Hey, where the hell are you going, Shaft?

Hey, where the hell are you going, Shaft?

At this stage of my film literacy, there are very few genres where I have yet to break my cherry. There are countries of the world whose films I have yet to dig into – countries whose films have a sensibility all their own. Likewise, there’s a syllabus that was built for me that I’ve yet to dive into – but at least with that genre, I understand the tropes and what I’m getting myself into. However, there is one genre of film that comes to mind that remains uncharted water for this fearless traveller: Blaxploitation.

So when time came to finally dig in, I felt like I needed a bit of primer, and for that I reached out to the man, the myth, the legend: Odie Henderson.

As I geared up to watch SHAFT for the first time, I wrote to Odie for guidance. “Where to begin, honorable sensei?” I asked him. “How can I possibly see, surmise, and speak on such an iconic title when I have no point of reference?”. Happily, the man emailed this lowly grasshopper an amazing response that set the stage, provided answers, and even asked questions to be considered as the film played out. Seriously folks, the questions put to me were worthy of a midterm paper, and I felt like providing the answers could have made for a post all its own.

But then, I read it all over again, and saw the key to understanding SHAFT in the first few sentences.

You got problems, baby?

You got problems, baby?

Taking its bow in 1971, SHAFT is the story of a private detective named John Shaft (Richard Roundtree). After a tussle with a pair of thugs waiting for him in his office, Shaft discovers that they were sent by a Harlem gangster named “Bumpy” (Moses Gunn). After dispatching his would-be assailants, and checking in with the local police precinct, Shaft sets out in search of Bumpy to see what’s what.

When he finds him, he discovers that even gangsters have need for the law every once in a while. As it happens, Bumpy’s daughter has been kidnapped, and the gangster wants Shaft to take the case and arrange for her safe return. Of course, nothing is easy in 1970’s New York City, not even a life of crime. We’re in an era where uptown is controlled by black gangsters and downtown is controlled by Italian Mafioso. So not only does the kidnapping case seem dangerous off the opening tip, but it threatens to escalate racial tensions.

Everybody looks the same to me

Everybody looks the same to me

As the opening credits rolled, that iconic music rang out from my speakers, and John Shaft began his walk through Times Square (in all its grimy glory!), I wrote one word in my notebook. Moments later, I put my pen down and didn’t make another note the rest of the film. It was washing over me – the core idea, the point that escalated the film in the first place. It’s a characteristic that even allows the film to endure in the face of would-be detractors, and it cut straight to the way in which Odie introduced the film to me.

The note was “confidence”.

Odie had told me that he once wrote a piece titled “When I Grow Up, I Wanna be John Shaft“. While I’d encourage you folks to read his post, I didn’t for fear of parroting his ideas and passing them off as my own. However, the declaration spoke to me. When we’re children, we’re at our most idealistic…our most ambitious…our most ludicrous. There is nothing holding us down, nothing telling us we can’t. What we want to be is often grand, and often personal. I, for instance, wanted to be Roger Clemens…back when he was a fiercely competitive strikeout machine, not when he was a juicer in the twilight of his career. Clemens and Shaft actually have something in common, and curiously, it’s not a word that appears anywhere in Odie’s piece:

Confidence.

So much of the film is so very brash, from Shaft’s attitude, to his walk, to his wardrobe, to the wah-wah guitar part of that incredible score. That might not seem so out of the ordinary until one considers the point in history. Seeing a badass black man striding with determination through downtown Manhattan might not make one think twice today, but in 1971 it was far from conventional. It was less than 25 years after this. It was only six years after this. Just three years after this. And a long Thirty-seven years before this. I bring up all of those points not to provide a half-assed lesson in Black History, but to establish the timeline and provide context. Here was America still trying to clear the smoke of the fight for Civil Rights, and walking out of the rubble was Shaft…oozing confidence with his every step and smirk.

Why wouldn’t Odie want to be him when he grew up? I imagine being born just one year before the film debuted certainly didn’t hurt – but I have to believe that some part of Odie wanted to be that cocksure, that in-control,…that fucking cool! The man never wavers (Shaft, not Odie – though Odie might not either for all I know). He never flinches in the face of white superior officers, nor in the face of dangerous gangsters. He never hesitates when entering a bar filled with primarily white clientele, nor does he mis a step when canvasing the sketchiest buildings in Harlem. So much of it is in that opening credits sequence: we watch Shaft jaywalk through downtown Manhattan…never missing a step, never fearing he might get hit. It doesn’t take nerves of steel to cross against the light, but it does take commitment, and seeing Shaft do it without so much as a blink is about as badass as it gets.

Do it yourself, shitty.

Do it yourself, shitty.

This attitude is all over the film. It’s present in the blind newsman who cracks wise about his disability. It’s present in the flophouse where Shaft confronts Ben and his thugs. In that dive of an apartment, a poster of Malcolm X looks down on the proceedings…the misdeeds of those gathered acting as thumb in the eye of the civil rights he was fighting for. Heck, it’s present in seeing Shaft and Linda get down – just four years after Sidney Poitier couldn’t kiss Katharine Houghton except glimpsed in the rearview mirror.

Confidence. This character, this film, nothing but confidence.

I’m not sure if this is what my Jedi Master expected from this young Padawan, but it’s what hits me the hardest. We often forget how far we’ve come (probably because we have so far left to go). Nevertheless, a film like this makes it easy to look past the technical flaws as prevalent as they may be. Shit, a film and a character so undeniably strong as this? How does one see them as anything but iconic.

How could one not to want to be them when you grow up.

Right Odie?

Blind Spots

I usually post Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for February so far…

Amir Soltani watched CLEO FROM 5 TO 7

Beatrice watched ROMAN HOLIDAY

Nikhat Zahra watched THE APU TRILOGY

Josh watched TOKYO STORY

Courtney Small watched REBECCA

Elina watched THE VIRGIN SUICIDES

Abstew watched MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON

Fisti watched PENNY SERENADE

Ruth also watched MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON

Andrew Robinson watched SUNRISE

Andina watched THE APARTMENT

Caitlin watched RESERVOIR DOGS

Jay Cluitt watched ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW

Mette Kowalski watched MEMENTO

Getter Trumsi watched both FERRIS BEULLER’S DAY OFF and THE PRINCESS BRIDE

Chris watched THE PLAYER

Dani watched MY LIFE AS A DOG

Dan Heaton watched YOJIMBO

Brittani Burnham watched CITIZEN KANE

Jandy Stone Hardesty watched FULL METAL JACKET

Will Kouf watched ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT

Sean Kelly watched RAGING BULL

Mariah watched ATTACK OF THE 50-FOOT WOMAN

Steve Flores watched PANDORA’S BOX

Christian Bordea watched THE RED SHOES

SDG watched HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY