History, Legacy & Showmanship

Hotter Than Bond, Cooler Than Bullitt: Remembering “Shaft” on its 50th Anniversary

June 25, 2021 - 4:10 pm   |   by
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“It really was Shaft that proved the true value of the Black dollar. Up until then Hollywood hadn’t seriously considered the breadth, scope and power of the Black moviegoing audience.” – Josiah Howard, author of Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide

“With Shaft, an underrepresented audience finally got the representation they were thirsty for.” – Chris Utley, Shaft fan

“While the Blaxploitation genre lasted less than a decade before burning out, I always thought the Shaft franchise could have endured indefinitely, as the Bond films did.” – Lee Pfeiffer, Cinema Retro

The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this multi-page retrospective commemorating the golden anniversary of the release of Shaft, the groundbreaking, franchise-inspiring, crime thriller directed by Gordon Parks (The Learning Tree) and starring then-newcomer Richard Roundtree as the titular character.

Shaft, also starring Moses Gunn (Roots, Ragtime) and featuring Isaac Hayes’ memorable and award-winning music, was released to theaters fifty years ago this month. For the occasion The Bits features a package of statistics and box-office data that places the movie’s performance in context, along with passages from some of its film reviews, a reference/historical listing of its original theatrical engagements, and, finally, a roundtable interview segment with a trio of film historians and Shaft authorities who reflect on the movie (and franchise) five decades after its debut. [Read on here...]

Shaft was among the earliest-produced entries in the Blaxploitation genre and, unless one considers Live and Let Die or Mandingo to be Blaxploitation, was also the genre’s most successful. In 2000 the Library of Congress selected Shaft for preservation in the National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” Its most recent home media release (on Blu-ray Disc) was in 2012 (individual) and 2019 (three-film Archive Collection). The Bits reviewed the DVD release in 2000. Hey, Warner Bros… Since we’re on the subject, how ’bout a 4K release?

A scene from Shaft (1971)



  • 1 = Box-office rank among 1970s era Blaxploitation movies
  • 1 = Box-office rank among 1970s era Shaft movies
  • 1 = Number of Academy Awards
  • 1 = Rank among top-earning movies released by MGM in 1971 (legacy / lifetime / retroactive)
  • 2 = Number of Academy Award nominations
  • 2 = Rank among top-earning movies released by MGM in 1971 (calendar year)
  • 10 = Number of theaters playing Shaft during its opening weekend
  • 11 = Rank among top-earning movies released during 1971 (legacy / lifetime / retroactive)
  • 12 = Rank among top-earning movies released during 1971 (calendar year)
  • 21 = Rank among MGM’s all-time top-earning movies at close of first run
  • 23 = Number of weeks longest-running engagement played (in a single-screen theater)
  • 30 = Number of weeks longest-running engagement played (in a multiplex)
  • $1.2 million = Production cost
  • $6.1 million = Domestic box-office rental (earnings through 12/31/1971)
  • $6.8 million = Domestic box-office rental (earnings through 12/31/1972)
  • $7.1 million = Domestic box-office rental (earnings through 12/31/1973)
  • $7.1 million = Domestic box-office rental (revised earnings through 12/31/1991)
  • $7.8 million = Domestic box-office rental (earnings through 12/31/1976)
  • $8.0 million = Production cost (adjusted for inflation)
  • $12.0 million = Domestic box-office gross
  • $46.9 million = Domestic box-office rental (adjusted for inflation)
  • $79.8 million = Domestic box-office gross (adjusted for inflation)


“[Shaft is] one of the best action pictures in town. Take Bullitt out of San Francisco and put it into Harlem and you might come close to it. Both pictures are lean and hungry and very painstakingly done… The picture was directed by Gordon Parks which is something of a surprise. His last movie was The Learning Tree, which was a take of black-white conflict and concord—a message movie if you will but a soft-voiced one. In Shaft, Parks has a message too: Enjoy yourself.” — Bob Geurink, The Atlanta Constitution

“Despite its emphasis on contemporary blacks—including a faction hell-bent on revolution—Shaft simply isn’t another message film. Directed by Gordon Parks—who pioneered films geared to the black community with his critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful The Learning TreeShaft is played strictly for kicks.” — Jack Lloyd, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Shaft is a loner in the tradition of all cinema private eyes, but for the sake of the box office he manages a one night stand with a stupid white girl. Early in the film a plainly Jewish police sergeant is taken apart verbally by Shaft. Aside from these crumbs to a hungry audience, Shaft offers little more than a rousing opening fight and a chance to see Roundtree glower while he models some fancy leather outfits.” — Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

“Gordon Parks was the first black director to make a major studio film, and his The Learning Tree (1969) was a deeply felt, lyrically beautiful film that was, maybe, just too simple and honest to be commercial. It didn’t find a large audience, and I suspect that Parks turned next to Shaft for commercial survival.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

“One of the best things about Shaft is screen newcomer Richard Roundtree, who plays the title role. Here is a black actor who has the strength, the dynamism and all the physical equipment to make him appear capable of accomplishing all the things he does while never kowtowing to either The Man or The Soul Brothers.” — John Neville, The Dallas Morning News

“Take a formula private-eye plot, update it with an all-black environment, and lace with contemporary standards of on-and-off screen violence, and the result is Shaft. The Stirling Silliphant-Roger Lewis presentation, very well produced in N.Y. by Joel Freeman, was directed by Gordon Parks with a subtle feel for both the grit and the humanity of the script. Excellent cast, headed by newcomer Richard Roundtree, may shock some audiences with heavy dose of candid dialog and situation. Strong [boxoffice] prospects loom in urban situations, elsewhere good.” — A.D. Murphy, Variety

Shaft is not a good movie. In many ways, it resembles last year’s Cotton Comes to Harlem, which also seemed aimed at black audiences unused to seeing their urban experience portrayed on the screen; and its problems are similar. Like Ossie Davis, who directed Cotton, Parks doesn’t reveal any feeling for his material.” — Craig Fisher, The Hollywood Reporter

“’The truth of the matter is that most “black” films are really white films,’ wrote Ellen Holly in a recent issue of The New York Times. ’We have a bit of a wait, I fear, before they are willing to portray the black man as arrogant, overwhelmingly superior, brilliant or in love with his own ethos.’ Gordon Parks’ Shaft is a topical detective thriller with a black man in the role of an arrogant, overwhelmingly superior, though not especially brilliant private eye. The whites are mostly sub-human flunkies. This reversal of stereotypes has made Shaft an enormous box-office hit, particularly with black audiences… Like last year’s Cotton Comes to Harlem and this year’s Sweet Sweetback’s [Baadasssss] Song, Shaft was made by a black director. Gordon Parks attempts to reflect the black experience from inside that experience, without the usual Hollywood-white-Anglo-Saxon touches. It is unfortunate that the impact of these films has so far been more social than artistic. Shaft fulfills most of Miss Holly’s requirements for a true ’black’ movie, but artistically and as entertainment it leaves much to be desired.” — John Hartl, The Seattle Times

Shaft may be a rather trashy film, but it achieves what I sets out to be, a fast, violent private eye action film with lots of shoot-’em-up, and sex, a transference to black focus of a long familiar type of film. Its violence and foul language are overdone, but that’s the kind of a picture it is.” — Myles Standish, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Shaft is a window-rattling thriller! A fast-moving pleasure.” — Jay Cocks, Time Magazine

Shaft is a disaster. Technically mediocre and, for the most part, poorly acted, it is a film that lacks both style and substance. Nothing is really examined—the lives of the characters and the texture of the Black experience go unexplored—and what we are left with finally is an extended lie, a distortion that simply grows larger and more unbelievable with each frame.” — Clayton Riley, The New York Times

“At last, if a little late, a black actor has ’equal opportunity’ to do Bogey’s old hard-boiled number.” — Harry Haun, The Tennessean (Nashville)

Shaft is a rather marvelous black put-down on white pretensions.” — Don Morrison, The Minneapolis Star

“The movie’s initial sequences are totally absorbing as Parks deftly sets the stage for the violent finale. The film’s worst flaw is its climax, which drags on too long and generates much less excitement than the earlier scenes.” — Jeanne Miller, San Francisco Examiner

“[T]here is formidable talent invested in Shaft. Richard Roundtree, bedding and brawling in the title role, forever defining himself solely in terms of color and function, makes a commanding screen starring debut. Moses Gunn, as the Harlem underworld boss who hires Shaft to retrieve his kidnapped daughter from a rival white syndicate and thus head off potential race war in the streets, is devilishly sinister and funny.” — John C. Mahoney, Los Angeles Times

Shaft is the first good Saturday night movie I’ve seen in years! Like the recent Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which was a technically fancy, absolutely mindless and dirty political exploitation film, Shaft is well on its way to becoming one of the major box-office hits of the current season. This is not surprising since the two films, otherwise so dissimilar, share this kind of awareness of the audiences for whom they were made that eludes most other movie producers. However, where Sweet Sweetback exploited the common black experience through prejudice, Shaft recalls the experience in terms of its humor (there is an exchange between Shaft and the dense-minded bodyguard of the Harlem syndicate king that is pure Redd Foxx), in terms of its aspirations and, perhaps most important, in terms of its fantasies.” — Vincent Canby, The New York Times

“I think the conception of Shaft is a little peculiar, but then I’ve never cared much for the notion of private eyes who seem both fashionable and well-off. The Peter Gunn types somehow miss the romantic point of disreputable but independent and resourceful loners like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Given the march of progress, Shaft should probably be even more corrupt in an even more corrupt big city milieu, but instead he’s rather like The Sort of Man Who Reads Playboy—and maybe takes it seriously.” — Gary Arnold, The Washington Post

“There’s a splendid gust of theatricality about Shaft that is doubly welcome because it’s what you’d logically expect from an action picture and so seldom get. Shaft is a story for the joy of it even though it tells of an irascible black man making his way in a world he resents. It avoids message in favor of entertainment.” — Emerson Batdorff, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

“Richard Roundtree makes an authentic star debut! Gordon Parks captures the life and bad breath of the city in exquisite terms!” — Judith Crist, New York Magazine

“[T]he story bogs down into the predictable somewhere past the half-way mark and is reminiscent in tone, at least, to lots of other private-eye formats. But the nitty-gritty New York settings caught with know-how by an understanding camera, the strong, often cryptic, tell-it-like-it-is dialogue and the characters depicted sustain interest throughout.” — Edgar Driscoll, Jr., The Boston Globe

Shaft is mostly populated by black actors, a further departure for private-eye film picture; and it is an unusually good gangland film as it gets down to the sordid side of hoodlum life and shies away from the hoked-up glamor business. Philip Marlowe’s Raymond Chandler once said, anyway, that in real life a private detective usually runs around trying to find out where people have moved to. Not Shaft. Gamey as it is, Mickey Spillane probably would love it.” — Harvey Taylor, Detroit Free Press

A scene from Shaft (1971)



What follows are the first-run theatrical openings of Shaft in North America to provide the reader a sense of the film’s rollout and distribution model utilized.

Note this section of the retrospective is not a complete citation of every cinema in which Shaft played during its original release. Instead, the emphasis has been placed on (1) bookings during the early months of the film’s release, (2) accounting for the most populated city in each U.S. state and most of the Canadian provinces, and (3) accounting for the principal cities of each state and Canadian province. A sprinkling of smaller locales has been included, as well, to illustrate how long the film was in release. Expansion waves, second-run, re-releases, etc. have not been cited in this work with the exception of the initial expansion-wave bookings in the Los Angeles/Southern California, greater New York City and San Francisco Bay Area markets. The entries are generally cited by market name with precise locale provided in parenthesis.

Many of the bookings included a co-feature, the titles of which have been abbreviated within brackets following the relevant entries. A co-feature title legend (with complete titles) is provided at the tail end of the playdate chronology.

Shaft was presented in 35mm (1.85:1) and monaural audio.

Opening Date YYYY-MM-DD … City – Cinema (duration in weeks) [co-feature/notes]

  • 1971-06-04 … Los Angeles (Inglewood), CA – 5th Avenue [sneak preview]
  • 1971-06-23 … Detroit, MI – Palms (9)
  • 1971-06-23 … Lansing, MI – Starlite Drive-In (1) [w/ ST]
  • 1971-06-24 … Baltimore, MD – Hippodrome (7)
  • 1971-06-25 … Los Angeles (Hollywood), CA – Fox (2)
  • 1971-06-25 … St. Louis, MO – Fox (5)
  • 1971-06-25 … Toronto, ON – Downtown (1) [w/ KH]
  • 1971-06-25 … Toronto (Pickering), ON – Tepee Drive-In (1) [w/ MW]
  • 1971-06-25 … Toronto (Vaughan), ON – 7 & 27 Drive-In (1) [w/ MW]
  • 1971-06-25 … Washington, DC – Lincoln (15)
  • 1971-06-25 … Washington, DC – Town (23)
  • 1971-06-30 … Atlanta, GA – Coronet (15)
  • 1971-06-30 … Chicago, IL – Roosevelt (18)
  • 1971-06-30 … Dallas, TX – Capri 7-plex (4)
  • 1971-06-30 … Dallas, TX – King Drive-In (3) [w/ W]
  • 1971-06-30 … Indianapolis, IN – Bel-Air Drive-In (1) [w/ WED, HP & 100R]
  • 1971-06-30 … Indianapolis, IN – Twin-Theatair Drive-In (3) [w/ WED, HP & 100R]
  • 1971-06-30 … Norfolk, VA – Lenox (3)
  • 1971-06-30 … Oklahoma City, OK – Criterion (6)
  • 1971-06-30 … Phoenix, AZ – Fox (1) [w/ GC]
  • 1971-06-30 … Phoenix, AZ – Phoenix Drive-In (1) [w/ FLI]
  • 1971-06-30 … Rochester, NY – Little (7)
  • 1971-06-30 … Saginaw, MI – Bel-Air Drive-In (1) [w/ WED]
  • 1971-06-30 … San Francisco, CA – St. Francis (4) [w/ TTT]
  • 1971-06-30 … Syracuse, NY – Eckel (1)
  • 1971-06-30 … Syracuse (Nedrow), NY – Salina Drive-In (1) [w/ DDM]
  • 1971-06-30 … Tucson, AZ – Midway Drive-In (1) [w/ V]
  • 1971-07-01 … Savannah, GA – Weis (1+)
  • 1971-07-01 … Wilmington, NC – Colony (2)
  • 1971-07-02 … Boston, MA – Gary (sneak preview Fri/Sat)
  • 1971-07-02 … Charlotte, NC – Visulite (6)
  • 1971-07-02 … Greenville, SC – Carolina (3)
  • 1971-07-02 … Jacksonville, FL – Norwood Twin (#1 “Blue”: 1+)
  • 1971-07-02 … Jacksonville, FL – Norwood Twin (#2 “Gold”: 1+)
  • 1971-07-02 … New York (Manhattan), NY – 72nd Street Playhouse (14)
  • 1971-07-02 … New York (Manhattan), NY – DeMille (7)
  • 1971-07-03 … Greensboro, NC – Cinema (4)
  • 1971-07-07 … Anaheim (Buena Park), CA – Buena Park (1) [w/ V]
  • 1971-07-07 … Anaheim (Costa Mesa), CA – South Coast Plaza Twin (1) [w/ V]
  • 1971-07-07 … Anaheim (Garden Grove), CA – Grove (1) [w/ LT]
  • 1971-07-07 … Anaheim (La Habra), CA – La Habra Twin (1) [w/ V]
  • 1971-07-07 … Anaheim (Orange), CA – Stadium Drive-In (1) [w/ V]
  • 1971-07-07 … Anaheim (Santa Ana), CA – United Artists (1) [w/ V]
  • 1971-07-07 … Chapel Hill, NC – Carolina (2)
  • 1971-07-07 … Cincinnati, OH – Grand (6)
  • 1971-07-07 … Dayton, OH – Loew’s (1)
  • 1971-07-07 … Dayton, OH – Sunset Drive-In (3) [w/ SH]
  • 1971-07-07 … Fresno, CA – Crest (1) [w/ PB]
  • 1971-07-07 … Fresno, CA – Starlite Drive-In (1) [w/ V]
  • 1971-07-07 … Los Angeles (Alhambra), CA – Garfield (1) [w/ V]
  • 1971-07-07 … Los Angeles (Baldwin Hills), CA – Baldwin (3) [w/ V]
  • 1971-07-07 … Los Angeles (Burbank), CA – San Val Drive-In (1) [w/ MCS]
  • 1971-07-07 … Los Angeles (Chatsworth), CA – Cinema (1) [w/ V]
  • 1971-07-07 … Los Angeles (Compton), CA – Compton Drive-In (3) [w/ MCS]
  • 1971-07-07 … Los Angeles (Culver City), CA – Culver (1) [w/ V]
  • 1971-07-07 … Los Angeles (Downey), CA – Showcase Twin (1) [w/ D]
  • 1971-07-07 … Los Angeles (Downtown), CA – State (2) [w/ V]
  • 1971-07-07 … Los Angeles (Duarte), CA – Big Sky Drive-In (1) [w/ MCS]
  • 1971-07-07 … Los Angeles (East Los Angeles), CA – Golden Gate (1) [w/ Z]
  • 1971-07-07 … Los Angeles (El Monte), CA – El Monte (1) [w/ MASH]
  • 1971-07-07 … Los Angeles (Gardena), CA – Vermont Drive-In (2) [w/ MCS]
  • 1971-07-07 … Los Angeles (Glendale), CA – Sands (1) [w/ V]
  • 1971-07-07 … Los Angeles (Hollywood), CA – Vine (2) [w/ MCS]
  • 1971-07-07 … Los Angeles (Huntington Park), CA – Warner (1) [w/ KH]
  • 1971-07-07 … Los Angeles (Inglewood), CA – Academy (3) [w/ LT]
  • 1971-07-07 … Los Angeles (Long Beach), CA – Lakewood (1) [w/ V]
  • 1971-07-07 … Los Angeles (Long Beach), CA – Long Beach Drive-In (2) [w/ MCS]
  • 1971-07-07 … Los Angeles (Long Beach), CA – State (1) [w/ MCS]
  • 1971-07-07 … Los Angeles (Manhattan Beach), CA – La Mar (1) [w/ LV]
  • 1971-07-07 … Los Angeles (Mid-City), CA – Picfair (1) [w/ V]
  • 1971-07-07 … Los Angeles (Mid-Wilshire), CA – Four Star (2) [w/ V]
  • 1971-07-07 … Los Angeles (North Hollywood), CA – El Portal (1) [w/ STGWNC]
  • 1971-07-07 … Los Angeles (Pasadena), CA – Esquire (3) [w/ GC]
  • 1971-07-07 … Los Angeles (Santa Monica), CA – Brentwood Twin (1) [w/ V]
  • 1971-07-07 … Los Angeles (Sawtelle), CA – Olympic Drive-In (2) [w/ MCS]
  • 1971-07-07 … Los Angeles (Van Nuys), CA – Capri (1) [w/ STGWNC]
  • 1971-07-07 … Los Angeles (Whittier), CA – Whittier (1) [w/ D]
  • 1971-07-07 … Portland, OR – Fox (2) [w/ DDM]
  • 1971-07-07 … Portland (Tigard), OR – Family Drive-In (1) [w/ WED]
  • 1971-07-07 … Riverside, CA – Golden State (1) [w/ V]
  • 1971-07-07 … San Bernardino, CA – Studio (1) [w/ V]
  • 1971-07-07 … San Bernardino (Montclair), CA – Mission Drive-In (1) [w/ V]
  • 1971-07-07 … San Diego, CA – Balboa (2) [w/ V]
  • 1971-07-07 … San Diego (El Cajon), CA – Aero Drive-In (1) [w/ V]
  • 1971-07-07 … San Diego (National City), CA – Harbor Drive-In (2) [w/ V]
  • 1971-07-07 … San Diego (Oceanside), CA – Star (1) [w/ PF]
  • 1971-07-07 … Santa Barbara (Goleta), CA – Santa Barbara Drive-In (1) [w/ V]
  • 1971-07-07 … Santa Maria, CA – Hi-Way Drive-In (1) [w/ D]

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