In Memoriam 1942 – 2013 “Roger Ebert loved movies.”

RogerEbert.com

Thumb_w2uuoixk7hdicsstmrquj98tgaw

Selma

Selma is a powerful, emotional film that works in moments both big and small. It announces the major talents of director Ava DuVernay and has…

Thumb_mncop6acbxx1tmbqk7gji6rvocl

Into the Woods

The singing is often splendid. The bits of humor are deftly handled. The pace is relatively swift. And it never feels like a static rendition…

Other Reviews
Review Archives
Thumb_xbepftvyieurxopaxyzgtgtkwgw

Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

Thumb_jrluxpegcv11ostmz1fqha1bkxq

Monsieur Hire

Patrice Leconte's "Monsieur Hire" is a tragedy about loneliness and erotomania, told about two solitary people who have nothing else in common. It involves a…

Other Reviews
Great Movie Archives
Other Articles
Channel Archives

Reviews

Shaft

  |  

Gordon Parks's "Shaft" gave us the first really convincing black private eye. Movies about private detectives have always been among my favorites --t hey seem to be better than most other formula movies -- and John Shaft, as played by Richard Roundtree, belongs in the honorable tradition of Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, Lew Archer, and company. He belongs because, like them, he keeps no regular company. Private eyes (in the movies, anyway) are loners in a way that defines the word. They live in dingy walk-up offices, sipping bourbon from the office bottles and waiting for the phone to ring.

These may all be clichés, but, hell, a private-eye movie without clichés wouldn't be worth the price of admission. We don't go to Westerns to see cowboys riding ostriches. The strength of Parks's movie is his willingness to let his hero fully inhabit the private-eye genre, with all of its obligatory violence, blood, obscenity, and plot gimmicks. The weakness of "Shaft," I suspect, is that Parks is not very eager to inhabit that world along with his hero.

Gordon Parks was the first black director to make a major studio film, and his "The Learning Tree" (1969) was a deeply felt, lyrically beautiful film that was, maybe, just too simple and honest to be commercial. It didn't find a large audience, and I suspect that Parks turned next to "Shaft" for commercial survival.

The nice thing about "Shaft" is that it savors the private-eye genre, and takes special delight in wringing new twists out of the traditional relationship between the private eye and the boys down at homicide. The story covers some of the same ground as "Cotton Comes to Harlem," but in a different way. Shaft is brought in by a Harlem rackets boss (Moses Gunn) whose traditional slice of power is being threatened by the Mafia. They don't want a partnership anymore, so they kidnap the boss's daughter. Shaft's job is to get her back.

His adventures along the way include a thoroughly unpleasant encounter with a white pick-up, who is insulted because all black exploitation movies have to insult at least one white pick-up (and why not? Fair is fair). The climax involves a complicated plan with Shaft and his allies swinging from ropes and using firehoses to accomplish with five people in five minutes what could have been done with one, in one. Parks isn't especially good at action direction, but the heart of a private-eye movie is in the mood scenes, anyway, and he supplies a scene in a bar and another one with the Harlem rackets boss that are very nice.

Popular Blog Posts

Who do you read? Good Roger, or Bad Roger?

This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...

Roger Moore's Best: "The Spy Who Loved Me"

An FFC comments on Roger Moore's best James Bond film, "The Spy Who Loved Me."

The Ten Best TV Programs of 2014

The best television programs of 2014.

The Ten Best Films of 2014

The ten best films of 2014, as chosen by the film critics of RogerEbert.com.

Reveal Comments
comments powered by Disqus