In Paris, a young man has tried to escape the criminals who have captured him; he was working undercover to bust a slavery ring but was exposed and as he awaits his fate, he writes a message in his native Ethiopian language on the wall with his handcuffs, but the order comes through from the boss Mr Amafi (Frank Finlay) to have him killed. While all this is going on, the New York City private detective John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) is jogging when he notices some young punks stealing the hubcaps from his car, so he chases them off and returns to his apartment. However, as he does so he is confronted by a large African gentleman who demands he accompany him - Shaft resists, and ends up with a tranquiliser dart in him.
The first two Shaft movies were very much part of the blaxploitation scene, with their urban settings, African-American performers featured more prominently than the white ones, and funky soundtracks they more or less set out the rules for such productions for others to follow, and in some cases better. When it came to the third instalment before some TV executives decided the character was ideal for a series of watered down weekly adventures in a shortlived show, there was the not quite like the others African excursion. Creator Ernest Tidyman had nothing to do with the storyline this time around, as the script was penned by Stirling Silliphant, a writer no stranger to camp.
But there was a more serious tone to this than say, the Dino De Laurentiis King Kong remake which both Silliphant and director John Guillermin worked on, which may have been surprising when the main inspiration was more James Bond than the private eye source had been, and that franchise was known for its leaning towards the humour, especially in the nineteen-seventies. Indeed, while Shaft was going back to his roots in Ethiopia, Bond was clashing with blaxploitation figures in Live and Let Die, yet they were not quite interchangeable as you couldn't envisage Roger Moore, for example, appearing quite as nude as Roundtree did here, nor as often. This was assuredly a grown-up thriller, with the language and the action hewing close to the R rating.
And also the sex scenes, as Shaft could get away with a lot more in that department than 007, which led to him bedding the daughter of the Colonel who hires him, Aleme played by Vonetta McGee right after Blacula had fallen for her. She also mentions she will be subjected to female circumcision which she seems surprisingly blasé about, though one night with our hero and she sees the sense in having the pleasure of an untampered with clitoris, so hooray for that champion of international women's rights John Shaft. But there was another woman he gets up close and personal with, a curious individual named Jazar, played by Yugoslavian actress (and future politician) Neda Arneric who is Amifi's ladyfriend and also a nymphomaniac aroused by the sight of slaves working in the hot sun with their shirts off.
The sort of character only a mainstream thriller from the seventies would be able to get away with, basically, and though she's nice enough to Shaft it's no surprise how the film deems her fate should be, which is a bit much. There was a tendency for everyone Shaft got close to aside from Aleme to meet some dire peril, even the dog he befriends on his African quest which in disquieting scenes of authenticity ends up a floppy corpse: who knows, maybe they just drugged the pooch to get it to comply? If you could put up with the kind of dubious taste this decade would serve up as entertainment, then Shaft in Africa wasn't so bad, it certainly had a valid point to make about the issue of people trafficking and Roundtree was obviously relishing the chance to do something different with his role, even if it was taking his clothes off. Yet there were still aspects that verged on the unpalatable, take the Colonel for instance, played by Marne Maitland, patently a white actor in brown makeup and looking nothing like McGee. A weird time for movies. Music by Johnny Pate; The Four Tops do the theme.