Analysis and Comparison of Shaft (1971) and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)

Gordon Parks directed the film Shaft (1971), a private investigator named John Shaft who is charged with saving the daughter of Harlem from kidnappers of Italian descent. Melvin Van Peebles directed Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (who also stars in it). The film tells the story of a fictional African American man who grows up as an orphan and loses his virginity to a prostitute at a young age, earning him the moniker “Sweet Sweetback.” In creating action movies, Parks and Peebles utilize Shaft and Peebles as the main characters to present challenges African Americans confront in all walks of their lives aided by various forms of aesthetics including editing, sound, lighting and cinematography.

Both films came out nearly in the same period (1971) presenting various themes that revolved around the African American community in the US. The first theme that is evident in these movies is that of sexuality. In the movie “Shaft”, a character the main character Shaft never had no much power in his race but being heterosexual, he was perceived to have power over women. From the very beginning of the movie, this character was highlighted as one who is powerful based on his sexuality. On the other hand, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song also revolves around sexuality of individuals. For instance, Mario Van Peebles is praised by women in the society for possessing sexual prowess and large genitalia. It is not a wonder that women nicknamed him “Sweet Sweetback.” Sex is used as a tool for liberation especially when he is caught by the authority. A good example is the instance when Peebles is arrested by the police after a black man had been murdered. A female police is pleased by his sexual organs and exchange sex for favor of being set free. The second theme is that of race portrayal where African Americans play a critical role in film industry in acting, directing, writing and editing movies. The two films form some of the landmark progresses made by the people of the color. However, they do not mean that the whites had no role in acting these movies because in some scenes, they help in developing themes.

These movies gained popular in the film industry because of a blend of techniques directors employed in developing scenes of events. The most important element utilized in the development of “Shaft” and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is mise-en-scene. This term stands for the choice the director made on settings, make up and costumes, staging, lighting, and orientation of certain shots in the film. In the first sequence of “Shaft” all these elements are present. However, setting and staging are the main elements that give the movie the power it has in communicating main ideas of the director. Staging in mise-en-scene is made in such a manner that effectively develops the character the audience sees in Shaft. The low angles employed in the film present Shaft as a very large and influential character in it. In a certain scene, Shaft darts in between moving cars and is nearly knocked down by a taxi. At this point, the audience knows that he is fearless. The film is rich in the number of soundtracks which are used to manipulate, change or usher scenes, creating atmosphere, and psychological conditioning. This is another important creativity the director of the film portrays. Low key lighting is utilized to show the kind of feeling “Shaft” possesses. In the Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is the product of creativity of the director Melvin Van Peebles. Even though he never had any source of financing, he went ahead and did it all by himself. After struggling with financing the film, he rose up and set out a wonderful mise-en-scene that was congruent with the audience of the time. At the beginning of the movie, the audience is introduced to a shoeshine man (from the African American community) polishing shoes for a customer from the white race. The elevation of the camera (high camera angle) in the stage is indicative of inequality between the white and blacks in the time. The director is careful to consider placing the camera in the position that displays the feelings of characters. A close-up shot is evident in the movie especially the main character Melvin Van Peebles. This is critical in drawing empathy from the viewers after understanding the feelings of the actor. For example, Melvin Van Peebles is perceived to be so cunning with his ability to escape from police officer. Additionally, the stage is set in such a way to reveal the revolution of the African Americans race from times of oppression. Low key lighting is also one property of the movie that should never be overlooked since it enhances shadow that causes uneasiness among the viewers. Like “Shaft,” Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song also employs various soundtracks mostly to change scenes and set a certain mood.

After watching the two films I was astounded to learn that African American directors and actors played a great role in the film industry. However, when comparing the two films, I found “Shaft” more interesting and intriguing to watch than “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” When taken out of its context, the former is a story about a detective of the 70s and the main reason I feel it passed the test of time is the fact that it had all heroes from the African Americans. Shaft himself plays a critical role in the movie showing the audience that the race of origin of an individual should not act as a stumbling block to doing what is just. His ability to rescue a daughter who had been kidnapped is one enough proof that blacks had powers to rise above oppression and do what is good to them and their white counterparts.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song does not gain entity in the list of my favorite movies of the time because of various limitations. The movie seems to be emphasizing on the outdated act of dividing people based on their races. For instance, when a murder crime is perpetrated, the main group to be suspected is that of young African Americans. It is an ill-conceived notion that all whites in that society are innocent. Blacks act as scapegoats for a crime perpetrated within the locality. The video has background sounds of a person who is busy talking on a phone. Such a voice can interfere with the ability of watchers to follow the storyline and shift attention to what was unintended. Unlike Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the “Shaft” movie is clear with no obstruction. A movie with such examples of impediments is indicative of hurried editing. If I was requested to give recommendations regarding this movie, I could say that Peebles shouls have concentrated on either acting or directing and not both for a start. The only thing that I uphold about it is the fact that it was among the movies in the early cinematography featuring mostly the blacks and the fact that the director took the whole task financing it. Most scenes are acted in such a manner that favors black audience more than the whites. The English that is spoken and some terminologies are mystified possibly because the African American community was on revolution. A product of a good director should reach as many individuals as possible which is one of the reasons the movie gained popularity for a short time. Therefore, the “Shaft” movie is by far much better than “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” although they were staged nearly in the same period.

Parks and Peebles are examples of directors in the African American race to pioneer production of films that star blacks to bring to make the audience understand the challenges this race faced in the past by integrating various elements of film including editing, sound, mise-en-scene, lighting and sound. Although their videos were brought forth in the same year, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” has numerous limitations in editing when compared to “Shaft” movie. The former seem to have been prepared hurriedly adding sounds that make it hard for the audience to understand some scenes.

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