The latest Shaft (2019) is a bust. What is likely the last of its franchise (given the prodigious age of two of its three leading men), money-grubbing studio executives have ground the legacy of one of the best and most important action franchises into the ground just to get one last hit of those all-important nostalgic box office dollars. What started out as some all-around solid ideas for how to develop the title characters and their action-packed Harlem setting rapidly spiraled into deep-seeded misogyny, rank transphobia and senseless generation-bashing, dragging down an all-around serviceable series of action set-pieces and promising buddy cop dynamic between father and son Shafts.
The thing is, though, that it didn’t have to be this way. The Blaxploitation movement of the 1970s was one of the richest and most interesting outgrowths of Black-lead filmmaking in any time other than the present (where remarkable talents such as Steve McQueen, Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele, Ryan Coogler and Boots Riley have been tearing up the scene since the start of the decade). Although forced around gimmicky titles and made on shoestring budgets, many of the films made in this vein today count among the genuinely best films of that storied decade, right up there with more sacrosanct classics such as A Clockwork Orange (1971), Mean Streets (1973) and The Conversation (1974). And if the sour taste that Shaft (2019) director Tim Story left in your mouth leaves you hungry for the real thing, here are five of the must-sees from the era that will make you forget every last malingering memory of that latest, unfortunate film.
Shaft (1971) — The movie that kicked off this whole cycle of filmmaking is, in my mind, still the best of the bunch. Featuring one of the all-rime greatest soundtracks from any film, past or present, and a singularly arresting leading man who perfectly embodies the insolent swagger of the title character, Shaft is an all-timer among action, crime and “cop” films. Actors traditionally typecast as junkies and one-dimensional criminals are given a wide berth to show a full range of deeply affecting human emotions, from emotionally vulnerable crime bosses to sardonic private eyes and resentful revolutionaries. The sequels have always been a mixed bag (the latest, for one instance), but it’s always worthwhile to go back to the beginning to see the serendipitous origin of one of the silver screen’s best men of action.
Blacula (1972) — Before I actually sat down to watch it, I assumed that Blacula was exactly as terrible as the name would imply: a cheesy, campy, self-aware vampire spoof that had more in common with Mel Brooks than Bela Lugosi. This turned out to be a far cry from the truth of the matter, however, as the plot and characters are played completely straight in an attempt to update the traditional Bram Stoker monster for the twentieth century. The unfortunately named title character is an African prince attempting to negotiate some measure of peace between his people and the imperialistic Europeans. When he refuses to bend the knee to Stoker’s vile count, he is transformed into a vampire, imprisoned in a coffin and made to endure his wife’s death. More than a century later, Dracula’s estate (including Blacula’s body) is sold and brought stateside, where the newly revived Black vampire unleashes his terror on the American inner city while pursuing the young woman he believes to be the reincarnation of his dead wife. While only occasionally as silly as its title would imply, it is a worthy continuation of the kind of horrific updates to the genre’s staples that the Hammer horror films of prior decades were widely praised for being.
Super Fly (1972) — Like the recent Shaft (2019), Superfly‘s influence has extended well into the present decade. A remake — every bit as ill-considered and ill-received as Tim Story’s Shaft — has at least raised the original film’s stature in the twenty-first century, which hopefully turned more than a few moviegoers (such as myself) onto this little-remembered crime classic. Made by Shaft (1971) director Gordon Parks’ son, Gordon Parks Jr., it stars John Shaft’s only real competition for coolest cat in New York: Youngblood Priest. An up-and-coming dope dealer that wants to get out of the game while the getting’s good, Priest and his crew go all-in on one final score that will set them up for life, only to get dragged down into the biggest drug racket in the city, leaving Priest on the wrong side of the law, the crime syndicates and even his own crew.
Cleopatra Jones (1973) — In what is basically the first of the female-led Blaxpoitation films, the path to success was paved by pretty much picking up where Shaft left off. Nothing too crazy, nothing fancy: it really is just that simple. They took the basic premise of a bad-ass lawman cleaning up the streets no matter what the men downtown had to say about it and gave it over to a well-cast female lead. Sure, they jazzed that up some by having her be a government agent posing undercover as a supermodel — aligning her much more closely with the iconic James Bond — but her basic filmic DNA comes in a direct line from her storied forebear. But the film is executed with such precision and skill, and that premise so rare (even in films today), to say nothing of fun, that it more than covers any accusations of unoriginality that could be levied at it. When all is said and done, Cleopatra Jones is every bit as fun as Shaft and a worthy film in its own right.
Foxy Brown (1974) — In many ways, Foxy Brown (1974) feels like something of an end-point for this movement (although it would certainly go on for years longer with many other fun, interesting and well-made films). This is the perfect evolution of what Blaxploitation had to offer audiences: the final form that would go on to influence the likes of Quentin Tarantino and other so-called “Blockbuster Brats” who’d come into their own in the mid-nineties. Doubling down on the additional levels of sexual violence that these kinds of characters would doubtless face, Foxy Brown acts in many ways as the Blaxploitation film’s answer to the rape-revenge films that were coming into their own at this exact same moment of American filmmaking. As a result, it is generally a much richer, much more robust film than its contemporaries, having to deal so much in so many different worlds, and never once does it drop the ball.