When Shaft Ruled Hollywood

With the release of The Butler, Fruitvale Station, 12 Years a Slave and The Best Man Holiday, 2013 has been proclaimed a banner year for Black films as well as filmmakers of color. Indeed, while these cinematic feats are being rightfully celebrated in both mainstream and “urban” media, reading about these movies made me think back to when I first noticed a Black film renaissance during the blaxploitation 1970s.

Although in retrospect, the films of my childhood are often considered B-movie shoot ’em ups without much artistry, at the time Black Caesar, Super Fly, Coffy, The Mack, Trouble Man, Friday Foster and others were the main sources of post-civil rights revenge fantasies of “stickin’ it to the man” that flickered on the screen every weekend.

Yet while Melvin Van Peebles’s X-rated, bugged-out Black art film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song often gets credit for kick-starting the blaxploitation genre in 1970, for me it was “the bad mother…” Shaft a year later (released July 2, 1971) that served as the real inspiration for the Black films that Hollywood produced over those next few years.

Three years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, the character John Shaft became a cinematic symbol of Black power. Played with mighty swagger by then-newcomer Richard Roundtree, snarling Shaft was a Harlem-loving private detective hired by local mob boss Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) to locate his missing daughter.

Former Life magazine photographer Gordon Parks directed the film. His gritty pictorials of rowdy Harlem street gangs and roguish Chicago detectives proved he had the keen eye to convey the hard rock dynamics of the main character. As the Negro link between John Cassavetes and Martin Scorsese, the masterful Parks used the romantic decay of ’70s New York City as the perfect character, not merely a backdrop.

Based on a 1970 novel written by (White) former newspaperman turned pulp novelist turned screenwriter Ernest Tidyman, the scribe also scripted the film. Along with the paperback release of his detective debut Shaft, the Cleveland, Ohio native also co-wrote the screenplay for The French Connection released that same year (October 9, 1971).

A few months before, when French Connection producer Philip D’Antoni and director William Friedkin read Shaft in galley form, they were impressed with Tidyman’s gritty gumshoe tale. “I was shocked when [Tidyman] walked into my office, because I was expecting a Black person, because Shaft was about African-Americans,” D’Antoni says in the documentary Making the Connection: The Untold Stories. “Not only was he White, but a very waspy person from Ohio who was then working at The New York Times.”