Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Summer School: 'Shaft in Africa' (1973)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

If Shaft's Big Score! turned Richard Roundtree's Harlem private eye John Shaft into a typical action hero, Shaft in Africa attempts to turn him into James Bond, a misguided effort that put an end to the Shaft franchise on the big screen for nearly 30 years (the character made it seven episodes into a CBS TV series the following year). It's one thing to add more action to a story of corruption and gang warfare in New York City, with Shaft caught in the middle. But taking the detective out of NYC (and out of the U.S. entirely) and turning him into some sort of globe-trotting superspy loses everything that was interesting and unique about Shaft in the first place.

Sure, he still sleeps with every beautiful woman he encounters (no matter which side she's on), and he occasionally makes a comment about contemporary race relations. But most of this movie is about Shaft using ridiculous weapons and affecting silly accents and fighting a series of interchangeable henchmen en route to a cartoonish big boss. He even ends up in a Bond-style elaborate death trap early in the movie, although it's just an effort by an African tribal leader to test Shaft's worthiness for a mission to infiltrate the human trafficking route bringing unwitting Africans to work in Europe for slave-labor wages.

That's a socially conscious (and unfortunately still timely) theme for a Shaft movie to explore, but the filmmakers are far more interested in fisticuffs and explosions than they are in taking on serious issues. Both original director Gordon Parks and original writer Ernest Tidyman are gone, replaced by journeyman director John Guillerman and veteran screenwriter Stirling Silliphant (who won an Oscar for socially conscious detective story In the Heat of the Night), and even the music sounds more like a typical action-adventure score rather than the funk and jazz that Parks and Isaac Hayes brought to the first two movies. At one point when he's being presented with a bunch of Q-style gadgets, Shaft protests that he's not James Bond (he prefers to compare himself to Sam Spade), but the movie clearly lacks that perspective.

None of the other characters from the previous movies return, and the villain this time is even more of a Bond-style evil industrialist, complete with English accent, sprawling estate headquarters, seemingly endless supply of henchmen, and ridiculously gorgeous arm-candy girlfriend whom he treats with contempt. Refreshingly, the villain's girlfriend is hornier than Shaft himself, and she's the one who seduces Shaft when she's sent to help with the mission to take him out. (Of course, she then gets killed by a knife meant for Shaft, which is a very James Bond move.) Shaft's main love interest is the tribal leader's daughter, who talks casually about her clitorectemy, which is treated as a lighthearted plot point and not as evidence of barbaric misogyny. Between that tone-deaf subplot and the backward depiction of Africans, Shaft in Africa is much less progressive than its predecessors. By trying to broaden its hero's appeal, it killed anything unique and compelling about him.

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