Monday, September 03, 2007

Monday Movie Review: Shaft

Shaft (1971) 7/10
John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) is a super-cool private detective and ladies' man. He is hired by a black mob boss (Moses Gunn) to find his kidnapped daughter. Quickly he is in the center of a web of competing interests from the cops, the white mob, and a Black Panthers-type group.

It is easy to see why this movie had such a huge effect. It is remarkably well-made, with a powerful sense of immediacy and pacing. The soundtrack is compelling, and the whole thing has a great sense of wit. I expected to find the movie kind of cheesy, to tell you to truth; one of those films more beloved for its idea, for its place in film history, than for its actual quality. But for all its flaws, Shaft holds its own as a film that excites and interests the audience.

There are times, though, when Shaft is overwhelmed by its own posturing. John Shaft must be the coolest, he must know what's going on at all times, he must be infinitely sexy and sexual, and he must be bombastic enough to lord all this over everyone else on screen.

It's impossible to discuss Shaft without discussing race. Shaft suffers a little under the weight of its own racial stereotypes. There are certain things, it seems, that a black star must do in a blaxploitation film to prove he is powerful and free of the constraints of racism. It is not enough to overpower the white establishment in the form of the white cops and criminals who just can't keep up with him. That part is actually very cool; it's all about Shaft's power as a man and a person and a hero and specifically as a black man, and it's extremely entertaining. But he also has to establish dominance over specific groups in ways that are formulaic and not entirely comfortable.

To be this kind of hero, Shaft must bed multiple women, and at least one of those women must be white, and he must treat her badly. He must exert dominance over a Jew, and over a homosexual. Every time I see one of these movies, there is always a subtle or not so subtle hint of both anti-Semitism and homophobia. And it totally feels like that's a necessary part of the formula. The sexism is not subtle; the women are pawns and dupes, but the real misogyny is reserved for the white woman, who screams curses at Shaft as he leaves. And again, formula. It feels like a checklist of "proofs" that must be fulfilled in the film. These scenes were present even in Badass, a film about blaxploitation, with Adam West playing the object of homophobic scorn> In that film, even the positive Jewish characters are intensely stereotyped and schticky.

None of this makes for comfortable viewing, and if you don't have the ability to turn off the part of your brain that reacts to that sort of thing, maybe you won't like the film. But if you're a film buff, especially a classic film buff, you already watch plenty of movies replete with casual racism and sexism. What's interesting is that this one, even thirty years later, can seem so different to a white audience. You get used to stereotypes running the way they run, and if they change direction, that feels weird. As a Jewish woman, I reserve the right to be a little disappointed that yet another film genre maintains the anti-woman and anti-Semitic status quo.

Shaft is a strong action movie. It exists in a very specific cultural and historic context, which makes watching it more interesting. But perhaps the best thing about the movie is that it doesn't depend on that context, and stands on its own.

(Who's the cross-post that's a sex machine to all the chicks?)