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Shaft – The Criterion Collection (4K UHD Blu-ray Review)

In an entirely fitting movie for the Criterion Collection, 1971’s Shaft has been selected to join the ranks and has received the deluxe treatment with a 3-disc 4K UHD set (2 Blu-ray discs). A notable film from the Blaxploitation era, it may not be the first or perhaps even the best, but Shaft is the most iconic, having been a box office hit, leading to a franchise, winning an Oscar, and being selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Shaft was a game-changer and remains cooler than cool thanks to the presence of star Richard Roundtree (in his debut film) and Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft” title track. Now, thanks to this 4K UHD release, Shaft has even more to deliver to film fans all over again.

Film:

The film’s story is relatively straightforward. Set in New York City, 1971, private detective John Shaft (Roundtree) is tasked with rescuing the kidnapped daughter of a Harlem mob boss from Italian gangsters. With tensions boiling, a battle over turf could escalate into a full-on race war unless Shaft can set things right. Fortunately, while he may be a complicated man that few understand (except his woman), this brother Shaft is one bad mother, and he’ll find a way to solve the case with style.

Like many Blaxploitation films, let alone many of the auteur-driven films of the 70s, the plotting isn’t really the priority. So many of these films are more concerned with providing a depiction of the culture and environment of the time. Looking for a sense of atmosphere? Whether it’s Scorsese’s Mean Streets, Malick’s Days of Heaven, or, yes, director Gordon Parks’ Shaft, there is far more interest in understanding the mood and feel of where these characters exist.

With all this in mind, Shaft is still a mix of hardboiled noir and a funky crime drama. At its center is a slick individual who knows how to wield his cool. Roundtree is an amalgam of various references to hip characters in media. He dresses the best, has street smarts along with book smarts, can appeal to plenty, and doesn’t break a sweat under pressure. It’s no surprise that audiences would want more of Roundtree’s Shaft, leading to two sequels, two reboots, and a TV series. It’s even less of a surprise that Samuel L. Jackson is the only actor who could come close to what Roundtree was pulling off (and Roundtree is still featured in both reboots).

With that said, the unique nature of Shaft comes from being one of the first of its kind. Parks became the first Black director to take on a studio film, and it’s a good thing, as the accomplished filmmaker and photojournalist helped the film hold onto what was important for the detective novel by Ernest Tidyman it was based on. This isn’t just another riff on Sam Spade. John Shaft occupies a specific time and place in history, and the perception of race is vital to making the character stand out.

The film also isn’t shying away from highlighting Black America. This is a movie that knows it’s going to capitalize on its appeal to Black audiences. Still, there’s such a universality to what’s taking place. With the authenticity of the locations, it’s not hard to see why the film became a boundary-crossing hit. The many stories present in this film highlight this. Shaft deals with economic and political differences and varying relationships tested by perception and trust. That’s all within a story with a framework fit for Bullitt, were some of the characters adjusted. That’s the thing — giving a voice to the underrepresented isn’t just something done for the sake of a new look. It can affect the entire dynamic and allow for newer kinds of exploration audiences certainly weren’t used to in 1971.

There’s also all of the fun that comes with Shaft. This may not be much of an action film, but it holds onto a funky vibe throughout, thanks to the charisma of Roundtree and the funk and soul score provided by Oscar winner Isaac Hayes. As audiences are given a tour through New York, watching Shaft move through various areas while wearing his turtleneck and duster is never not cool. Add in the terrific music, and you have a film to invest in based on the vibe of it all.

Again, this was such a new concept at the time – seeing a cool Black man who was always in control as the film’s lead. Yes, Sidney Poitier was a terrific performer, but his roles were more about bringing dignity and respectability to characters. Roundtree’s Shaft is a reflection of the Black Power movement, as well as the concept of the slick cop/private eye character. Looking at the character through a modern lens, one can try to pull some aspects apart, but that’s not the point. Shaft can be defined by his masculinity, but he’s also an example of upward social mobility whose influence and appeal bridges specific gaps.

There’s honestly plenty to explore as far as Shaft’s relationship to the Black community, which is part of what helps the film remain not only cool but interesting to this day. As it stands, the film is a fun watch, utilizing the style of the time to make for an exciting picture reflecting a specific part of America in the 70s. Whether watching it to see a fun detective story or get a handle on the Blaxploitation era, Shaft is still and has always been one cool cat to follow.

Video:

Encoding: MPEG -4 AVC

Resolution: 4K (2160p)

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Layers: BD-100

Details: This new digital transfer was created in 16-bit 4K resolution from the 35 mm original camera negative. Some footage that was damaged in the original camera negative had been replaced using a duplicate negative. For these sections, the original yellow, cyan, and magenta separation master were independently scanned and recombined to replace the inferior duplicate footage.

Clarity/Detail: This excellent transfer maintains the theatrical quality of its original release. Looking clean and crisp while reflecting the urban grittiness of the setting, this restored transfer does a great job of putting that level of atmosphere on display. The clarity of various scenes, such as the indoor environments of Shaft’s home, all do proper justice to a fairly low-budget film that has been given the right amount of attention.

Depth: The staging of this film makes for a good understanding of character placement, with no sense of flatness in watching these people move around the various environments. A few scenes set in bars, for example, do more to effectively show a given scene’s dimensionality.

Black Levels: The urban exploration of the film allows for plenty of darker scenes taking place indoors and outside, and they look great. Shadow work and more are all handled well for this disc. No sign of crushing either.

Color Reproduction: Thanks to a flashiness inherent to some characters (costumes are a big deal in this movie), colors pop when they need to. That is always a good sign, given the way Black characters are allowed to shine in a film like this when it comes to style.

Flesh Tones: The detail level seen in the actual characters is impressive, given the many close-ups on the faces of Fishburne and others.

Noise/Artifacts: The film looks nice and clean, with no issues in sight. Even with some of the inherent grittiness, it’s a great look.

 

Audio:

Audio Format(s): English 1.0 Monaural, English 2.0 Stereo

Subtitles: English SDH

Details: The original monaural soundtrack was remastered from the two-inch, 24-rack dialogue, music, and effects magnetic track.

Dynamics: From the beginning, the soundtrack takes hold and doesn’t let the viewer go. There is a decent amount of depth to take in, given the few scuffles in this film. Mainly, however, it’s about balancing Roundtree’s various dialogue scenes with the music, which this audio track understands how to accomplish.

Low-Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: This 2.0 track only spreads so far, but there’s plenty to enjoy, given the soundtrack and the life of NYC.

Dialogue Reproduction: Everyone is heard loud and clear.

 

Extras:

As always, I was hoping for a new commentary track. It wasn’t to be, but that doesn’t stop this deluxe package from delivering everything else. With the supplements divided up between the two Blu-ray discs, Shaft’s new release includes new and archival interviews, video essays, making-ofs, and more to provide everything one would want to know about Shaft. And that’s not all. The 1972 sequel, Shaft’s Big Score, which is quite good, is also included in this package. Finally, I must point out the fantastic cover art by illustrator Bill Sienkiewicz, as it’s truly incredible.

Features Include:

Blu-ray Disc One:

Revisiting Shaft (HD, 32:57) – A new documentary featuring curator Rhea L. Combs, film scholar Racquel J. Gates, filmmaker Nelson George, and music scholar Shana L. Redmond discussing the impact of the film.

Soul in Cinema: Filming Shaft on Location (SD, 10:48) – A very cool look back in time at the film’s production from multiple perspectives – Parks, Roundtree, and especially Hayes, who’s seen putting together the film’s iconic theme.

Richard Roundtree (HD, 12:05) – An interview filmed in London back in 2010. Roundtree reflects on his time as the character.

Isaac Hayes (SD, 34:13) – A 1974 French TV special featuring Hayes discussing his career, influences, and the creation of the Shaft soundtrack.

The Soul Sound (HD, 12:03) – A newly produced piece featuring music scholar Shana L. Redmond, who explores the soul traditions of Hayes’ score for Shaft.

Styling Shaft (HD, 15:47) – A new feature with costume designer Joseph G. Aulisi, who covers his experience creating the look of Shaft.

Promotional Spots (HD) – Trailer, teaser, radio spot.

Blu-ray Disc Two:

Shaft’s Big Score (HD, 1:45:27) – The film’s more action-packed sequel featuring returning director Gordon Parks and star Roundtree. Previously released via the Warner Archive Collection, this is likely the same transfer.

Listen to a Stranger (SD, 19:12) – A conversation with Parks following Shaft’s Big Score.

A Complicated Man: The Shaft Legacy (44:10) – A 2019 documentary split into three parts, featuring interviews with Roundtree, Samuel L. Jackson, and more. This is a fun watch.

John Shaft and the Black Detective Tradition (HD, 25:56) – A new feature with scholar Kinohi Nishikawa and writer Walter Mosley discussing Shaft and the concept of a black detective in feature films.

Behind the Scenes (SD, 9:15) – A look at the making of Shaft’s Big Score.

Trailer (HD, 0:44)

PLUS – An essay by film scholar Amy Abugo Ongiri

Summary:

Shaft really has it all. It’s a funky detective story, an iconic entry from the Blaxploitation era, and a showcase for black culture in the 70s. It’s a significant entry into the Criterion Collection. The company has done well with this 4K release, adding a terrific new video transfer and an audio mix to perfectly bring Hayes’ classic theme to life. The extras are also fantastic, with plenty for all to dig into. This is the ultimate way to experience Shaft.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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