Shaft, the pioneering blaxploitation film directed by Gordon Parks, came out fifty years ago. To commemorate the anniversary, Howard Greenberg Gallery has mounted an exhibition of Parks’s photographs from 1948 through ’67 that purportedly exemplify a “cinematic approach” to the medium and thus foretell the artist’s successful crossover. This conceptual framework is a slippery one—after all, the look of mainstream cinema changed dramatically over that period—but the curatorial gesture is nonetheless productive. Some purists might prefer to keep the artist’s exquisitely composed and carefully printed documentary photographs, many of which he created on assignment for Life magazine, separate from his later sojourn into popular entertainment. This show asks, at least in theory, what we might learn by reappraising the canonical in relation to the mass cultural.
The production of Shaft is rightly regarded as a watershed in the struggle for Black representation in mainstream American cinema. Not everything about the film itself holds up well in 2021, however. Its male characters are knowingly formulaic; its female ones are perfunctorily objectified. The plot, too, has a paperboard quality. Based on a novel by former crime reporter Ernest Tidyman, who cowrote the script with Hollywood screenwriter John D. F. Black, Shaft follows the titular private eye as he maneuvers to retrieve the kidnapped daughter of a Harlem crime boss from rival Italian mafiosi, teaming up with the leader of an underground Black nationalist organization in the process. The result comes across as opportunistic, alluding to the racial strife and politics of the time without offering much insight.
What remains most vital about Shaft is its portrayal of Nixon-era New York City, a racially stratified terrain that Parks’s filmmaking helps develop as a character in its own right. In extended sequences from the film’s first half, we simply observe the protagonist weaving his way through crowds on Forty-Second Street or watching the city lights change shape through the window of a car heading uptown. These interstitial moments in the otherwise plot-driven narrative highlight the director’s cinematographic inclinations while lending crucial texture and specificity to Shaft’s world. In one particularly memorable shot, the detective strides with brazen confidence into moving traffic, gamely berating the irritated taxi drivers he has forced to halt. (The similarity of his reaction to Dustin Hoffman’s famous outburst in Midnight Cowboy two years earlier is striking; Hugh A. Robertson, a pioneering Black film editor, worked on both projects.) This act of bravado is given further meaning a few scenes later, when he successfully hails a cab, only to watch it lurch forward and pick up a white customer instead. Through moments like these, the film makes a virtue of the Shaft character’s generic quality by turning our attention toward the poignance of the archetype he represents. In a city that routinely hinders the basic mobility of Black men, the very idea of a Black private eye, practicing a profession fundamentally premised on gaining access to spaces where one might not be permitted, assumes larger-than-life proportions indeed.
The photographs on view at Howard Greenberg align with Shaft’s world insofar as they delineate an urban universe bounded by Broadway marquees at one extreme and Harlem tenements at the other. Beyond geographic overlap, what ties the assembled photographs to the film, or what makes them “cinematic” in a more general sense, is not self-evident. The most obvious candidate for the latter descriptor is a group of sumptuous color photographs that Parks took in 1957 in Chicago for a Life series on “Crime in the U.S.” In one of them, titled Crime Suspect with Gun, Chicago, Illinois, Parks captures just the silhouette of his subject’s shoulder, arm, and revolver, framed within a narrow sliver of mottled light leaking from an open door. In another, taken from the backseat of a police cruiser, Parks similarly silhouettes the officer in the front seat against the hazy, glowing orbs of city lights. One thing that renders these photographs cinematic is of course their content, which mirrors Hollywood’s long-standing investment in cops and outlaws and, increasingly during the 1960s, urban crime. Another is their dramatic focus, the way they guide a viewer’s attention toward delineated figures and certain key attributes—the gun, the patrol car—that point in turn toward implied stories beyond the frame.
Not all the works on view operate in this quasi-narrative manner, however. Four arresting photographs of a Civil Rights demonstration from 1963, for instance, are more formally self-reflexive than they are dramatically evocative. In these pictures, lines of men carry placards bearing neatly written phrases like “we are living in a police state” and “police brutality must go.” In two of the images, Parks has angled his camera in a way that emphasizes the serial nature of the placards progressing toward the viewer. With each of these rectangular planes rendered larger than the last by perspectival distortion, the sequence visually appears to culminate in the similarly proportioned photograph that depicts them, a mise-en-abyme effect. Through this imagined equation between the framing image and a procession of protest signs that seem to recede ad infinitum, Parks implicitly links the political potential of his medium—he once described his camera as his “choice of weapons”—to its serial reproducibility; its capacity to transmit the demonstrators’ messages to a wider audience distributed across space and time.
The demonstration scenario brings to mind a fleeting moment during Shaft’s opening montage in which the protagonist negotiates a real-life crowd of picketers protesting a background check company called Fidelifacts, which had been accused of facilitating discrimination against gay job applicants. In the film, this unscripted encounter plays an expositional as well as a symbolic role, introducing social divisions that manifest in the ensuing narrative with respect not to sexuality but rather to race: indeed, at one point Shaft’s white counterpart in the New York Police Department worries that the Black and Italian criminal organizations’ territorial conflict might spiral into an all-out race war. But as the extremity of that example indicates, Shaft’s storyline also renders these divisions somewhat fantastical, ensuring that real-world struggles and injustices never overtake the film’s primary imperative to entertain. In this respect, there is a valid distinction to be maintained between Parks’s Hollywood filmmaking and his more politically forthright works of photojournalism. If an analogy can be made between the former and the latter, it inheres less in continuities of “cinematic” form or content than in the movie camera’s symbolic instantiation of a roving, powerfully unencumbered gaze—a license to observe and record that the artist himself enjoyed to some extent during his years on Life’s payroll, and would later personify through the character of one John Shaft, private eye.