“Who’s the Black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?” Ya damn right. Although it wasn’t strictly the first crime thriller aimed at a predominantly Black audience (and director Gordon Parks had made one feature before, a lyrical autobiographical piece called The Learning Tree two years earlier), Shaft came from a major studio (MGM) and became such a big hit it effectively launched the cycle of “Blaxploitation” pictures which followed. Isaac Hayes’ funk score won the Academy Award.
“Starring a charismatic Richard Roundtree in a career-defining role as John Shaft — a streetwise detective hired to find a Harlem mobster’s beautiful kidnapped daughter — the film features Isaac Hayes’ timeless theme song, which earned him an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1972.
Originally written for a white actor, Parks’ decision to cast Roundtree altered any understanding of race in the film, in the way that George Romero casting Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead helped give that zombie movie classic a fresh political bent.
Touching on themes of the Black Power movement in a country only a few years removed from the Civil Rights era, Shaft was essentially the first mainstream black action hero, and he came along at just the right time. The quintessential blaxploitation film, it spawned several sequels and imposters. Transcending the genre’s limitations, it belies its assigned classification and ultimately is a classic private-eye thriller with a great story and strong performances all around.” Tambay Obenson, Indiewire
Gordon Parks, by then already a legendary photographer, brought his sharp eye to what he knew didn’t amount to much more than a laid-back, groovy piece of entertainment. And soon, Roundtree’s John Shaft—abetted by the Oscar-winning stylings of soul-music laureate Isaac Hayes—strode into movie history… He’s a vision of black masculinity: professionally skilled, certain to get laid, willing to stand up to whites and up for blacks, but without any long-standing ties dragging him down. He’s of the law, but also above it. Legitimate, but not a sucker or a sellout—not ’the man’.
K Austin Collins, Vanity Fair (2019)
Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn, Charles Cioffi
Best Original Song, Academy Awards, 1972
Ernest Tidyman, John D. F. Black
Hugh A. Robertson
Isaac Hayes, Johnny Allen