“Shaft” is a movie that portrays a black character as a superhero. Released in 1971, just after the civil rights movement, this film is included in the so-called “blaxplotation” category. In this genre, black characters play a empowered role in film for the first time. It would not have happened before the civil rights movement, because black people were oppressed. They had to play small parts that usually presented stereotypical characters. At the time of this film’s release, the equality under the law for black Americans had been achieved, at least on paper. Yet the reality was still far from equality between blacks and whites. Therefore, blacks needed black heroes and a new genre was introduced, with black people featuring main roles. “Shaft” shares many of the characteristics of “blaxplotation” movies.
As for the attitude of the superhero, Shaft is a private detective in total control of any situation. Cool, self-sufficient, hard, indomitable, and he is in the middle of two worlds. He collaborates with white policemen and also with black mafia, because white gangsters have kidnapped Bumpy’s daughter. Bumpy, the leader of the majority of black crime in Harlem, looks for Shaft’s help. Shaft feels comfortable and secure in the streets, dealing with his “brothers”, and feels also confident working with white policemen. He seems very considerate to everyone. For example, when he takes a taxi he says to the driver: “Take your time, I am early.” The same thing happens with a white man who owns a kiosk. Shaft is willing to help him by picking up his newspaper off the ground. He also illustrates a similar attitude with a small boy in the street, by giving him a dollar.
Shaft is portrayed from the first scene of the film as a powerful character. He confidently crosses the street in the middle of the traffic while the opening theme song is still playing. He crosses the street with assurance in front of three moving taxis. His style of dressing also portrays this: leather jacket collar slightly turned up and defined sideburns. All these signs provide him with an image of self-assurance. This is a very effective scene that shows how Shaft is undoubtedly portrayed as a hero from the beginning of the film.
As for Shaft relationships with women, he never approaches them with sensitivity. His character lacks any sensitive dimension towards women. Men with some feminine side are considered desirable nowadays: but not in this category of blaxplotation film, in which violence and sex is present as a means of portraying Shaft as a hero. The first sex scene is superfluous and artificial; the conversations on the phone between Shaft and his companion show him as a conceited person, answering to the girl’s assertion that she loves him: “I know”. This usage of sex and violence to empower Shaft possibly was one of the reasons of the decay of blaxploitaion movies, as this genre received critiques from many sectors.
It is a low-budget movie that illustrates the blaxploitation genre, because it shows black actors in main roles but lacks any aesthetic care and the plot is incredibly predictable. Shaft is portrayed as a superhero in total control of the situation. Different camera angles serve the purpose of empowering Shaft, whose relationships with women lack any sensitivity. This film has definitely broadened my perspective of African American culture because it is a totally new genre to me.