There's no shortage of aesthetic and cultural upheavals that rocked the American film industry in the 1970s, but the most important from a sociological standpoint absolutely has to be the sudden discovery made by the studios early in the decade that nonwhite people liked to watch movies, too. A lesson that has been forgotten and relearned and forgotten again in a depressing cycle over the intervening 40 years (just look at the eye-popping shock in the entertainment media when things like Ride Along do unexpectedly well at the box office), but if we try to re-hash the history of American race relations in the post-Civil Rights era, we shall never get as far as the movie part of this movie review. Suffice it to say that after a could of decades of unofficially having decided that one black movie star at a time was enough to prove that the movies were diverse and socially responsible, the film industry in the late '60s suddenly found itself woefully ill-equipped to deal with the abrupt and frequently painful shifts in the culture, no matter how many times they had Sidney Poitier be a stiff-chinned noble saint in front of bumbling racists.

Now, before we go any farther into things, it's important to recognise that there is a full history of African-American cinema prior to the 1960s: as early as the 1910s, we find the existence of the "race film", movies made with all-black casts (though not always by all-black crews; the Chicago-based Ebony Film Company, founded in 1915 as the first studio entirely focused on race films, was owned and operated by whites), and it wasn't until the slow emergence of halfway decent roles as anything besides sassy servants for minority actors in the 1950s that the race films petered out. Throughout the history of American filmmaking, African-American movie stars or directors crop up here or there. But this was all on the fringes; mainstream commercial cinema knew absolutely nothing of this robust independent subculture (indeed, that's part of how we can define it as "mainstream"). And it wasn't until 1969 that we can definitively point to a Hollywood studio actively trying to bridge that gap, for it was in that year that Warner Bros. released The Learning Tree, directed by Gordon Parks, the first major studio picture helmed by an African-American. Having thus discovered that movies by and about black people weren't going to bring about the end of the world in a fiery explosion, other studios began to follow suit: Watermelon Man, a race-theme picture written by a white guy but directed by Melvin Van Peebles, and Ossie Davis's adaptation of Chester Himes's novel Cotton Comes to Harlem were released by Columbia and United Artists, respectively, in 1970, both doing fine business.

The explosion happened in 1971. In April, Van Peebles broke away from the studios to make the politically radical crime movie Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, which did unbelievably huge business, ending up as the highest-grossing independent movie ever released till that point. And in July, Parks directed Shaft, a politically safer crime movie (adapted by white men Ernest Tidyman and John D.F. Black from Tidyman's novel) that was also an enormous hit, one of the only films MGM released that year to turn a profit at all, and yet its profit was so considerable that it managed almost by itself to keep the company afloat. Incidentally "that time MGM turned a huge profit on a grimy urban crime thriller with African-American themes" has to be one of the unlikeliest developments in the entire history of the Hollywood studio system.

The seismic impact of these two films - both ended up in the top 20 films at the domestic box office, with Sweet Sweetback barely missing the top 10 - had the immediate impact of creating an entirely new subgenere that would dominate low-budget filmmaking for the remainder of the decade: blaxploitation. To a certain degree, that rather unfortunately-named style describes a setting, rather than any kind of particular tone: films with a mostly black cast, with the protagonists more often than not facing off against a white power structure, which is bone-shatteringly ironic when you think about how virtually all of these movies were financed by white men and the great majority were directed by white men as well. Many, though not all, of the films were urban crime stories, and many, though not all, tended to reinforce the idea that African-American life centered around violence, pimps, drugs, and grinding poverty. And that's part of where the "exploitation" part comes in; the other part is that these were, after all, movies actively exploiting an African-American audience, who were being sold tales of revolution against social injustice by the same class of people who most profited off that social injustice: old white farts with high-ranking positions in enormous corporations.

And if I go to far down that rabbit hole, we will also not get as far as the movie part of this movie review, which is closing in on 1000 words without me even clarifying that I am, in fact, talkin' 'bout Shaft, as one of the two key films in the explosive birth of the blaxploitation genre. For Sweet Sweetback was an indie film, and thus outside the purview of this studio-focused series. And also, by virtue of the same fact, Sweet Sweetback's claim on being true blaxploitation has always seemed questionable to me - it is not exploitative in that way.

Anyway, Shaft is John Shaft (Richard Roundtree), a black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks. We first meet him in one of the most enormously impressive introductory sequences ever given to a film character: the camera, high on a crane, pulls back down along 42nd Street in New York, in all its appalling, filth-ridden glory of the early '70s, past movie marquees advertising Robert Redford and Burt Lancaster movies right next door to pornography. Parks may not have been looking to play as blunt a political game as Van Peebles was with his movie the same year, but it's still pretty hard to shake the impact of this very first moment, as we scroll by the names of all these white movie stars, tipping down to look at Roundtree storming right out into the middle of traffic and fuck any driver who thinks that something like traffic signals is going to stop him. The very first words we here him say are "Up yours!", accompanied with an emphatic middle finger, to a (white) taxi driver. And while this happens, the slinky, sexy funk theme song that made Isaac Hayes a music star overnight grabs us bodily and forces us into the heart of the early '70s. It's as iconic as it gets, using music and framing and performance to create a very specific attitude of urban decay that only the most self-assured and intense can survive, and making it absolutely clear that Shaft is such a person.

Absent any racial angle, Shaft's brusque, angry dismissal of propriety and the mainstream, as emphatically described in this opening sequence and never let up on at any point over the remaining 100 minutes, sets it in line with several other films from the same era. I don't know if it has a real name; I've always thought of them as the "New York is a filthy moral sinkhole" pictures, including such titles as fellow Class of '71 detective story Klute, and typified by 1976's Taxi Driver. You know the kind. A loner living the seedy, desperate life in NYC finds himself (it's not always "himself", but far more often than not) forced to burrow deeper and deeper into the grungiest holes where the nastiest people live in order to resolve some grubby, disgusting crime or personal slight. They are films which depict the vast pageant of New York with a great deal of color and sound and electricity; that city in that decade might very well have been depicted with with the broadest scope of detailed realism of any city in cinema. And seemingly every last one of those movies, except the ones made by Woody Allen, are heavily invested in the idea that New York is just the fucking worst. Shaft certainly doesn't depict a place that is very livable, though it teems with life: mafiosi and pimps fight for dominance and the only decent people are the dysfunctionally impoverished. And it got out right on the front wave of that movement, so its version of the city seems especially cutting.

And, of course, it's even more cutting since we can't, of course, actually separate the film from its racial context. Shaft is irreducibly a film about a minority population. Its plot situates the titular private detective in the position of having the find the daughter of black gangster Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn), kidnapped by the Italian mob, in the hopes not of just helping one criminal get revenge against other, worse criminals, but of staving off an open war between whites and blacks on the streets of New York, where the conflict between the racially-divided crime syndicates has been steadily increasing tensions between non-gangsters of those races. In order to do this, Shaft has to play some racially sensitive games of his own, working alongside white police lieutenant Vic Androzzi (Charles Chioffi) with a delicate mutual respect couched in language of half-playful racial antagonism.

But beyond its depiction of white/black relationships in the Harlem crime world, Shaft is also explicitly about the internal life of the African-American community of Harlem, at least as far as its hoods, detectives, and pimps (blaxploitation, as an urban crime subgenre, has very little use for normal, decent people). Much of the action that goes on within the film is explicitly political in nature: a minority community at a crisis point grappling with questions of how much it should assimilate into the majority culture, or if it is better to push back, violently if necessary, against such assimilation. One of the main allies Shaft relies on in his quest is Ben Buford (Christopher St. John), leader of a black power group manipulated into a position where they have to be on Bumpy's side in the gang war; Shaft himself is plainly none too impressed with the passionate, revolutionary black nationalism on display in Buford's group, preferring instead to look out for himself; anchoring its politics around an avowedly apolitical, mercenary hero allows Shaft to ask its questions with a thoughtful objectivity not usually present in a genre that, like most, is more concerned with what will provide the most exciting, visceral action (being one of the few blaxploitation films actually directed by an African-American probably helps with that too).

Shaft is not, to be sure, so interested in racial identity issues that it becomes "about" them: it's unlikely the film would have been a smash hit if that were the case. Instead, it relies on the tried and true formula of being a pretty terrific detective thriller with a hard-edged attitude and a caustic urban setting. There are a lot of movies from that era that do basically the same things as Shaft, but not many of them do them as well. Parks might not have been one of the great thriller directors in history, but he does a superlative job of miring the film in Shaft's cool but brutal emotional state, rather than in the plot, which is frankly not so enthralling on its own rather derivative merits. But by tethering the film's scenes to Shaft, and privileging Roundtree's position in frames and his POV in shots where he doesn't appear, the movie isn't really "what Shaft does" but "who Shaft is", and that is enthralling. So is the film's prescience in assembling just the right number of signifiers for a very specific window of time in '70/'71 that it feels like the kind of time capsule that makes a moment come alive, rather than calls our attention to how many years have gone by since those fasions, buildings, and songs were a going concern. All that on top of the clear-eyed realism of the visuals, shot without poetry but with a great deal of precision and sharpness by Urs Furrer, and Shaft is both an exciting cop movie and a peerless social document. There are problems both dramatic (I always start to seriously lose interest in the story a good half-hour before it resolves) and aesthetic (the sound recording, maybe owing to budgetary and location restrictions, is abysmal), but this is still as out-and-out good as any blaxploitation film ever made, and it's surely in the top rank of '70s New York crime thrllers; it's an important film that's also hellaciously fun to watch, a great combination that makes it essential viewing for several completely unrelated reasons.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1971
-Violent anti-heroes are all the rage, with Dirty Harry, The French Connection, and Billy Jack tearing it up at the box office
-Comic genius Elaine May makes her directorial debut with the pitch-black A New Leaf the first in her uninterrupted run of four movies that underperform and confuse people and fail to find their richly-deserved audience
-Future father of the modern blockbuster George Lucas makes his debut with the sci-fi parable THX 1138

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1971
-Yugoslavian avant-gardist Dušan Makavejev makes W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, a groundbreaking depiction of sex-as-politics
-Japan's Daiei Film declares bankruptcy at the end of a year that saw them release the series-ending Gamera vs. Zigra
-Jacques Rivette releases the first, full version of Out 1, which at more than 12 hours in length is at that time the longest individual work of narrative cinema ever made