Via pop culture osmosis, what I had gathered about this film was that it had a great soundtrack (and it does), but I had never read enough to realize it was a film noir classic. This is apparently nothing new to anyone who has seen it, but it surprised me. What I found interesting is how closely it hewed to the formula of detective noir, right down to the sexist attitude toward women, the dialogue flavored with slang, and the gritty imagery. What I liked best was its measured pace and its montages of New York set to Isaac Hayes' masterpiece.

The grit of New York in 1971 is especially well portrayed, from those long glorious shots of Shaft walking past the theatres with the increasingly trashy films to the tight cramped halls of the apartment buildings. That's a New York I'll never know, and I'm sure living in it wasn't great (to the point that I am tempted to denounce the very idea). But on film, it has a character to it, a power of setting that has become synonymous with New York's romanticized near-past. "Grit" says that New York City doesn't give a fuck, that it's not a commercialized, watered down mockery of its self made for tourists and yuppies. I suspect that it is a myth in its own way, a distortion of what was, but films like Shaft make it look good by looking bad.

I suppose it should not surprise me that this film's look at race is not a radical one--no film this commercially successful could be--but I still found the moderate stance implied by the film's positioning of Shaft as between the leftists that he employs in his war against the mafia and the white establishment to be disappointing. The film plays into some stereotypes more than others, though it has moments of realism and depicts racism (in the mouths of its villains, mostly) as distinctly vile. It treats white people as a punchline, mostly, as Shaft gets the upper hand on them over and over, but it also reduces dead black men to a dollar amount at one point. This film's biggest assault on racism seems to have been in its commercial success.

February count: 30/28