Today marks the 50th Anniversary of the publication of Ernest Tidyman’s novel Shaft. The book introduces us to black private eye John Shaft as he is hired by Harlem crime lord, Knocks Persons, to locate and rescue his kidnapped daughter who has been grabbed by the Mafia to force Persons to relent in a turf war. Shaft was a brilliant creation – a tough and uncompromising character making his own way in life. The book was very popular and was quickly picked up by MGM for its movie rights – Tidyman having circulated galley copies to studio execs and producers. One such producer, Philip D’Antoni, hired Tidyman to adapt Robin Moore’s book for The French Connection, for which Tidyman ultimately won an Oscar.
Shaft, the movie, was directed by veteran photographer Gordon Parks with Richard Roundtree charismatic in the title role and Isaac Hayes providing a memorably funky score. The rest is history, of course. The movie became a box-office smash and helped to create many new opportunities for black people in the film industry. Two sequels followed (Shaft’s Big Score! in 1972 and Shaft in Africa in 1973) as well as a series of seven TV movies (1973-4).
Tidyman went on to write seven Shaft novels in all but killed his character off in 1975’s The Last Shaft. Despite this, he did try to revive the film series in the late 70s, but could not get the necessary interest in post-Star Wars Hollywood. Of course, two further sequels followed in 2000 and 2019, both titled simply Shaft. Samuel L Jackson played Roundtree’s nephew/son and Jessie T Usher Jackson’s son. Roundtree had cameos in both movies.
Shaft, the novel, had its latest re-publication back in 2016 through Dynamite Entertainment, who also hired David F Walker to write two comic books and a new novel, Shaft’s Revenge. However, Dynamite lost interest due to disappointing sales, despite the critical acclaim this new output garnered. Plans to republish all of Tidyman’s novels seem to have been shelved, so we may have to wait for rights to be freed up again before we see any further reprints.
In the meantime, let’s celebrate and appreciate what Ernest Tidyman brought to the world of crime fiction and cinema on 27 April 1970.
Four years ago it was announced that New Line had secured the rights from Warner Brothers to make a new Shaft movie. For fans of Ernest Tidyman’s hero and the original 1970s movies this was a welcome surprise. The key question was how would New Line treat the property? Gradually news filtered out that the movie would be a sequel to the Samuel L Jackson 2000 version, itself a sequel to Richard Roundtree’s three 1970s originals. The movie would feature a third generation John Shaft and would concentrate on the relationship between him and his father. It would also have a comedic tone. That’s when my heart, and no doubt those of many other fans of the original, sank. What we got when the film was finally released in June 2019, nearly a full year after completion, was exactly what had been promised. I sat watching the film with an increasingly sinking feeling that the producers had totally messed things up. Jackson’s character has been turned into a caricature of his 2000 version, whilst Roundtree is trotted out for the finale and is given too little screen time, given he gives easily the most considered performance. My wife lasted half-an-hour, my son an hour, I had to see it through of course.
It seems odd that we are to accept in the post-millennial, ultra PC world we currently live in that it is impossible to make a serious crime thriller with a black hero. Why? 1971s Shaft was a hard-hitting crime thriller with a solid plot and a charismatic lead, which also had aspects of social commentary. It resonated with a generation of black Americans and a wider worldwide audience. It was groundbreaking in opening up Hollywood to black filmmakers and actors and as such has massive cultural significance. Yes, the glut of Blaxploitation movies that followed in its wake quickly veered into the territory of the absurd, but there were the occasional gems and, more importantly, it helped give black artists a stronger voice in popular culture.
Ernest Tidyman, Shaft’s creator, was ironically a white man. His goal, on commission from Macmillan’s mystery editor Alan Rinzler, was to create a black hero to give readers of crime fiction something different to the glut of white detectives and Agatha Christie-styled comfy mysteries. Tidyman duly obliged with a private eye in the mould of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe brought up to date and thrown into a decaying New York City with all its financial and social problems and its escalating crime rate. The result was the novel Shaft (1970), a hard-hitting fast read of a thriller that integrates the social issues of life in Harlem into a straight-forward detective story of threatened gang warfare between the Mafia and the Harlem crime lord. Tidyman was a former journalist with the New York Times who had an in-depth knowledge of both the city and its issues.
As written by Tidyman, the character of John Shaft was a product of poverty in the black community. Orphaned at two-years-old, passed around from foster home to foster home, he ran with the street gangs before being enlisted to fight in Vietnam rather than go to jail. A wounded war hero, hardened by his experience he made his own way in the white man’s world. Setting up his own detective agency and operating from Times Square – not the glitzy location of today, but the sleazy run-down place it had become in the 1970s. He lived in a Greenwich Village Apartment, amongst arty types. He had no time for the black militants, led by his former friend Ben Buford, and admonished Knocks Persons, the Godfather of Harlem for soaking the streets with drugs, prostitutes and for preying on the poverty of the population via the numbers racket. Shaft was a loner, out for himself. A man of few close friends. He had been shaped by his upbringing and his experiences into looking after number 1.
Tidyman cleverly weaved all these strands through that first novel and the result was a sensation that was quickly picked up by the big studios. MGM finally acquired the rights and hired Gordon Parks, a photographer and filmmaker with an affinity and feel for Harlem. Parks put his own stamp on the character in the film adaptation taking Tidyman’s template and fashioning a charismatic performance from newcomer Richard Roundtree. Isaac Hayes’ funky score captured both the character of Shaft and the feel of the streets and provided the icing on the cake. The opening sequence is one of the best in motion picture history at establishing a character in three or four minutes.
Like Tidyman’s novels, the film series became gradually more formulaic as bigger budgets put more emphasis on action and less on character, but they remained thoroughly enjoyable. The failure of Shaft in Africa at the box office signalled a move of the franchise to TV for a short-lived series of 7 TV movies. In 1975, Tidyman killed off the character in his seventh novel The Last Shaft (“He was tired and so was I”) and the world moved on.
Twenty-five years later, Paramount and John Singleton attempted to relaunch the franchise. They cast Samuel L Jackson as Shaft’s nephew (later to be determined as his son) – also named John Shaft – and put him in a serviceable crime thriller, which lost the hipness and resonance of those 1970s movies, whilst providing an opportunity for Jackson to showcase his considerable charisma. The movie did well at the box office, but no-one was really happy with it.
Nearly a generation later the world is a different place – even from that seen at the turn of the century, but there are worrying elements of an increasing backlash against attitudes of social tolerance: the election of Trump; Brexit in the UK; the increasing narrow-mindedness toward the migrant situation whether it be between the Middle East and Europe or on the US/Mexican border. Issues that could be addressed rather than ignored.
The laudable focus on diversity and sexual equality has rendered some of the wider attitudes seen in 1970s society as objectionable. Questions are being asked about the popular cultural icons of the time. The sexism perceived in characters such as James Bond and John Shaft is now no longer acceptable. Today’s heroes are driven to be whiter than white or they cannot be held up as role models for society.
This thinking is embodied in the character of JJ (John Shaft III) in Tim Story’s new version of Shaft. The scriptwriters (Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow) decided they would pitch post-Millennial attitudes against those of the pre-Millennial through JJs relationship with his father. But instead of taking a serious approach and making a forceful statement, they go for a comedy of manners. In so doing they both undermine their message and end up creating caricatures for comic effect rather than characters of depth.
And none of this has anything to do with Ernest Tidyman’s original creation.
Tidyman was not going all out to make social and political points in his writing. The issues of the day were presented as a backdrop to the story. Tidyman was creating escapist entertainment and thrills from a plausible detective hero – a character single-mindedly establishing a life for himself despite the things that have conspired against him. That is the essence of the character of John Shaft. Yes, he has his flaws – his disposable attitude to women, a sense of homophobia – but his heroic qualities of loyalty and resilience and his determination to do things his own way sent a message which resonated with the black population. Ernest Tidyman was recognised for his work on Shaft by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 2000, the original 1971 movie was preserved in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
The question posed by the failure of the new movie is: Does John Shaft carry any relevance in today’s world? The box office numbers for Tim Story’s movie would suggest not. But, is that because the movie is a total misfire that adds nothing to the Shaft legacy and indeed mocks its perceived outdated attitudes? Could a viable Shaft production still be made today? I believe the answer to this question is a definitive YES. As long as the subject is taken seriously and abandons the dilution through generational baton-handing.
In my mind there are two potential ways to go with the franchise:
1. Go back to the beginning and set it in the period. In 2014 David F Walker persuaded Dynamite Entertainment to obtain the literary rights to the character for a series of comic books and new prose novels. The result was Shaft: A Complicated Man. Set in 1969 this comic book is an “origins” story that explores how Shaft became a private detective having returned from Vietnam. It is effectively a prequel to Tidyman’s novel. It is a character study that deftly uses the 1969 New York setting and explores Shaft’s inner turmoil against the backdrop of him seeking revenge for the death of his girlfriend at the hands of organised crime. As a character study, a crime thriller and a representation of a period in history it works on multiple levels and has an emotional impact.
2. A reboot for the modern day. Bring the character up to date and set him against a backdrop of the social issues of today, whilst retaining his key core characteristics set down in Tidyman’s template. Craft a story that is exciting and challenging and allows these characteristics to be drawn out. Shaft should remain uncompromising, tough, resilient, single-minded. Some of the excesses of his character could be softened, but not removed altogether. Shaft is a flawed character – as are we all as individuals. These flaws are what make him feel human. The essence of that character should be retained.
I fear after the poor returns for Tim Story’s movie that the franchise is now dead on the big screen. However, there may still be opportunities to explore either of the two options I have outlined above on the small screen. If so, TV will likely be the best medium as it allows space for exposition of plot and exploration of social issues whilst giving the characters room to breathe and grow. A Shaft TV series today would be very different to the watered-down version of 1973/4. Warner Brothers need to stay true to a property in which I believe there is still mileage and not farm it out to hacks who have no feel for it. I am hoping there are sympathetic filmmakers out there who can put John Shaft back on the map and make him as relevant today as he was back in 1971.
Today sees the release of Tim Story’s version of Shaft. The director noted for his Ride Along films has controversially adopted a similar action-comedy-buddy movie tone which is completely out of kilter with Ernest Tidyman’s creation. Reviews of the movie have been mixed and the aggregator sites suggest an average rating of around 5 out of 10. I will have to wait until 28 June, when Netflix distributes the movie on its streaming service in the UK before I am able to make my own judgement.
In the meantime, I continue to feel this has been a wasted opportunity to re-introduce the character to cinema audiences and to formally introduce Shaft to a new generation. I have suggested before that David F. Walker’s comic book prequel Shaft: A Complicated Man would have made for a perfect adaptation. David really got under the skin of Tidyman’s creation in that book and it would have been a great starting point for the movie franchise relaunch. If the producers had chosen to go back to the start, set the movie in period – with all its social attitudes highlighted in a serious manner and Shaft’s character traits properly explained – this could have been a successful and authentic adaptation.
In a recent interview reported on People.com Samuel L Jackson talked briefly about the latest Shaft movie. It was originally reported that the film would be an Action/Comedy. This caused much disappointment and anger amongst fans of the original books and films, myself included.
In the interview about the dynamics in black films Jackson says: “When we started the film, the producers wanted to make an action comedy, and I told them that you can’t make John Shaft a comedic character. He can be funny, but he has to be strong, dynamic, and charismatic in all the ways that he was because he is part of our mythology. Shaft is part of our black film anthology. He was a hero and one of the first people we saw to be that kind of a character.”
Whilst this statement on its own is unlikely to convince sceptics, it may offer some faint hope that the filmmakers will take the character seriously. However, with the focus being on the original characters’ nephew and nephew’s son it is unlikely the film will resemble Ernest Tidyman’s vision. Why New Line did not consider re-introducing Tidyman’s original character, whether it be in an update or a retro crime thriller, remains a mystery. Trying to extend the Shaft family (despite it being clear in the novels that Shaft had no siblings) takes us further away from the original character concept. As I have said before, my preference would have been for an adaptation of David F Walker’s comic book “origins story”. But I guess this is more about trying to make money than being authentic and respectful of the Shaft legacy.
Well, here we are again. Another year on and it seems to have gone so quickly. At this time last year I gave a summary of activity in the world of John Shaft. It came at the end of an exciting two years, which saw the publication of two original comic books as well as a new novel, all written by David F Walker, relaunching Ernest Tidyman’s detective in literary form.
Walker had done a superb job at introducing the character to a new audience. His work proved to be a real treat for fans of the original books and films. Despite critical acclaim, these books did not sell in sufficient quantities to satisfy publishers Dynamite Entertainment and a planned reprint of Tidyman’s original novels stalled after the first release. The Italian reprints through SUR, however, did at least continue with the publication of the second book, Shaft Among the Jews, in January (retitled Shaft Tragli Ebrei).
Also in January, further news on the proposed new Shaft movie emerged when Tim Story was announced as director. The fact that Story has a string of comedic action tales to his credit added further fuel to the fire that the producers were moving away from the original concept.
In February, Walker’s Shaft: Imitation of Life comic book was nominated for the 2017 Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity. Whilst the book failed to win the award, it was further acknowledgement of Walker’s achievements. The writer would go on to produce high profile work away from Dynamite with a new Luke Cage series for Marvel along with Power Man and Iron Fist and Occupy Avengers and a comic series book series of Planet of the Apes for Boom.
All went quiet in the Shaft world until August, when in an interview Story confirmed, “My Shaft movie is going to be definitely not straight action. We’re going action-comedy or comedy-action, I’m not exactly sure which one comes first. We’re going to definitely make sure the stakes in the world are real, and then you’ve got these characters who are dealing with kind of a father/son situation, we’re going to see them put a family back together.”
Pre-production was mobilised and casting commenced with Jessie T Usher confirmed as the son of Samuel L Jackson’s John Shaft, who in turn is the nephew of Richard Roundtree’s original. The film, provisionally titled Son of Shaft, is therefore a sequel to John Singleton’s 2000 Shaft, which starred Jackson and was a belated sequel to the original Shaft trilogy from the early 1970s. What modern audiences will make of these nods to the character’s cinematic legacy remains to be seen, but it feels like this is Shaft in name only. Usher’s character is described as being at odds with the old-school methods of detection employed by his father – being a more tech-savvy sleuth working for the FBI. With the tone set for an action-comedy, the result is likely to be far-removed from Tidyman’s gritty novels and Gordon Parks’ iconic 1971 interpretation.
Alexandra Shipp and Regina Hall, the latter as Shaft Jr’s mother, were also added to the cast and shooting commenced in Atlanta in December with a scheduled move to New York planned in early 2018. A June 2019 release date has also been slated and a distribution deal has been agreed by New Line with internet movie provider, Netflix.
So, with 18 months to wait before we get to see any new Shaft on screen, what else is happening? Well the answer is not much. Whilst the original Shaft was finally released on Blu-ray in the UK in October, we still await BD releases of Shaft’s Big Score! and Shaft in Africa anywhere in the world. My guess is these will be released in 2019 to coincide with the new movie. Whether, Dynamite will follow suit by reprinting the remainder of Tidyman’s novels remains to be seen.
I remain hopeful hype around the movie will bring the Shaft legacy into the public eye once more – despite my reservations about its tone and subject matter. Dynamite still owns the literary rights, so maybe interest will be rekindled in commissioning more original literary work whether in comic book form or prose, hopefully with Walker on board.
SHAFT: IMITATION OF LIFE by DAVID F. WALKER/DIETRICH SMITH (2017, Dynamite, 104pp) ∗∗∗∗
Blurb: After a high-profile case puts him in the headlines, private detective John Shaft is looking for something low profile and easy that will keep him out of the spotlight, out of danger. Shaft takes a missing person case that proves to be more difficult than he initially thought. At the same time, he is hired to be a consultant on a low budget film that may or may not be based on his life, and proves to be as dangerous as any job he’s ever had. But when there’s danger all about, John Shaft is the cat that won’t cop out – even if it means squaring off against sadistic gangsters that want him dead.
The trade paperback publication of this four-part comic book arrives a year after similar treatement for Shaft: A Complicated Man. David F. Walker returns as writer and is partnered with Dietrich Smith as artist. The book demonstrates the confidence Walker took from his critically acclaimed debut as the literary heir to Ernest Tidyman’s creation. The story stretches itself around social issues of a decaying New York and the expoitation of young gays through pornography. Walker also finds time to seemingly take a satirical swipe at some of the excesses of Blaxploitation cinema, by having Shaft work as a consultant on a film based on his own exploits, only here exaggerated to comical effect. In reality, however, this is a dig at the makers of the proposed new Shaft movie, which is reported to have a comedic slant. Smith’s artwork is more bold and colourful than the more sensitive tones applied by Bilquis Evely. His work is very effective and at times sublime – notably in the use of light and shade at the start of Part 3, where Shaft is interviewed by detectives in his office. Ultimately, whilst the story lacks the dramatic and emotional bite of Walker’s debut, it is an entertaining read lifting the lid on the sleazier aspects of early 1970s New York. Unlike the TP publication of Shaft: A Complicated Man, this book comes without any extras, such as an introduction, script extracts and character profiles, which is a shame. It is also a shame that Dynamite seem to have stalled on any new Shaft output – with as yet no commissioned third comic book or follow-up novel to Walker’s excellent Shaft’s Revenge. There is also no news of the continuation of the reprints of Tidyman’s originals. I hope the publisher has not lost interest in the series and that we see more Shaft output very soon.
It was announced today that Shaft: Imitation of Life has been nominated for the 2017 Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity. Written by David F. Walker with art work by Dietrich Smith and featuring the eponymous black hero, the comic also tackled issues of the exploitation of homosexual males in early 1970s New York. The comic followed Walker’s Shaft: A Complicated Man, which was nominated for the same award in 2015.
Amazon has a listing for the 96-page trade paperback publication of the 4-part comic book Shaft: Imitation of Life. The book, written by David F. Walker with artwork by Dietrich Smith is set for publication on 21 February 2017.
The blurb reads: After a high profile case puts him in the headlines, private detective John Shaft is looking for something low profile and easy that will keep him out of the spotlight, out of danger. Shaft takes a missing person case that proves to be more difficult than he initially thought. At the same time, he is hired to be a consultant on a low budget film that may or may not be based on his life, and proves to be as dangerous as any job he’s ever had. But when there’s danger all about, John Shaft is the cat that won’t cop out – even if it means squaring off against sadistic gangsters that want him dead.
The following editorial review extracts are also included in the listing:
“The creative team of Walker and Smith channel Ernest Tidyman’s iconic detective with an accuracy his character has not seen in years.” – Comicsverse
“David F. Walker populates this sensational medium of ours with living, breathing human beings. It’s what he’s good at. It’s his gift.” – Doomrocket
“Worthy of our attention.” – Comic Bastards
“The faithful adaptation of the character. Shaft is back and he’s packing heat.” – Project Nerd
In May 2014 Dynamite Entertainment announced it had purchased the literary rights to Ernest Tidyman’s creation John Shaft. The purchase was prompted by comic book writer and author David F Walker, who was given responsibility of writing new Shaft adventures in both comic book and prose forms. The result was the brilliant comic Shaft: A Complicated Man and the less effective, but nevertheless entertaining Shaft: Imitation of Life. Walker’s commendable novel Shaft’s Revenge completed the relaunch.
Last month Dynamite followed through on its promise to republish the original Ernest Tidyman novels by releasing 1970s Shaft on 20 July. This is the first time the novel has been available in a new print version in the US since the 1970s. Recently Shaft was also reissued in Italy via publisher SUR. Whilst the 7-book series has been available in a German translation as well as audio books, Shaft excepting, it has not been published in the UK since 1977.
Dynamite’s Shaft is presented in a similar format to Shaft’s Revenge and has a stylish retro cover by Robert Hack resembling the UK Corgi paperback covers for the series in the 1970s. Whilst I am delighted that Dynamite are seeking to re-introduce Tidyman’s work to a modern audience, I am slightly disappointed by the standard of presentation of the text inside. Paragraph indents are far too deep and the method of scanning the original text has resulted in some typos. The same issues were apparent in Walker’s Shaft’s Revenge. More care should have been taken in the editorial stage. I hope these problems are resolved ahead of publication of the promised second Tidyman Shaft novel Shaft Among the Jews, for which there is a preview in this reprint. That said it is great to see the first book on the bookshelves again, hopefully introducing a new generation to one of crime fiction’s most enduring characters.
Whilst Dynamite continues to fly the flag for John Shaft there is, as yet, no further news on New Line’s development of a new Shaft movie. David Walker’s open letter to the producers was trailed heavily in the press last year and although New Line attempted to reassure fans that they would not turn Shaft into a comedy, the hiring of writers known for their comedic approach did little to allay such fears. Since then it has all gone quiet. Let’s hope the producers have taken time to reflect on recent events in the US and will proceed in producing a Shaft for a modern audience whilst maintaining the essence of Tidyman’s creation.
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