70s Rewind: John Guillermin's SHAFT IN AFRICA
Viva Riva, which opens in New York, Los Angeles, and Portland today, "boasts a seductive combination of African mystique and hardboiled noir storytelling that makes for one seriously sexy crime flick," according to Twitch's James Marsh. Set in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the film is the directorial debut of Djo Tunda Wa Munga, and presents a native's view of the country and its culture.
That wasn't the case nearly 40 years ago, when Hollywood invaded Ethiopia in the person of an African-American detective, with a British filmmaker at the helm. John Guillermin, born in London and a graduate of Cambridge, directed Shaft in Africa, the second sequel to 1971's Shaft. As second sequels go, Shaft in Africa is an entertaining, under-appreciated flick. More significantly, it may have been the first Hollywood production to buck the long-established "white man in Africa" trend.
Shaft was the big screen adaptation of a novel by Ernest Tidyman. Melvin Van Peebles claims that MGM planned to convert Tidyman's lead character into a white man, but when they saw the good box office returns for Ossie Davis' Cotton Comes to Harlem in 1970 and his own Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, they decided to stick with the original version of the character.
Whether that's true or not -- Shaft completed filming shortly before Sweet Sweetback was released, though the success of Cotton could still have influenced the casting -- Richard Roundtree won the title role, beating out Fred Williamson, Jim Brown and Paul Winfield, among others; Isaac Hayes composed a memorable musical score and a theme song that won an Academy Award; and Gordon Parks provided finely-honed direction. Released in the summer of 1971, Shaft grossed somewhere between $7-12 million, against an estimated $1.125 budget, good enough to place it among the top earners for the year.
Roundtree, Parks, Tidyman, who won an Academy Award for another 1971 film (The French Connection), and other members of the cast and crew returned for the sequel, Shaft's Big Score, which came out a year later and was also a box office success. MGM released three more Shaft-influenced movies within the next 12 months: Melinda, with Calvin Lockhart and Vonetta McGee; George Armitage's Hit Man, starring Bernie Casey, with Pam Grier in a supporting role; and Sweet Jesus, Preacherman, with Roger E. Mosley.
The latter arrived shortly before Shaft in Africa hit theaters on June 14, 1973. While Shaft in Africa didn't enjoy the box office success of its predecessors, that probably had more to do with the flood of blaxploitation titles that had nearly drowned audiences of interest than the quality of the film itself. The idea of the fashionable, street-smart ladies' man Shaft going undercover in the wilds of Africa, armed only with a walking stick outfitted with James Bond leftovers, is a novel approach to the challenges of a second sequel.
Shaft makes his entrance several minutes into the film, as a gang of kids steal the hubcaps off his sports car. A few minutes later, he's kidnapped from his office by two Africans, waking up naked in a horse stable. Still naked, he engages in a stick fight with one of his abductors, and then is put to an endurance test in an overheated chamber. All this is a prelude to a job offer.
Young Ethiopians are pouring into Paris for work, but the men who are facilitating their illegal entry into France are, in essence, selling them into slavery to a evil white man named Vicente Amafi (Frank Finlay). Efforts to break up the slavery ring have been unsuccessful, and Shaft is recruited from America because Amafi 'knows all of our local operatives,' according to Colonel Emir Ramila (Cy Grant), the distinguished-looking man in charge of the operation. Emir appeals to Shaft's sense of brotherhood with his African kinsmen, but Shaft is unmoved until Emir makes a very attractive financial offer.
Shaft gets some training from Emir's daughter Aleme (Vonetta McGee, from Blacula and the aforementioned Melinda) before he makes the trip, but his efforts to romance Aleme run into two roadblocks. One, she is prohibited by tribal tradition from engaging in sex until she reaches the second stage of womanhood -- at which point she will undergo female circumcision. Two, Aleme's bodyguard Osiat (Frank McRae in one of his earliest roles, before he become a very familiar character actor) is always around to enforce roadblock #1.
Before Shaft can even reach Africa, his cover is blown, but, hey, we're not even halfway through the movie, and the title is Shaft IN Africa, so that seemingly relevant point is waved away. Shaft proceeds to Ethiopia and must defend himself against a never-ending series of would-be assassins as he tries to bust up the slavery ring and bring the evil Amafi to justice.
We know Amafi is the personification of evil because he commands his beautiful companion Jazar to give him a blow job in broad daylight in the back seat of his car -- and he doesn't even seem to enjoy it! Jazar is a drop-dead gorgeous blond nymphomaniac, played by 19-year-old Serbian beauty Neda Arneric. (In 2000, she was elected a member of the Serbian Parliament.) She's the kind of girl who orgasms while watching shirtless African immigrants sweating in the hot sun. She volunteers to "divert" Shaft's attention from yet another assassination attempt by having sex with him, just because she's bored.
And so the movie goes, as scripted competently by veteran Sterling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night, The Poseidon Adventure) and directed smoothly by John Guillermin (pictured), The narrative moves at a brisk pace, allowing for regular sidebars of fighting, violence, sex, and wisecracks by Shaft. From a visual standpoint, it's always interesting, making good use of the widescreen frame. Credit is also well earned by Marcel Grignon, director of photography; Max Benedict, film editor; Johnny Pate, composer of a potent wah-wah musical score; and the Four Tops, for a catchy theme song. Roundtree has a very good screen presence, confident and fully in charge; McGee, who passed away last year, brings an elegant touch to her character; Finlay is a stoic, determined villain. (As a side note, it sounds like one of the bad guys was dubbed by a familiar-sounding voice actor; perhaps Paul Frees?)
Guillermin, 47, had more than 20 years of experience as a director before tackling Shaft in Africa. In the book "Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide," published in 2008 by Fab Press, author Josiah Howard credits Guillermin's El Condor as "one of the first major American films (predating Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song by a full year) to present a violent, sexualized, unrepentant African-American male [Jim Brown] in a leading role." Guillermin then made Skyjacked for MGM before landing Shaft in Africa. Despite the film's disappointing reception, Guillermin next was hired to direct The Towering Inferno, followed by Dino De Laurentiis's King Kong remake. Guillermin returned to Africa for Sheena: Queen of the Jungle in 1984.
Shaft in Africa benefits from solid production values. If it was made today, it might go direct to video, but it would never look this good. And it's unlikely it would have an extended nude scene featuring an actress as young and gorgeous as Neda Arneric. (I admit: my attention was diverted.) Neither would it be likely to include heartfelt social commentary on issues as diverse as illegal immigration, slavery, and female circumcision.
The movie is available on Netflix Instant, looking fabulous, for U.S. viewers, and is also available on Region 1 DVD from Warner Brothers. Beware the "Shaft Triple Feature" DVD set; the packaging lists all three movies as the full frame editions.
Shaft in Africa presents an outsider's view of the continent. (By the time of the film's release, for example, Haile Selassie's government was under attack in Ethiopia, and he would be deposed the following year; those type of political concerns are carefully avoided.) Still, it seems to be making a good-faith effort to be socially conscious. Apart from that, it goes down easy as a forgotten minor pleasure from the early 70s.