he exudes cool as usual, he handles the intense scenes and the humorous ones, and he even lives up to the "sex machine" requirements when he tells a woman, "It's my duty to please that booty." Of course, he only goes home with one woman, while his uncle leaves with two.

This Shaft has to live up to everything his uncle was because he gets the same theme song. That classic song composed by Isaac Hayes plays over the title sequence, just like it should have on Shaft's Big Score! and Shaft in Africa as well. I don't think anyone would have ever complained about hearing that song in every Shaft movie. Frequent James Bond movie composer David Arnold also did a nice job of working the music Hayes came up with for the original film into his score for this one.

Apparently Singleton and Jackson did not get along while making this movie and Jackson had a lot of complaints, but that's not evident in the finished film. This feels like the director and star were in agreement on how to bring Shaft into the new century, because I think this was the perfect movie to update the franchise with. Shaft did well at the box office and Singleton wanted to make a sequel about Shaft taking on drug runners in Jamaica (yes, please), so I have no idea why a follow-up didn't get off the ground right away. It's a ridiculous shame that we have had to wait nineteen years to see Jackson and Roundtree as the Shafts again.

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