Shaft (1971)

Movie review by
Brian Costello, Common Sense Media
Shaft (1971) Movie Poster Image
Violence, some sex, profanity in '70s classic.
  • R
  • 1971
  • 100 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

No positive messages. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

No positive role models. 

Violence

A man is thrown out of a window two or three stories above street level. Characters get into shoot-outs with guns, leading to killing, some blood. Punches. Character hits another with a bottle. 

Sex

Shaft has sex with a woman he meets at a bar; brief nudity (breasts), female moaning over a psychedelic montage of the woman's hands and fingers going across his back. When asked where he's going, Shaft says that he's "going to get laid." 

Language

"Motherf----r" used once. "F--k" used once. A white mafia antagonist calls Shaft the "N" word. African Americans call each other various racial epithets, including "Uncle Tom." "S--t," "b.s.," "goddamn," "crap," "damn," "bitch." Middle finger gesture. 

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Cigar and cigarette smoking. Drinking in a bar. Talk of how Bumpy Jonas has made his money by supplying heroin in Harlem. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Shaft is a classic 1971 action movie in which Richard Roundtree plays a private detective in the middle of an impending war between the mob, the police, and a drug kingpin. While it's not as violent as most action movies, there are some gun battles -- including a climactic shoot-out scene in a hotel involving machine guns and plenty of casualties. A man is thrown out of a window two or three stories above street level. Profanity is frequently used, including "motherf----r" (used once) and "f--king" (used once), a mafia antagonist who calls Shaft the "N" word, and assorted racial epithets used by African Americans, including "Uncle Tom." There's an extended sex scene between Shaft and a woman he meets in a bar, with brief nudity (breasts), female moaning, and a psychedelic montage of the woman's hands and fingers moving up and down Shaft's back. Overall, this is a classic, groundbreaking, and perhaps definitive movie of the "blaxploitation" genre, and a radical statement at a time when it was still a big deal to have interracial kissing, a time when Hollywood seldom (if ever) cast African Americans in lead roles, portraying characters who were, like all other action movie heroes, strong and assertive. 

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What's the story?

Private detective John SHAFT (Richard Roundtree) learns from police lieutenant Adrozzi that two gangsters from Harlem are looking for him. After the two gangsters fail to ambush Shaft in his office, leading to one of the gangsters dying by falling out the window during the meleé, Shaft is told by Adrozzi that he has 48 hours to find out what's going on before Shaft is arrested for murder, despite maintaining that the death was an accident. Shaft goes to Harlem to meet with Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn), a drug kingpin who had sent the two henchmen. Jonas' daughter has been kidnapped, and he wants to hire Shaft to rescue her. Jonas wants Shaft to believe that Ben Buford, an old friend of Shaft's and the leader of a black militant organization, is behind the kidnapping. When Shaft tracks down Buford, a shoot-out ensues. Shaft and Buford escape, and Androzzi informs Shaft that he was the target, and that tensions between Jonas and the mafia are escalating, and that the mob are the ones behind the kidnapping. Androzzi fears that the public perception of this gang war will be viewed as a race war, and Shaft must find a way to find the mobsters, learn where they are keeping Jonas' daughter, and avoid arrest or death while in the middle of this fight among three factions. 

Is it any good?

With its funky Isaac Hayes soundtrack, bold fashions, and signature style and attitude, it could be reasonably argued that this film is more '70s than the actual 1970s. Years since its initial release, Shaft seems to get better with age, and viewed through a 21st century lens, what's incredible is just what a landmark statement the movie was. It's easy to forget that at the time Shaft was released in 1971, it was rare to cast African Americans in lead roles in movies, to say nothing of African American lead characters who were so much more than the decades of rotten stereotypes, at a time when even interracial kissing was considered controversial by some, to say nothing of Shaft's escapades.

It's not a perfect movie, but it's still fun to watch, as much for the fashion and depictions of old crumbling '70s New York as for the actual story. Richard Roundtree's performance as Shaft, a hero/antihero in a corrupt world, displays so much style, attitude, and humor throughout the movie. There have been, and continue to be, remakes and contemporary takes on Shaft, but this original version remains the gold standard by which the others are to be measured. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about classic movies. Why is Shaft considered a classic? How does it define a genre, a time, and a place? 

  • What are some of the subtle and direct ways in which the movie shows the racism Shaft and other African American characters were confronted with -- for instance, the scene in which Shaft tries to hail a cab? 

  • In what ways does the movie seem dated, and in what ways does the movie seem relevant? 

Movie details

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