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.”
At the time, Tidyman was a 42-year-old World War II vet who once worked as a reporter for the Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer. In contrast to the character’s creator, John Shaft was a Black detective who lived in Greenwich Village, kept an office in seedy Times Square and knew militant leaders by their first names. Although Shaft was a former street tough, there is nothing “ghetto” about the character, with his sharp wardrobe, tastefully decorated digs and beautiful women.
The film version of Shaft also featured the perfect theme song constructed by Stax Records composer Isaac Hayes, whose sometimes naughty lyrics served as an introduction to the character (described as “the Black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks”). Even before most of us saw the film, Hayes’s soul-induced pop song—with its hypnotic hi-hat intro and wah-wah guitar throughout—was musical magic.
A funky overture that baptized Black America with the nectar of muddy waters Memphis, “Theme from Shaft” was played on a zillion radio stations across the world, going #1 on both the pop and R&B charts. “Having never written a score before, I was a little nervous that I would mess up,” Hayes admitted to me in a 1995 interview.
Yet in a record-breaking four days, holed up in an MGM recording studio with the Bar-Kays and the Memphis Strings & Horns, brother Hayes created a funky template that later inspired the soulful musings of Curtis Mayfield (Super Fly), Marvin Gaye (Trouble Man), James Brown (Black Caesar) and Willie Hutch (The Mack). After Shaft, Black film soundtracks would never be the same.
The following year, at the 1972 Academy Awards, Isaac Hayes won an Oscar for Best Soundtrack, making him the first Black musician to do so. Coincidentally, the same night Hayes accepted his Academy Award for best song, Tidyman also won a gold statue for The French Connection screenplay.
However, in Shaft’s 42-year history as an iconic movie, most fans of the film know little about Tidyman’s pulp fiction series. Between 1971 and 1975, Tidyman wrote seven Shaft novels with titles including Shaft Among the Jews (1972) and Shaft Has a Ball (1973).
“Tidyman wasn’t happy with the film, because he felt the character had been politicized,” says NPR commentator/author Jimi Izrael, who wrote his graduate MFA thesis on Shaft. “His feelings were that he had written Shaft as a detective novel, not a Black power tome.” Still, Tidyman’s unhappiness didn’t stop him from penning the sequel, Shaft’s Big Score, (also directed by Gordon Parks) the following year.
“I think the critics have overrated the movie Shaft,” says British crime writer and editor Maxiam Jakubowski. In 1997, Jakubowski was series co-editor of a line of book-to-movie reissues for the Bloomsbury Film Classic Series. “Although there wasn’t a big demand for Tidyman’s work, I included Shaft in the series because for so long the movie overshadowed the book. It was a natural one to do.”
Noted journalist and filmmaker Nelson George first read Shaft years ago and is a fan of Tidyman’s writing. “Richard Roundtree was charming on screen, but the Shaft in Tidyman’s novel is a richer character in many ways,” George says. “In the book, the character is meaner. We find out his backstory as a foster child and Vietnam vet. None of that was mentioned in the film. Tidyman wasn’t always convincing when writing about race or sex, but it was an interesting attempt. Shaft is an old school gumshoe who asks questions and beats people up.”
Tidyman finally killed off his serial lead in 1975’s The Last Shaft. However, Tidyman’s textual icon of post-civil rights urban badness hasn’t been in print in years. “Although he was not on a par with [writers Dashiell] Hammett and [Raymond] Chandler, he wasn’t far behind,” says Woody Haut, author of Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood. “While I wouldn’t rate Tidyman as a hardboiled innovator, he was an authentic tough-guy writer whose work, at its best, is a cross between Chester Himes and Mickey Spillane. His protagonists on the page and screen retain a sense of ethics and some vestige of a political consciousness while maintaining ties with the criminal world, often blurring the distinction between the two.”
Los Angeles-based mystery writer, editor and comic book creator Gary Phillips created the Black private eye Ivan Monk in a series of books, beginning with 1994’s Violet Spring. “To me, the novels speak to a time and sensibilities from the sexual loosening then—the Black Power movement, Vietnam, to our disillusionment as a country with our institutions—given the five o’clock shadow of Nixon hang[ing] over those books.”
Though director John Singleton damn near killed off the character with his wack remake of the film decades later (which featured cameos from both Gordon Parks and Richard Roundtree), the spirit of Shaft is still strong. Whether seen through Tidyman’s pen or Gordon Parks’s lens, Shaft still has an influence on popular culture. Consider Black Dynamite, the blaxploitation parody that Adult Swim adapted into a cartoon, to the critically acclaimed comic book series Afrodisiac, to whatever Quentin Tarantino might be working on next. As Isaac Hayes once sang, “…you’re damn right!”
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.