Often labeled and lumped in with the so-called blaxploitation genre that bloomed in the 1970s and included films like Super Fly and Black Caesar, this film stands apart from most of those in two ways: the lead character, John Shaft, was not a pimp or drug dealer and the quality of the filmmaking was less grindhouse and more of a straighter indie than the other films thanks to the artistic background of its director.
Private detective John Shaft is hired to find the kidnapped daughter of pimp Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn), which draws him into the dangerous crime underworld and rivalry between the Italian mafia and the Black mob. Meanwhile, the cops are also on the case, but Shaft goes his own way.
In 1971, John Shaft was almost like a superhero to the Black community and someone they had not really seen on the big screen. A Black detective who stood up to the cops, fought crime, tangled with mobsters, and seduced women – of all colors. The success of the film only proves how much such material was needed and wanted. Add into the mix the brilliant soul soundtrack and score by Isaac Hayes and you have a classic that stands up to and above many of the other genre films of the era.
Shaft is a new digital transfer created in 16-bit 4K from the original camera negative. Sections too damaged for use were replaced by using a duplicate negative where the original yellow, cyan, and magenta separation were independently scanned and recombined. It comes to 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray in a 1.85:1 HEVC 2160p (4K UHD) Dolby Vision encodement. At first, I felt this looked a little too dark, and surely there is a little bit of crush, but overall, this transfer looks fantastic. Comparing it to the included restored Blu-ray, the image on the Blu-ray is also a bit dark, but it lacks the added dynamic range and wide color gamut of the Dolby Vision and doesn’t present this rather grainy film as naturally as the 4K disc. Moving back to the 4K, the grain structure is presented with a fine, and organic appearance and we see a lot of detail and extended depth of field. The colors also ‘pop’ nicely. For instance, Shaft’s leather jacket and his turtleneck sweater have richer colors compared to the Blu-ray, the blacks are slightly inkier, but there are more gradients from dark to bright and some specular highlight ‘pop’ nicely such as in neon lights, lamp lights and such.
Shaft comes with the original monaural audio mix in LPCM 2.0 and a stereo remix in LPCM 2.0. I preferred the stereo mix to the mono, but either one provides great, dynamic sound, a punchy midrange, and clean dialogue. The hot soul score by Isaac Hayes is presented with superb musicality that really comes through well in the stereo version of the mix with excellent stereo imaging.
Criterion stuffs this 4K set with an abundance of bonus features, both new and archival, that includes interviews with Gordon Parks and deep dives into the cultural significance of Shaft. Also included on separate Blu-rays are the newly restored Shaft in HD and the sequel directed by Gordon Parks, Shaft’s Big Score!. There is also a booklet with an essay by film scholar Amy Abugo Ongiri and information on the transfer.
- Revisiting “Shaft” (1080p; 00:32:57) – This documentary, produced by the Criterion Collection in 2022, features curator Rhea L. Combs, film scholar Racquel J. Gates, filmmaker Nelson George, and music scholar Shana Redmond, as well as excerpts from archival interviews with director Gordon Parks.
- Soul in Cinema: Filming “Shaft” on Location (1080p; 00:10:48) – This short program was shot on location and in the recording studio during the production of Shaft in 1971. It features director Gordon Parks, actor Richard Roundtree, composer Isaac Hayes, and other members of the cast and crew.
- Richard Roundtree (1080p; 00:12:05) – This interview with actor Richard Roundtree, conducted by Iyare Igiehon, was filmed at the National Film Theatre in London on September 26, 2010.
- Isaac Hayes (1080p; 00:34:13) – This 1974 episode of French television series Point chaud, directed by Albert Raisner, features an interview with Isaac Hayes. In it, the Academy Award-winning composer discusses his career, influences, and creation of the soundtrack for Shaft.
- The Soul Sound (1080p; 00:12:03) – In this program, produced for the Criterion Collection in March 2022, music scholar Shana L. Redmond explores the soul traditions in musician Isaac Hayes’ score for Gordon Parks’ Shaft.
- Styling “Shaft” (1080p; 00:15:47) – In this interview with Joseph G. Aulisi, produced by the Criterion Collection in 2022, the costume designer discusses his collaboration with director Gordon Parks, including the origins of Joh Shaft’s iconic style.
- Promotional Spots:
- Radio Spot
Shaft’s Big Score:
- About the Movie
- Listen to a Stranger: An Interview with Gordon Parks (1080p; 00:19:12) – This short program, made after the completion of Shaft’s Big Score!, features director Gordon Parks reflecting on his youth, his career, and the meaning of success.
- A Complicated Man: The “Shaft” Legacy (1080p; 00:44:10) – This three-part series from 2019, directed by Constantine Nasr, explores the character of John Shaft in literature and film, the success of Gordon Parks’ 1971 adaptation, and the legacy of the Shaft It features interviews with Samuel L. Jackson and Richard Roundtree among others.
- John Shaft and the Black Detective Tradition (1080p; 00:25:56) – This program, produced by the Criterion Collection in 2022, features scholar Kinohi Nishikawa and writer Walter Mosley.
- Behind the Scenes (1080p; 00:09:15) – This footage, shot on the set of Shaft’s Big Score! during the filming of the car chase sequence, features actor Richard Roundtree speaking about his collaboration with director Gordon Parks and the changing roles for Black creatives in Hollywood.
The Final Assessment
A classic of Black cinema and 1970s cinema on the whole, this one still holds up and has been fantastically restored and presented on 4K Ultra HD by Criterion Collection.
Shaft (1971) is out on 4K Ultra HD Combo June 21, 2022 from Criterion Collection
- Rating Certificate: R
- Studios & Distributors: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) | Shaft Productions | Criterion Collection
- Director: Gordon Parks
- Written By: Ernest Tidyman (screenplay) | John D.F. Black (screenplay)
- Run Time: 100 Mins.
- Street Date: 21 June 2022
- Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
- Video Format: HEVC 2160p (4K UHD)
- HDR Format: Dolby Vision (HDR10 Compatible)
- HDR10 Metadata:
- MaxLL: 492 nits
- MaxFALL: 163 nits
- Primary Audio: English LPCM 2.0 Stereo
- Secondary Audio: English LPCM 2.0 Mono
- Subtitles: English SDH