4K Review: SHAFT

Editor, U.S.; California (@m_galgana)
4K Review: SHAFT

The Criterion Collection has tons of great new 4K releases lately, including groundbreaker Gordon Parks’ (The Learning Tree, Leadbelly) Shaft.  

This 1971 cultural sucker punch had an undeniable effect on the film industry then, helping launch the Blaxploitation phenomenon. If you know about American history, you’ll know that the film came out within a decade of major achievements within the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

If I’m not mistaken, Parks was the first African American to helm a studio film with Metro-Goldwyn Meyer footing the bill for Shaft, and the studio knew that they could tap into a goldmine with this audience. In turn, the audience did not disappoint. 

The Blaxploitation films were groundbreaking to African American audiences, who’d only seen versions of themselves onscreen in roles relegated to servants and slaves. With films like Shaft — arguably the most important touchstone kicking off this action subgenre — people of color saw themselves and gained hope. 

They had a hero in Richard Roundtree’s John Shaft, forever memorialized by Issac Hayes’ iconic theme song. (Hayes won the Academy Award the following year for Best Original Song in addition to both a Grammy and a Golden Globe for Best Original Soundtrack. Shaft was nominated for a slew of other awards, as well.)

Without going into too much detail on this iconic film, the plot follows super-cool private investigator John Shaft; he’s been hired by a shifty Harlem crime lord whose daughter has been kidnapped by the Mafia. Not only is that terrible, but there's the ignition of a race war to consider. Consequently, men are thrown out windows, people die, Shaft gets laid, wrongs are righted, and plenty more wrongs are wronged.  

Overall, the new 4K restoration is good to terrific, depending on the scene. There are some instances with crushed blacks and some cases where the original celluloid was damaged, and replaced with a duplicate negative. Sound is uniformly quite good.

Check out the insane amount of special features:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack

  • Alternate uncompressed stereo soundtrack remastered with creative input from Isaac Hayes III

  • In the 4K UHD edition: One 4K UHD disc of the film presented in Dolby Vision HDR and two Blu-rays with the film and special features

  • Shaft’s Big Score!, the 1972 follow-up to Shaft by director Gordon Parks

  • New documentary on the making of Shaft featuring curator Rhea L. Combs, film scholar Racquel J. Gates, filmmaker Nelson George, and music scholar Shana L. Redmond

  • Behind-the-scenes program featuring Parks, actor Richard Roundtree, and musician Isaac Hayes

  • Archival interviews with Hayes, Parks, and Roundtree

  • New interview with costume designer Joseph G. Aulisi

  • New program on the Black detective and the legacy of John Shaft, featuring scholar Kinohi Nishikawa and novelist Walter Mosley

  • A Complicated Man: The “Shaft” Legacy (2019)

  • Behind-the-scenes footage from Shaft’s Big Score!

  • Trailers

  • English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing

  • PLUS: An essay by film scholar Amy Abugo Ongiri

  • New cover by Bill Sienkiewicz

The video essays are great, particularly when scholar Kinohi Nishikawa and novelist Walter Mosley discuss the lasting effects of the character John Shaft. Film scholar Amy Abugo Ongiri is also a bright spot, and I appreciated the documentary, as well.

Additionally, this awesome Criterion Collection release includes the sequel Shaft’s Big Score, which is a slicker, tighter, nastier film. It’s also directed by Parks and it’s well worth your time. A surprise double feature is always fun.

To add this seminal film to your home video collection, head over to Criterion’s page for the film here.


  • Gordon Parks
  • Ernest Tidyman
  • John D.F. Black
  • Richard Roundtree
  • Moses Gunn
  • Charles Cioffi
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4K reviewBlu-ray reviewCriterion CollectionGordon ParksErnest TidymanJohn D.F. BlackRichard RoundtreeMoses GunnCharles CioffiActionCrimeThriller

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