Shaft Redefining Black Hollywood

Throughout the late 1960s and into the 1970s, many American films were becoming radically different in their approach. These new Hollywood films were beginning to explore darker subjects in more character driven films. During this cinematic renaissance of the 1970s, many mainstream American audiences began to develop a thirst for crime films that featured masculine heroes taking matters into their own hands. Of these new masculine, violent films were The French Connection and Dirty Harry. The white heroes that were in those films were strictly intended to satisfy the white audiences; however, the craving for these types of heroes was not limited to white audiences.

Richard Roundtree as John Shaft

Richard Roundtree as John Shaft

 

African American audiences of this time also wanted masculine heroes in their movies: “After years of watching elegant, well-spoken Sidney Poitier endure insults from racist white cops in films like In The Heat of the Night (1967), African Americans were ready to see someone respond to the cinematic police brutality and racial profiling of Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and “Dirty” Harry Callahan” (Friedman 57). The need for such black heroes led to the emergence of a new film genre called Blaxploitation.

Out of this genre came several films that contained black action heroes who have had enough of “the Man”. These films contained lots of action, lots of sex, and were made cheaply by white producers. Although there might be some cynicism in the name of the genre and how these films were made, the genre became widely popular because of how it treated the black characters. In Peter Lev’s book, American Films of the 70s:Conflicting Visions, he suggests the importance of the genre: “The black action hits of the early 1970s showed that there was an African American audience eager to see more positive treatment of the black community on film. The success of Blaxploitation provided opportunities for a whole generation of African American actors, directors, and writers” (128). Arguably, the most important film of the genre was Gordon Parks’ Shaft. Many believe that this film helped launch the popularity of Blaxploitation films, and definitely helped redefined what it meant to be black on screen. Also it was instrumental in creating a black hero that African American audiences could look up to. In addition, Shaft also gave black audiences the opportunity to be proud to be black in the constant presence of white supremacy.

When examining what makes Shaft so unique to black audiences across America, it is important to know about the conception of the character, John Shaft, the eventual production of the film, and the changes that was made to the story. Most people have overlooked the fact that the initial creation of John Shaft came from a white writer who decided it was time for a black detective novel: “Shaft is an adaptation of a novel by Ernest Tidyman, with a script by Tidyman and John D.F. Black. Tidyman, a white man, had a background as a newspaper reporter and a writer of action scripts (including The French Connection)” (Lev 131).  By the time his novel was released, he had sold the rights and script to MGM. Once in MGM’s possession, they decided to change the script and make it into a white film. However, that plan didn’t last long thanks to the success of other films that contained an all black cast. In the documentary, Baadasssss Cinema, film historian Ed Guerrero discuses this change: “Shaft was really made for a white cast, but when they saw all of these things: the rising expectations of a new black audience, this black energy about self-definition, and the new black politics. They saw something that was immediately exploitable. They changed Shaft into a black film” (Julien). The supporters of this change were the heads of the studio, Jim Aubrey and Doug Netter. These men were determined to get a black director for Shaft, and they knew what director they wanted to get.

In 1969, Warner Brothers released The Learning Tree, which was written and directed by Gordon Parks. This film made many Hollywood executives take notice of Parks as a director, and also gave them the idea of making more films intended for black audiences because of the film’s mild success. In the article, Who Dat Man? Shaft and the Blaxploitation Genre, the author describes MGM’s thinking: “The Learning Tree was the first major Hollywood release directed by a black man, which is why MGM called on Parks two years later, when Shaft was in the works” (Briggs 27). Parks eagerly accepted the offer because he wanted to expand his filmography and knew that he wanted to make another film focused on the black community. Throughout the production of Shaft, Parks knew what type of film he wanted to make, and so did the executives. Fortunately for all parties involved, they were able to work together. In the book, To Find An Image: Black Films From Uncle Tom to Super Fly, written by James P. Murray, Gordon Parks recalled his relationship with Aubrey and Netter: “Aubrey and Netter decided the type of film they wanted. They made compromises for me and I made a few for them. In the end, we came out with what we wanted: a tough, hard picture” (65). Due to the good rapport with the heads of the studio, Parks was ready to make Shaft his way; however, there were still some challenges along the way.

The major problem with Shaft was that it was just a mediocre script that was not authentic in presenting John Shaft as a true black hero. Screenwriter, Tidyman, inserted a lot of the detective conventions found in other films of that era:

Shaft is such a conventional Hollywood movie that you could have made the main character white-or Chinese, for that matter-with very few alterations. It’s full of private eyes clichés-the mysterious client who lies to him, the beautiful women who has to be rescued. The ambiguous relationship with the law, the decaying mean streets that the detective understands but is not really apart of. Perhaps this is why, when Gordon Parks got Ernest Tidyman’s script, he insisted on hiring a second screenwriter to ‘blacken it up’ (Briggs 26).

So, Parks and his new screenwriter began rewriting the script in order to maker it a better representation of the black image. They deviated a lot from the story and changed key parts. The most notable changes can be seen in Shaft’s relationships with the supporting characters, and the improvement of other supporting characters: “In the book, Shaft’s girlfriend was a white woman; Parks made her black. The role of the black militant (played be Christopher St. John) was expanded, and a scene here St. John seemingly compromises his position was changed” (Murray 62). Parks thought these changes were necessary. Parks especially thought people wouldn’t take John Shaft seriously because of his relationship with a white girlfriend. In an interview, Parks made it clear why he changed the race of his girlfriend: “To be a convincing hero, Shaft had to be free of ties with whites. His having a white girlfriend would have destroyed the idea of him as distinctly black, tying him emotionally to a situation that most black audiences would find alien” (Murray 62). Parks believed this change was extremely instrumental in a creating a more authentic figure that African Americans could relate to.

The other equally important alteration for Parks was definitely expanding the militant characters. By improving the militant characters, Parks was fully committed to the black community. In another interview, Parks declared the importance of supporting the black community in his film:

I do think the black director, especially when he’s handling pictures espousing black content, has to protect and interpret the roles in a way that will no longer be offensive to

blacks. The handling of the militants, for instance, would have been very bad if it had gone the way the book was written, because they were just hanging around banging garbage cans as detractors while Shaft did his thing upstairs, rescuing the girl. I protected the part of the militant. I made it generally a stronger part to make it more reasonable in a more viable situation, and generally uplifted the parts of the blacks in Shaft” (Murray 67).

Along with this change, and the creation of Shaft as a hero, Parks wanted to improve how blacks were depicted on screen. He was concerned how blacks were treated for so many years that he tried everything he could to improve the black characters in Shaft. Shaft was a way for Parks to get rid of the stigma that has been placed on black actors for many years, and for once he wanted to see a black person ‘win’ in a movie.

During the rewrite process, Parks also continued to make changes to John Shaft. Parks moved away from having Shaft be a white man’s imagination of a black person. John Shaft became an independent individual who had social responsibilities in protecting his neighborhood In the book, Black Directors In Hollywood, author Melvin Donalson, reveals how Parks wanted Shaft to be comfortable in his own skin: “John Shaft maintains a take-charge, no-nonsense approach as a matter of form. He bickers defiantly with white detectives, gives the finger to a white cab driver; indulges in recreational sex with black and white lovers; commands respect from white vendors and doormen; and stands confidently against white mobsters. But, then, despite his hard edge, Shaft gives money to a shivering black child sitting outside a Harlem apartment building” (12). John Shaft is able to function in both the black and white communities, but his loyalties still belong to the black community. Parks’ main focus was to truly create a black hero that was proud to be black. In addition, Parks and his screenwriters ensured that the character of John Shaft was not intimated by anyone- black or white:

John Shaft posed another kind of black masculinity. Unconcerned with integrating or being invited into a white home for dinner, John Shaft refuted middle-class concerns, sensibilities, and desires that lay at the foundation of the integrationist ideal. John Shaft was brash, clever, and sexual, and he was quite content to live in his Harlem community. There was no ambiguity about his politics, allegiances, or virility. He was black-in attitude, language, and psyche-and he constantly reminded other characters (and society) that they were white and subject to his wrath or sarcasm (Donalson 11).

Richard Roundtree as John Shaft

Richard Roundtree as John Shaft

Finally, there was a positive black hero in film that stood up against racism and crime, and at the same time gave many people someone to look up to during the turbulent times of the 1970s.

Despite Parks’ best efforts to create a film with dynamic black characters, when Shaft was finally released to the public in 1971 it opened to a lot of mixed reviews. Some were open to a black hero in the vein of James Bonds; however, others were much more critical of the film: “When Shaft made it to the theaters, some viewers, black and nonblack alike, saw an entertaining black hero in the James Bond tradition. Others, however, saw an exploitive black male stereotype thrown on-screen to increase Hollywood’s profits. For those critics, Shaft defamed black culture” (Donalson 11). Many popular news outlets began to criticize the film and some even took shots at Gordon Parks. Many labeled Shaft as a poorly executed film that would have been only average if it was a white film. More specifically, the critic for Times was a big opponent of the film: “Clayton Riley, the contributing black critic for the Times, wrote a scathing review. Headlined ‘A Black Film For White Audiences?’ it attacked the directing, acting, script, and technical quality, concluding that Shaft was ‘an extended lie, a distortion that simply grows larger and more unbelievable with each frame” (Murray 68). With each criticism of the film, Gordon Parks stood firmly behind it and his decisions.

Gordon Parks decisively believed that Shaft served a therapeutic function for black audiences because black people wanted to see a black hero succeed in film. In response to Riley’s criticism, Gordon Parks pointed out that other black critics supported the film: “Parks answered many of Riley’s specific criticisms. He pointed out that most black critics had praised the film, among them Maurice Peterson (of Essence), who had described Shaft as ‘the first picture to show a black man who leads a life free of racial torment” (Murray 69). Parks then goes onto describe Shaft as more than just a Blaxploitation film. When he filmed it, he made sure the entire crew was black, even the assistants. In another interview, Parks began to get frustrated with all of the negativity: “Other creative people were upset by their icy critical reception. ‘I hate the term, Blaxploitation,’ said director Gordon Parks. ‘Shaft has nothing to do with exploitation. I don’t know where they got that. What Shaft was about was providing work for black people that they never had before, letting them get into films. That’s not exploitation’” (Briggs 26). All of this back and forth between critics and supporters of the film did not stop audiences from seeing the movie. Shaft grossed $6 million in the first two months, and by the end of the year it made $18 million (Donalson 13). Shaft became one of the most successful films of the year, and has only gained more praise in the years and decades since being released.

Recent critics and filmmakers have gone on to defend Shaft and talked about how influential it has been for black filmmakers and films that came afterwards. In Baadasssss Cinema, actor Samuel L. Jackson talked about watching Shaft for the first time and being able to identify with him so easily: “He was like everything we always wanted to be. He was cool, he talked tough, he looked great, and he was kind of fearless. He was a hero. He was already a neighborhood icon when he showed up in the movie. Even though we didn’t know him, we knew him. You know we felt him” (Julien). John Shaft became the role model Parks intended him to be. Also John Shaft became a character that made black people feel better about themselves and their situations. Furthermore, in the documentary film critic Elvis Mitchell declares the importance of Shaft is how it brought a unique black experience to film that has been absent from its predecessors: “There are these moments that kind of are subliminal for black audiences that white people would just scratch their heads about. The scene where the star of the picture can’t get a cab. There was this underground code that the black filmmakers and actors brought their own experiences to the movies that we have never seen before” (Julien). Even though Shaft was not the first film to contain a black hero, or positive representations of the black community, Shaft will always be remembered as a film that helped expand black representation in Hollywood. It inspired and opened the door for the younger generation. The future black actors and directors who watched Shaft finally saw that their community and voices could be heard in Hollywood.

References

Baadasssss Cinema. Dir. Isaac Julien. Docurama, 2003. Film.

Briggs, Joe Bob. “Who Dat Man? Shaft and the Blaxploitation Genre.”Cineaste 28.2 (2003)

Academic Search Premier. Web. 12 Feb. 2015.

Donalson, Melvin. Black Directors In Hollywood. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003. Print.

Friedman, Lester D. American Cinema of the 1970s. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press,

  1. Print.

Lev, Peter. American Films of the 1970s Conflicting Visions. Austin: University of Texas Press,

  1. Print.

Murray, James P. To Find An Image: Black Films From Uncle Tom to Super Fly. New York:

The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1973. Print.

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