'Shaft': THR's 1971 Review

Shaft - H - 1971
The Harlem underworld could be made interesting, but it would need new conventions.

On June 25, 1971, MGM held the premiere for Gordon Parks' adaptation of Shaft in Los Angeles. The Hollywood Reporter's original review of the R-rated detective film is below.

Shaft, a Sterling Silliphant-Roger Lewis Production for MGM release, is about a black private eye in Harlem. Produced by Joel Freeman and directed by Gordon Parks, it stars Richard Roundtree. It will surely do very well this summer financially, especially with black audiences, both in its first runs and in later multiple release. 

But Shaft is not a good movie. In many ways, it resembles last year's Cotton Comes to Harlem, which also seemed aimed at black audiences unused to seeing their urban experience portrayed on the screen; and its problems are similar. Like Ossie Davis, who directed Cotton, Parks doesn't reveal any feeling for his material.

If Shaft were indeed a hard-hitting, fast-paced, action-packed detective thriller, as it was meant to be, then it would be an acceptable entertainment. But it isn't.

It doesn't build any rhythms (the editor was Hugh A. Robertson), and it doesn't begin to explore the interest and the uniqueness of its setting (the screenwriters were Ernest Tidyman, who wrote the novel on which it was based, and John D. F. Black). It's a formula picture, and it's the wrong formula both for its subject and for Parks. 

There are things to admire in Shaft. Emmanuel Gerard's art direction and Robert Drumheller's set decoration are very fine. Urs Furrer's Metrocolo photography reveals some feeling for the New York locations. Charles Cioffi gives a good performance as a police lieutenant, and Moses Gunn gives an amusing, sinister one as a powerful Harlem gangster who hires Roundtree to find his adolescent daughter, kidnapped by a rival faction of white hoods. 

But the essential problem — a deep one — remains. What Tidyman and Black, and Parks, have done is taken the conventions of a genre — the detective movie — and tried to transfer them whole to what is, in effect, an almost totally different cultural setting than the one for which they were designed.

Just at the time when American movies have been surfeited with "anti-war" statements, and when they are in desperate need of stars and stories to illuminate another area of national concern — black experience — they offer up the same cliches as in detective pictures made with white stars and stories. 

Roundtree might have been better — hipper, more jive-talking — instead of a bad parody of a white detective hero. But the formula is not flexible enough to do justice to a black militant leader. As played by Christopher St. John, a reportedly fine stage actor, he's as uninteresting as any young white leading man.

The Harlem underworld could be made interesting, but it would need new conventions, new tempos, new character types. — Craig Fisher, originally published on June 10, 1971