Time dulls the impact of most media, but man this one hit Hollywood and American popular consciousness like a bomb going off. It singlehandedly sparked the Blaxploitation era and gave us the first Black superhero character. It showed a view into a NYC that is now long gone, as well as commented on the nature of revolutionary struggle. All that is to say... there’s a lot more going on here than it might seem at first glance.
I’ve loved this film, and the genre it spawned for a long time. This is one of those rare occurrences, although not so rare recently around here, where I am watching a movie I’ve seen before. My first viewing of Shaft, perhaps twenty years ago or so, focused primarily on how cool it was, and how great the soundtrack is. I don’t think I really understood the deeper message.
To be honest, I’m still trying to fully understand it. But in the booklet that came with this one, Gordon Parks, is quoted as saying “You’ve got a forty-five automatic on your lap, and I’ve got a thirty-five millimeter camera on mine. And I still think my weapon is the most powerful.” That basically sums up what’s going on here for me.
Parks was trying to change the world through storytelling, and what a powerful tool that is. In this era it wasn’t well understood, but it was already reshaping our world. I’m thinking of things like the 1960 United States presidential election, but also new films featuring parts of society that had previously been completely overlooked.
Shaft might look like a fun action film with some questionable sexual politics now, but when it came out it was a revelation. The idea of a Black man who was winning, who was sexual, who took on both white and Black power structures. It was not a small thing. That it remains so watchable and enjoyable, so many years later, is also no small thing.