Shaft in Africa

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Our rating: four LAVA® motion lamps.

Speak softly and....
Shaft in Africa
takes private dick John Shaft out of New York and deposits him (duh) in Africa, where he must infiltrate an organization that is promising young Africans good jobs in Europe, then exploits them when they're vulnerable. The results may not have much to do with the streetwise adventures of every other Shaft project, but it does play like a harder edged, better-written, more politically aware James Bond film, which is pretty damn cool. (Shut your mouth!)

Two large African gents kidnap Shaft (Richard Roundtree) from his New York apartment. He wakes up in a horse's stable, naked and with only a wooden stick for defense. He is attacked by one of the Africans, while the other watches. Shaft is able to hold the guy off just using his stick ("a man named Shaft has to be good with a stick"), until the other guy makes note of the fact that Shaft is circumcised, which distracts our hero long enough for him to be knocked unconscious. Shaft wakes up naked (again!) in a room that simulates desert conditions. In response to this challenge, Shaft buries himself in the sand. This impresses further the Blofeld-like voice that seems to be running things.

"This Fembot can be yours
for the low, low price of $79.95."
The voice is the Emir, who wants Shaft to go undercover in Ethiopia and be recruited by the slavers. Shaft isn't too hip on this idea until he is offered $25,000. Even so, Shaft is skeptical that he could learn the language well enough to pass for Ethiopian. "I was 21 before I found out 'isn't' is another way of saying 'ain't.'" But then he meets the beautiful Aleme (Vonetta McGee) who will teach him the language. Being Shaft, he also decides to get it on with her, though her hulking bodyguard proves to be a problem.

Aleme: Oziot has guarded me since I was a child. Sometimes I think of him as my living chastity belt.

Shaft: Damn, a man that size, baby, that's a whole lot of chastity.

One elevator gag later, things presumably get funky.

On a layover in France on his way to Africa, a man dressed as cleaning woman attacks Shaft in a bathroom. Has Shaft's undercover been compromised, or is this man simply opposed to the orange turtleneck Shaft is wearing? (For the love of God, an orange turtleneck!) In any case, Shaft's bacon is saved by another secret agent, and he's on his way.

For Shaft, this is Tuesday.
In Africa, Col. Gonder (Marne Maitland) equips Shaft with a secret camera in a fighting stick and a hidden tape recorder in a hip pouch. This is so James Bondian that even Shaft objects, saying he's "more of a Sam Spade." In any case, Shaft heads off on a bus that will take him to the slavers. He narrowly averts death a second time by killing an assassin on the bus and then begins to make the rest of his way on foot. Luckily, there's a friendly dog who joins the journey to keep Shaft company.

Hey, you know... Shaft hasn't had sex recently! It's a good thing that Aleme shows up out of nowhere in a pimpmobile. Forget the whole slave-trading thing, Shaft wants to get it on!

Back at our regularly scheduled movie, Shaft hooks up with slavers and travels cross-country. There are a several attempts on his life along the way, which indicates a traitor somewhere in the Emir's staff. The final confrontation between Shaft and kingpin Amafi takes place in France, and features Shaft falling back into old habits of "screw the (white) authorities" attitude and gratuitous (even irresponsible) property damage.

Needless to say, Shaft
has the biggest gun.
Shaft in Africa
is easily the most entertaining thing to come from the Shaft franchise. Roundtree is in top form as a fighter, a lover, and a detective, even if he does leave a trail of bodies wherever he goes. Not only does Shaft kill assassins right and left, but those who ally with him have a nasty habit of dying as well. After the first hour, there's a sense of impending doom hanging over anyone who allies themselves with our hero, and even those who are simply in the detective's general vicinity find themselves suddenly prone to accidents and other violent incidents. Thankfully, Shaft never once gloats over another man's death, and spares his enemies' lives when he can.

Apart from Roundtree, the surrounding cast is also quite good, in that sort of upper-crust blaxploitation way. Of particular note are the "Shaft chicks" (hey, if Bond can have girls, Shaft can have chicks) who populate Shaft in Africa: McGee's character is seemingly innocent but reveals herself to be alluringly wise, and her, uh, "association" with Shaft convinces her to forgo her upcoming clitoridectomy. (Whew!) Aleme is just the sort of person for whom Shaft could really fall, but of course she would be an African princess and therefore unobtainable. Still, it's a nice dream while it lasts.

"I swear, I don't know anything
about tickets to a Janet Jackson concert!"
The real female star of this film, however, is Neda Arneric, who plays Jazar, the oversexed and eye-poppingly gorgeous girlfriend of the slavery kingpin. Taking on the task of distracting Shaft aboard the slave ship by having her way with him, Arneric displays her acting talents and her other, more "natural" assets in a scene with some of the funniest bedroom dialogue we've seen. Upon inquiring after the length of Shaft's "phallus," Jazar watches as Shaft looks vaguely uncomfortable and replies, "Baby, by now it's shrunk down to 20 inches" And after Shaft finally relents by bedding Jazar, she looks dreamily into the distance and says: "You're the first man who's ever made love to me the way a man should." (Shaft's retort: "Fan-tastic baby. I'll write my congressman later.")

Kudos must go to Sterling Silliphant (if that is his real name), the screenwriter of Shaft in Africa. Even if the plot is sort of half-baked, it never stops moving and it's ruthless in its quest to find someone new to knock off. And the dialogue, if it wasn't improvised, is simply brilliant. It must have been the envy of a young Quentin Tarantino, wherever he was. Silliphant gives his characters plenty of dramatically kinetic things to do: they knock down doors (twice!), engage in stick fights, throw naked women into their beds, and generally wreak havoc in the most fantastic ways possible.

If the story is obviously based on the success of the Bond films, the harder edge that Shaft in Africa takes on is certainly due to the influence of the Blaxploitation films that followed in the wake of the original Shaft, like Foxy Brown. The new attitude serves Shaft well. The theme song by the Four Tops asks, "Are You Man Enough?" You better believe he is.

Rent or Buy from Reel.

Review date: 6/18/00

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