Exactly fifty years ago today (on Wednesday 23 June 1971) SHAFT premiered in Detroit (the Palms Theatre). Reports originally promoted a dual premiere with Chicago (The Roosevelt Theatre), but that opening actually took place one week later on 30 June. The Roosevelt ran showings from 8:45am through to midnight and the film reportedly grossed $108,000 in its first week in that theatre alone.
Detroit Free Press, 9 July 1971.The film premiered on the east coast in Baltimore on Thursday 24 June 1971 and in Los Angeles (amongst other cities) on Friday 25 June at the Fox theatre. Gordon Parks and Richard Roundtree attended the St. Louis premiere on the same day. In New York there was a benefit screening at 8pm on Tuesday 29 June at the DeMille Theatre (in aid of the widows of seven police officers slain during the year) before its opening on 2 July at both the De Mille and the Playhouse. SHAFT became a huge success across the USA as it went into a staggered wider release across 120 cities from 2 July.
Director Gordon Parks witnessed for himself the round-the-block queues on Broadway in New York as he told Roger Ebert back in 1972: “Ghetto kids were coming downtown to see their hero, Shaft, and here was a black man on the screen they didn’t have to be ashamed of. Here they had a chance to spend their $3 on something they wanted to see. We need movies about the history of our people, yes, but we need heroic fantasies about our people, too. We all need a little James Bond now and then.”
It was not until Friday 19 November 1971 that the movie opened in the UK and reportedly broke box office records at the Ritz in Leicester Square, London, having grossed $5,428 in its first three days. By July 1972, the movie had grossed more than $18 million against a budget of $1.1 million and is attributed with saving MGM from bankruptcy.
Whilst by no means perfect, the film (based on Ernest Tidyman’s novel published the previous year) is rightly regarded as a landmark in cinema history. SHAFT opened Hollywood up to black filmmakers, actors and technicians and an explosion of “Blaxpolitation” movies dominated cinema for the next two or three years. Largely unknown male model/actor Richard Roundtree’s, who gave a superb muscular performance as John Shaft, became an overnight star. SHAFT was recognised at the 1972 Academy Awards, with Isaac Hayes’ theme winning the Oscar for Best Song and his soundtrack also nominated. In 2000, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
The success of SHAFT led to two immediate sequels – SHAFT’S BIG SCORE! (1972) and SHAFT IN AFRICA (1973) as well as a short-lived series of seven TV movies (1973-4). The franchise was revived in 2000 by director John Singleton with Samuel L Jackson playing Roundtree’s nephew – later established, in Tim Story’s misguided 2019 continuation of the series, as his son. Roundtree would reprise his role in both films.
Whilst today the hype around the film’s original release may seem a long way away, recent events have demonstrated that the social and civil issues that inspired the creation of a black hero who was his own man, respected in both white and black communities, remain relevant and therefore so is the character of John Shaft.
Here in the UK, the 50th anniversary is being celebrated by screenings of SHAFT at a number of Everyman theatres across the country on Monday 28 June at 8.45pm.
EDITED ON 28 JUNE: Thanks to Michael Coate for further and some corrective information on premieres and openings. A link to Michael’s article on the 50th Anniversary is given below:
SHAFT: THE KIDNAPPING (TV) (1973, USA) ***
Action, Crime, Drama
net. Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS); pr co. MGM Television; d. Alexander Singer; w. Allan Balter. William Read Woodfield ; exec pr. Allan Balter; pr. William Read Woodfield; ass pr. Dann Cahn; ph. Michael Hugo (Metrocolor. 35mm. Spherical. 1.33:1); m. Johnny Pate, theme m. Isaac Hayes; m sup. Harry V Lojewski; ed. George Folsey Jr.; ad. Bill Ross; set d. Richard Friedman; cos. Norman A. Burza, Sylvia Liggett; m/up. Jack Wilson, Billie Jordan; sd. Robert J. Miller, Hal Watkins (Mono); b/cast. 11 December 1973 (USA); BBFC cert: PG; r/t. 74m.
cast: Richard Roundtree (John Shaft), Eddie Barth (Lt. Al Rossi), Paul Burke (Elliot Williamson), Karen Carlson (Nancy Williamson), Nicolas Beauvy (Matthew Potter), Greg Mullavey (Beck), Timothy Scott (Hayden), Victor Brandt (Leo), Frank Marth (Sheriff Bradley), Philip Kenneally (Deputy Walter), Erik Holland (Deputy Daley), Frank Whiteman (Deputy Milton), Stephen Coit (Mr. Tolliver), Jayne Kennedy (Debbie), Richard Stahl (Potter), Joe Petrullo (Cab Driver), Robert Casper (Bank customer), Rudy Doucette (Police Officer (uncredited)).
A banker’s wife is kidnapped, and the kidnappers insist that Shaft deliver the ransom. But complications arise when, on the way to the drop point, Shaft is stopped by an overzealous deputy who won’t listen to a word he says. This was the first shot episode (broadcast fourth) of the Shaft TV Movie series and it is little more than standard TV fare. However, its individual elements lift it above other more modest entries in the TV series and it is a pretty good introduction for TV audiences to a more family friendly John Shaft. TV at the time was not ready for the Shaft seen on the big screen, so compromises were made with the character’s abrasiveness, salty language, violent approach to detection and his wooing of the opposite sex. These elements were dialled down. To compensate the producers extracted footage from the chase finale in SHAFT’S BIG SCORE! and repurposed it here to introduce Shaft to a TV audience. This provides a dynamic opening , which a TV budget could not match for the rest of the story. Shaft’s shootout with the bad guys at the story’s conclusion is low-scale compared to the imported opening. Nevertheless, Roundtree shows glimpses of his big screen persona and has an athletic presence throughout.
After more than a year, I decided to give the new Shaft another go. Whilst I enjoyed it more, I still can’t get past its faults and haven’t changed my opinion that it was a wasted opportunity…
SHAFT (2019, USA) **½
Action, Crime, Comedy
dist. New Line Cinema, Warner Bros. (USA), Netflix (UK); pr co. Davis Entertainment / Khalabo Ink Society / Netflix / New Line Cinema / Warner Bros.; d. Tim Story; w. Kenya Barris, Alex Barnow (based on the character created by Ernest Tidyman); exec pr. Kenya Barris, Richard Brener, Marc S. Fischer, Josh Mack, Ira Napoliello, Tim Story; pr. John Davis; assoc pr. Antoine Jenkins; ph. Larry Blanford (Colour. D-Cinema. Digital Intermediate (2K) (master format), Hawk Scope (anamorphic) (source format). 2.39:1); m. Christopher Lennertz; m sup. Trygge Toven, Dave Jordan; ed. Peter S. Elliot; pd. Wynn Thomas; ad. Jeremy Woolsey, Brittany Hites (additional photography); set d. Missy Parker; cos. Olivia Miles; m/up. Kimberly Jones, Shunika Terry; sd. Sean McCormack (Dolby Digital); sfx. Russell Tyrrell; vfx. Nicole Rowley; st. Steven Ritzi; rel. 14 June 2019 (USA), 28 June 2019 (UK – internet); cert: 15; r/t. 111m.
cast: Samuel L. Jackson (John Shaft), Jessie T. Usher (JJ Shaft), Richard Roundtree (John Shaft, Sr.), Regina Hall (Maya Babanikos), Alexandra Shipp (Sasha Arias), Matt Lauria (Major Gary Cutworth), Titus Welliver (Special Agent Vietti), Method Man (Freddy P.), Isaach De Bankolé (Pierro ‘Gordito’ Carrera), Avan Jogia (Karim Hassan), Luna Lauren Velez (Bennie Rodriguez), Robbie Jones (Sergeant Keith Williams), Aaron Dominguez (Staff Sergeant Eddie Dominguez), Ian Casselberry (Manuel Orozco), Almeera Jiwa (Anam), Amato D’Apolito (Farik Bahar), Leland L. Jones (Ron), Jalyn Hall (Harlem Kid), Sylvia Jefferies (Once Beautiful Woman), Whit Coleman (Butch Lesbian Girl), Chivonne Michelle (Baby), Tashiana Washington (Sugar), Philip Fornah (Jacked Dude), Laticia Lee (Cocktail Waitress (as Laticia Rolle)), Ryan King Scales (Male Secretary), Tywayne Wheatt (Portly Doorman), Kenny Barr (Cop (Thomas)), Mike Dunston (News Anchor), Jordan Preston Carter (5-8 Year Old JJ), Nyah Marie Johnson (5-8 Year Old Sasha), Joey Mekyten (5-8 Year Old Karim), Sawyer Schultz (Mike Mitchell), Esmeree Sterling (Cute Bartender), Jose Miguel Vasquez (FBI Employee), Gabriel ‘G-Rod’ Rodriguez (Goon), Keith Brooks (Drunk Disorderly Man), DominiQue MrsGiJane Williams (Beautiful Woman), Michael Shikany (Older Man in Mosque), Lucia Scarano (Lady in Line), Greta Quispe (Employee), Heather Seiffert (Hostess), Charles Green (Hallway Man), Dorothi Fox (Old Lady Neighbor), Adrienne C. Moore (Ms. Pepper), Shakur Sozahdah (Worshiper).
JJ, aka John Shaft Jr. (Usher), may be a cyber security expert with a degree from MIT, but to uncover the truth behind his best friend’s untimely death, he needs an education only his dad can provide. Absent throughout JJ’s youth, the legendary locked-and-loaded John Shaft (Jackson) agrees to help his progeny navigate Harlem’s heroin-infested underbelly. And while JJ’s own FBI analyst’s badge may clash with his dad’s trademark leather coat, there is no denying family. Besides, Shaft’s got an agenda of his own, and a score to settle that is both professional and personal. This belated fifth film in the Shaft series is a misguided attempt to blend comedy with violent action. Although the comedy only occasionally strays into being too broad, the whole tone – mixing what could have been a serious story about drug smuggling with the generational gap in father/son relationships – is just off. Jackson does what Jackson does and for the most part does it well. Usher struggles to find the right level of performance, whilst Roundtree almost saves the movie with a neat cameo in the finale. Ultimately, however, it is difficult to buy into what Story is selling. Whilst it may please the popcorn crowd in search of mindless entertainment with its flashy visuals and hip dialogue, it will almost universally disappoint fans of the original movies through its lazy story-telling and its looking down on the Shaft legacy. Most of the movie was shot in Atlanta, doubling for New York.
Today sees the release of the original Shaft trilogy on Blu-Ray (as well as DVD) in the UK. This mirrors the Warner Archive release in the USA on 21 May 2019. The set includes Shaft (1971), Shaft’s Big Score! (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973). The Shaft disc includes the short documentary Soul in the Cinema: Filming Shaft on Location as well as the 1973 TV Movie Shaft: The Killing and trailers for all three films.
This follows last month’s UK Blu-Ray and 4K release of Tim Story’s Shaft (2019).
I received the following e-mail from McFarland promoting a 2-week 40% discount offer on popular culture books, which will include my titles The World of Shaft and The Songs of Genesis:
From our founding in 1979, McFarland has championed serious scholarship about popular culture. Longtime customers remember the classics like Bill Warren’s Keep Watching the Skies!—how many of you own the original hardcover in yellow cloth binding? Today, popular culture studies is perhaps our best-known line, with more than 2,000 books about horror and science fiction film, old time radio, biographies from the Golden Age of Hollywood, current television series, theatre, dance…whatever your interest, you’re sure to find it here. To express our appreciation for readers old and new, we’re offering 40% off ALL titles about popular culture through May 17 with coupon code POP40.
We wanted to fill you in so you can spread the word or take advantage of it yourself. The sale will be shared on McFarland’s website and social media sites first thing on the morning of Monday, May 4…we welcome your likes/shares/retweets.
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.
Dynamite Entertainment announced on 13 December the launch of their new imprint, Dynamite Books, focused on publishing prose novels. Alongside prose novels, the publisher will also release audiobook adaptations and it is reported that Ernest Tidyman’s Shaft is already available (narrated by Will Dixon) through Amazon Audible. No news on whether Dynamite will now finally get around to releasing the remainder of the Shaft books.
The full list of contributors is: Gary Phillips, Woody Haut, Emory Holmes II, Michael Bronski, David Whish-Wilson, Susie Thomas, Bill Osgerby, Kinohi Nishikawa, Jenny Pausacker, Linda S. Watts, Scott Adlerberg, Maitland McDonagh, Devin McKinney, Andrew Nette, Danae Bosler, Michael A. Gonzales, Iain McIntyre, Nicolas Tredell, Brian Coffey, Molly Grattan, Brian Greene, Eric Beaumont, Bill Mohr, J. Kingston Pierce, Steve Aldous, David James Foster, and Alley Hector.
There will be a launch event held at The Old Bar, 74- 76 Johnson St, Fitzroy, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia on 3 December at 6.30 p.m. where they’ll be joined by literary historian and pulp fiction fan Stuart Kellis.
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.
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