It’s reasonable that an audience sitting through “The French Connection” would have been pre-exhilarated by “Sweetback” and by “Shaft,” which opened in June of that year and felt like another antidote to what Popeye is pushing.
The clamoring for it in Black communities was intense. It reportedly grossed a million dollars at a single Chicago theater and launched a merchandising boom. Allegedly, the part of John Shaft had been intended for McQueen or Charlton Heston. But you watch Richard Roundtree strolling around Harlem in this movie, with ease and a real knowing, and you laugh thinking about how Heston would have worked out.
The plot is decent enough. A drug lord named Bumpy (Moses Gunn) needs Shaft to find his daughter, who’s been kidnapped. That’s it. Almost everything else is righteous politics. Before Shaft hits the streets, he gives Bumpy a lecture about how bad his drugs-and-hookers business is for Black people. As Shaft pounds the pavement, talking to contacts, the director Gordon Parks shoots Roundtree from inside eateries and on the sidewalks. There’s a homey serenity to that montage, a sadness, too. Throughout it we hear Isaac Hayes’s “Soulsville,” a church-band hymn whose first couplet is “Black man, born free/ at least that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
Parks lets in a rare, life-size solemnity. At one stop on Shaft’s investigation, a man who answers the door calls after him, almost plaintively: “Know what the number was today?” Shaft doesn’t. And it’s that sadness that lingers over this movie and almost all of the so-called blaxploitation films that followed in its wake. Nobody ever hits the lottery. The lottery keeps hitting them. In just about three or four years, the look of the movies had changed, from bright and expansive to hard and gritty — even the musicals looked like they were in gangs. Things had changed just enough to incorporate this kind of hard, dolorous realism.
In “The French Connection,” the protagonists chase and beat up a pile of Black Harlemites and Brooklynites. And Doyle says to Russo at some point, “Never trust a nigger.” A Black person might hear that and notice that these white people could keep getting away with — and getting awards for — this stuff. A filmmaker could love “The French Connection” and want to mimic it while also making heroes of the guys those cops keep shaking down. It’s just that after five more strong years of Black-oriented movies (lots of which were made by white people) they had evolved into impersonations, of white hits, of themselves.
But for this brief moment, Parks discovered what still feels like a vaccine for all that ailed a Black moviegoer for most of the movies’ existence. Shaft was more than a supercop. Rather casually, he had to be super at everything, including being in on the joke, including sex.