Shaft comes out swinging in the third entry in his revered blaxploitation franchise.
This poster of Richard Roundtree brandishing a massive shillelagh or whatever was made for the third film in his iconic Shaft trilogy, Shaft in Africa, which was released today in 1973. Film series often try to go bigger with each entry, so it's no surprise that this one went clear to Africa during the height of the blaxploitation wave. Looking at the poster, we wonder if the stick gimmick influenced the next year's Black Samson, in which Rockne Tarkington carried a shillelagh of his own. Cinema being generally referential, we're guessing yes. But the similarities between the movies ends there. Black Samson was exclusively concerned with urban Los Angeles, while Shaft in Africa spans three continents and touches on some unusual subject matter.
The story revolves around New York City private dick John Shaft being asked to bring down a modern slavery ring. We should note, for any who don't know, that this evil thrives in 2022. In modern slavery, people desperate for work are offered foreign jobs that turn out to be brutal and pay so little—or nothing—that its victims are trapped. They can neither escape nor go to the police, because they soon learn that their work papers are fraudulent, and are told by their enslavers that the police will imprison them for illegal immigration. Operations of this sort have been broken up in recent years in New York, Georgia, and Texas, where a sex slavery ring was uncovered in Dallas. Elsewhere, slavery rings have been busted in the British Midlands, Australia, and perhaps most notably in Dubai, where Amnesty International says forced labor was used to prepare Qatar for the upcoming World Cup.
Shaft is tasked with traveling to Ethiopia, where he will pose as a local and allow himself to be recruited by slavers so he can gather evidence for French authorities, who have learned that the victims end up in Paris. Unfortunately, Shaft quickly realizes his cover has been blown and that he can't trust anyone. In a classic American cinema example of vigilantism becoming the last best option, he decides that rather than gather evidence against the slavers it'd be better if he went human tornado on the whole stinking lot of them. He becomes, in essence, the classic cop out of control, leaving chaos in his wake as his erstwhile handlers survey the damage and occasionally go sacre bleu!
In an interesting subplot, Vonetta McGee plays Aleme, tasked with teaching Shaft local ways and a bit of language. Shaft is dismayed to learn that she's on the cusp of receiving her clitoridectomy, a coming-of-age ritual generally referred to these days as female genital mutilation. Shaft: “Listen, baby, how in the hell are you gonna know what you're missing unless you give it a little wear and tear before they take it away?” It's glib, but there's a serious undertone—probably not enough for anyone horrified by the practice, but you really can't expect more for the time period. It's actually amazing it was mentioned at all. Because this is a Shaft movie, Aleme has a hands-on experience with the hero's big brown stick and decides she better hang onto her clitoris after all.
What can you say about a movie that features Roundtree reprising his immensely popular and groundbreaking private eye, and that deals with two hot-button social issues decades before they were on the minds of the Western public? The budget is big, the pace is fast, and the international setting in and around Addis Ababa, with some scenes shot in Massawa, Eritrea, and a climax staged in Paris, offers plenty of appeal. In addition, there's McGee, a very beautiful actress who in this outing looks even better than usual, while Serbian actress Neda Arnerić plays a ridiculously horny femme fatale who'll do anything to get Shaft in the sack. Action, commentary, sex, and a bit of humor—those are excellent ingredients, but even with all that and the virtual kitchen sink thrown in we don't think Shaft in Africa is as good as the original. But that's no surprise. There's really nothing like the first time.
He scored big in 1971. In 1972 he returned for a double dip.
Once you go blaxploitation you never go back. At least for a day or two. Above is the U.S. promo poster for another movie from the genre, 1972's Shaft's Big Score, starring the legendary Richard Roundtree. Shaft is obviously a name meant to conjure sex, so it makes sense that the poster is so phallic, with Roundtree sticking that long black rod in the viewer's face. Shaft's Big Score was the sequel to 1971's Shaft, which was a landmark in American cinema that hammered home the growing realization in Hollywood that there was money to be made by showing audiences people like themselves. White audiences had lived that reality since the first moving pictures, but mostly never considered the privilege they were enjoying. Shaft helped demonstrate that all people liked it, and helped define the future for film studios. The focus was black, the cast was diverse, and the money rolled in. Which brought about Shaft's Big Score. We've seen better movies, but we've sure seen worse too. You can read what we thought about it here.
You never forget the first time.
We recently saw the latest reboot of the classic blaxploitation film Shaft with Samuel L. Jackson, Jesse Usher, et al, and while the parties involved in that effort have their unique charms, this photo pretty much covers what made Richard Roundtree the best. He was, and remains, a bad mother— Shut your mouth! He was born today in 1942, and this photo dates from 1971.
Who’s the man? If you don’t know you better ask somebody.
After scoring a huge hit with the 1971 detective drama Shaft, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer doubled down by rushing out a bigger budgeted sequel the next year. It was called Shaft’s Big Score, and you see the Japanese promo above, made for its Tokyo premiere today in 1972. Some of the acting in Score isn’t great, which was also true of the first film, but as a whole it makes a nice companion piece to Shaft. John Shaft gets in the middle of the Italian and black mobs in New York City, and along the way there are brawls, bullets, and lots of badassedness. The movie also features blaxploitation heavyweights Moses Gunn, Wally Taylor, Drew Bundini Brown, and female foils Kathy Imrie, Rosalind Miles, and the amazing Kitty Jones.
A long while back when discussing the 1968 movie 100 Rifles, we talked about the honesty of cinema from that period. It's a quality that extends into blaxploitation as well. When we say honesty, we don’t mean correctness. Casual racism abounds in blaxploitation, and of course sexism and homophobia make appearances too. But at least the genre acknowledges racial discord as an everyday element of American life. Unfortunately, Hollywood has devoted more and more time over the last thirty years to making soulless action epics and laughless comedies, constantly reassuring ticket buyers that everything is hunky dory. Yes, Hollywood would occasionally take on racial issues in big, Oscar grubbing dramas, but nearly all of those movies, no matter how downbeat, had an implicit message that America was getting better. Well, guess what? It isn’t.
Nearly half of America’s prisoners are inside for drugs, and 40% of that subset is black, even though whites are more likely to sell drugs, and they consume the same amount as blacks—not only per capita, but by percentage. Multiple studies show the same result. Despite this, black drug offenders land inside the increasingly for-profit prison industry at 10.1 times the rate of whites. Uncomfortable facts, but facts they are. Blaxploitation movies acknowledge a wide range of social problems while weaving them into the fabric of popular cinema. Nobody walked away from Shaft’s Big Score thinking that America was becoming a post-racial Eden, yet nobody walked away denying that the movie was immense fun. Entertainment that reflects the real world. Is that really so hard to do?
They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother—
Richard Roundtree in a promo still from one of our favorite movies, the blaxploitation flick Shaft, circa 1971. Roundtree turns 67 today.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1942—Blimp Crew Disappears without a Trace
The two-person crew of the U.S. naval blimp L-8 disappears on a routine patrol over the Pacific Ocean. The blimp drifts without her crew and crashes in Daly City, California. The mystery of the crew's disappearance is never solved.
1977—Elvis Presley Dies
Music icon Elvis Presley is found unresponsive by his fiancée on the floor of his Graceland bedroom suite. Attempts to revive him fail and he's pronounced dead soon afterward. The cause of death is often cited as drug overdose, but toxicology tests have never found evidence this was the case. More likely, years of drug abuse contributed to generally frail health and an overtaxed heart that suddenly failed.
1969—Woodstock Festival Begins
The Woodstock Music & Art Fair, which was billed as an Aquarian Exposition, takes place on a 600 acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York. It would run for three sometimes rainy days and feature thirty-two acts performing at all hours of the day and night. Today the festival is regarded as one of the greatest events in popular music history.
1977—Radio Signal Arrives from Deep Space
An unidentified radio signal, nicknamed the WOW Signal for the notation a scientist made on a computer readout, is briefly detected by the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) project's Big Ear radio telescope. Despite a month of searching the same section of space, the signal is never found again.
1912—U.S. Invades Nicaragua
United States Marines invade Nicaragua to support the U.S.-backed government installed there after José Santos Zelaya had resigned three years earlier. American troops remain for eleven years.
1936—Last Public Execution in U.S.
Rainey Bethea, who had been convicted of rape and murder, is hanged in Owensboro, Kentucky in what is the last public execution performed in the United States.
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