Last of the Monster Kids

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Saturday, March 11, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: Shaft in Africa (1973)

With the success of the previous two films, “Shaft” was clearly a franchise. Yet for the third entry in the series, “Shaft in Africa,” M.G.M made some odd decisions. Even though Ernest Tidyman's literary series contained five more novels to adapt, the studio went with an original story. Gordon Parks, who had directed the first and second films, didn't return to the director's chair. Instead, journeyman director John Guillermin – who would go on to make massive blockbusters like “The Towering Inferno” and “King Kong” - was hired to direct the film. The result didn't resonate with audiences the way the first two “Shafts” did. “Shaft in Africa” only made two million dollars at the box office, far less then its predecessors.

In West Africa, black men are being tricked into a life of slavery. A criminal ring promises the African natives jobs in Europe. When they arrive, they are paid next to nothing, stuck in slum-like apartments, and forced into back-breaking labor. John Shaft, the New York private dick, is recruited by a tribal monarchy to infiltrate the slavery operation and dismantle it. The mission is more dangerous than that. The bad guys know Shaft is on his way. Though he's gets some back-up from the government and is trained in the ways of Africa, this will still be the P.I .'s most challenging mission yet.

“Shaft in Africa” truly represents the character's transformation into a franchise player. It's evident that the producer were trying to make John Shaft into the black James Bond. His last two adventures were centered in New York. This chapter sees him traveling around the world, to Ethiopia and France. He beds more women, his love making skills reaching even more legendary status. The third “Shaft” adventure has the highest body count of them all, with more fight scenes, gun play, and explosions. The comparison to Bond is even brought up by the screenplay. Before leaving for Africa, Shaft is gifted a walking stick and wallet outfitted with various gadgets. He quibs that he's more like Sam Spade then 007. This is true. So why does “Shaft in Africa” try to place its hero into a mold that doesn't quite fit him anyway? I guess that was just the precedence for long running adventure series, at the time.

Despite the bigger action scenes, “Shaft in Africa” is far too leisurely paced. The scenes of Shaft being taught traditional African languages and customs drags on, sticking the movie with a slow beginning. Once he gets to Ethiopia, there's a long sequence of Roundtree wandering a desert. He befriends a dog, looses that dog in a very upsetting scene, and wanders into a few confrontation. The previous films had winding stories but this one just feels aimless. These scenes also feature little music and far too somber an energy. The story doesn't really start moving until Shaft is abducted onto the slaver's boat. Yes, “Shaft in Africa” doesn't get interesting until the titular hero leaves Africa. The last third is set in France. The movie wouldn't have lost too much if it got to these scenes quicker.

Still, when the time comes to kick some ass, “Shaft in Africa” does deliver. There's a number of smaller, grittier scuffle throughout the story. A stick fight in a crowded marketplace is intimately shot, transferring the sweat and sand to the audience. A few close quarters fight scenes stick out. One is set in the cramped confines of a bus. The other has Shaft getting a chunk bitten out of his hand. There's a cool bit on the boat where an enemy brings a knife a gun fight. The action in “Shaft in Africa” really hits a fever pitch in the last act. At the end, the hero is machine gunning baddies, driving his car through walls, and blowing up the bad guy's lair. It's good stuff, even if you have to wait too long for it.

For all its flaws, John Shaft is still the man. Richard Roundtree is still a bad ass. He still has a certain way with his dialogue. When confronted by the Africans, he responds that he was born in America. Later, he repeatedly rebuffs the blatant sexual advances of the gangster's moll. As the story winds towards its conclusion, Roundtree lets some of Shaft's infamous coolness slip away. When he sees the Africans burned to death by the white villain, he gets pissed. He chews out the French detective, beats up the slaver, and rains hell down on his enemies. It must also be said that this film's theme song, the Four Top's “Are you Man Enough?,” is a worthy heir to Isaac Hayes' original theme.

Maybe the change in creative staff was a contributing factor. Maybe, by summer of 1973, the market was flooded with similarly themed movies, removing much of Shaft's novelty factor. Either way, “Shaft in Africa” would be the end of the original series... Sort of. Later the same year, a television version of “Shaft” also starring Richard Roundtree would follow. A TV series composed of seven movie-length episodes would air in a rotating schedule on CBS. The show downplayed the hero's attitude and his explicit adventures, in addition to being mismanaged by the network. Roundtree later expressed disappointment in the TV version. Going from the big screen to the small screen was something of an inglorious end for America's most famous black detective. The original is a classic but neither sequel quite lives up to it. [5/10]

[X] Afros or Sideburns
[] Brothels or Pimps
[] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[] Homophobic Caricatures
[X] Inner-City Setting
[] Night Club Act
[X] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[X] Racist Authority Figures
[X] Sticking It to the Man
[X] Sweet Love Makin'
[X] Use of Street Slang

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