In the sometimes unspoken but often crystal clear social hierarchies of the city, the private detective emerged as the go-between archetype in the 19th century; the cool, independent intellect whose job was to cut through the bullshit. Mainstream audiences enjoyed a black lead as such a detective in 1971 with Shaft. While race issues in crime films had been approached in a more realistic manner in Sidney Poitier vehicles like In the Heat of the Night and No Way Out, Shaft is unabashedly pulp detective entertainment, creating a cool fantasy world version of New York City. Our guide in this world is a hero who doesn't quite side with any faction but has more sympathy for some than for others. He also has a singular, and singularly badass, fashion sense.
Based on a novel in which the character of John Shaft is a white man, the film stars Richard Roundtree as the iconic African American version of the character. I love all the location shots of New York in this film, they provide a terrific glimpse into the time and place, but this film doesn't present the rough realism of Mean Streets or Taxi Driver. Shaft is referred to as a "Spade"*, seemingly a reference to Dashiell Hammett's detective character, but I was reminded much more of Raymond Chandler for several reasons, among them Shaft's ease and amenability to finding romantic companions.
It could be taken as reflecting the stereotype of male black libido but somehow always running across beautiful women who want him physically is very Philip Marlowe. Unlike Marlowe, though, Shaft has a girlfriend (Gwenn Mitchell) who is either blissfully ignorant of or doesn't care about women like the white brunette (Margaret Warncke) Shaft sleeps with at one point in the film. We don't learn much about how Shaft's wife feels--the film won't win any awards for Feminism, there aren't even any female characters as well developed as those typically found in a Chandler novel.
A slightly anachronistic 1940s style of clothing on the cops and mobsters underlines the influence of mid-century pulp even further. Shaft's friendly with one white police detective (Charles Cioffi) who begs to be let in on the secrets current in black circles. There are apparently no black detectives like the one Poitier played a few years earlier in In the Heat of the Night and the film presents a city where lines are very clearly drawn for race. As a private detective, Shaft exists in between worlds. He has some cache in the straight white world of law enforcement but he has currency in the world of the black mob and street culture. But his in-between status makes him suspect in both worlds, too.
He's hired by a black mobster named Bumpy (Moses Gunn) whose daughter (Sherri Brewer), little more than a MacGuffin with legs, we eventually learn is being held hostage by Italian mob. To fight them, Shaft realises he needs an army. He finds this in an underground black militant group headed by his old friend, Ben (Christopher St. John).
This was early days for the Black Panthers and groups like them so it might have been a little easier to portray such a group as a sort of racially progressive Baker Street Irregulars, ready to mobilise in the cause of community safety that the white police force implicitly won't provide. Shaft isn't part of their team technically but he's consistently forced by circumstances to work with them throughout the film, his sympathy very clearly being with them. They provide a clear "good guy" faction faction for fighting the Italian "bad guys", the film's story a much more crowd pleasing adventure tale than the great but weirder and more complicated Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song released the same year. Roundtree's charisma is great and the music by Isaac Hayes deserves its legendary status.
*EDIT: I’ve been informed “spade” is also a racial slur.