Because of the hipness which envelops the entire film, the highly-sensual, suggestive Isaac Hayes theme which is still fresh, and the fact that blaxploitation cinema was made possible by its success, "Shaft" has long since reached icon status, and is thus deemed to be beyond the reach of criticism.
And yet, to look at it now, even though one can see the mass appeal of a super-cool detective who is as unfazed as it's possible to be even in the heat of violence, is to see a pretty slim film covered in attractive dialogue. The (to us) over-use of 'baby' to lend a punchy ending to all manner of remarks, and a white cop saying 'cat', are certainly huge fun. Amusing though many of the hip exchanges are, the film is too often burdened by its own dialogue as it tries to squeeze out a plot about Shaft being hired by a Harlem gangster to find his kidnapped daughter, supposedly captured by the Mafia, who want Harlem for themselves. Shaft in turn hires members of a black militant group to help him with his mission.
The film was hammered at the time for not being a full exposé of the black urban experience, and for being just a black version of a 40s Hollywood gumshoe thriller, yet "Shaft" certainly has a black sensibility (witness one particular chat between Shaft and the Italian-American cop) and, even now, it seems radical to have a movie in which almost all the actors are black. However, the film's violence, to which many objected at the time, will not cause much shock-horror in today's audiences. The attraction to them will be the stylish conversation and attitudes, as well as Richard Roundtree, who lends Shaft the right amount of charisma, swagger and untouchability. Even as the film opens, Shaft strolls through moving traffic, completely unscathed. As blaxploitation cinema fizzled out, so did Roundtree himself. More's the pity.
Read a review of "Shaft's Big Score".
Read a review of "Shaft in Africa".
Read a review of John Singleton's remake of "Shaft".