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Thanks to the late, great funk composer Isaac Hayes, Gordon Parks' Shaft (1971) has an opening line ("Who's the black private dick/Who's a sex machine/To all the chicks?") that ranks right up there for sheer quotability with "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" and "Call me Ishmael." (In his posthumously published 2007 memoir A Hungry Heart, Parks claimed the theme was entirely instrumental until Hayes learned there could be an Academy Award® in it for him if the tune had lyrics; he added them at the last minute and "The Theme from Shaft won its Oscar® for Best Original Song".) While not the first urban crime thriller with a predominately black cast (Up Tight! , Jules Dassin's inner city reworking of John Ford's The Informer , beat it to the streets by three years), the unexpected success of this Metro Goldwyn Mayer production (which earned back more than ten times its $1.125 million budget) revived the failing studio and launched the crime movie subgenre of "blaxploitation."
Lasting from 1971 until roughly 1977, blaxploitation gave work to dozens of formerly sidelined black actors and offered moviegoers a wealth of larger-than-life Afrocentric characters with equally mythic-sounding names: from Slaughter and Foxy Brown to Truck Turner and Cleopatra Jones. With a catalogue well into the double digits, blaxploitation honored every conceivable film category (including westerns, musicals and horror) and ranged wildly in quality from the sublime (Cotton Comes to Harlem , The Mack , Cooley High ) to the ridiculous (Abby , Black Belt Jones , Top of the Heap ). The impact of Shaft on Hollywood cannot be underestimated; when Martin Scorsese was shopping his script for Mean Streets (1973), Roger Corman offered to produce as long as the characters were rewritten as black. Shaft was followed by two sequels in as many years and a short-lived (seven episodes) CBS television series - all starring Richard Roundtree as "the cat who won't cop out/When there's danger all about."
The son of a New Rochelle sanitation worker, Richard Roundtree attended Southern Illinois University on a football scholarship but was led astray after performing in campus theatricals. While paying his rent in Manhattan by waiting tables, he followed up on a tip for a modeling gig that paid $40 an hour and found himself walking the runway of the Ebony Fashion Fair. In Los Angeles, Bill Cosby advised the young hopeful to hone his craft as an actor in New York. Taking Cosby's advice, Roundtree enrolled in classes at the Negro Ensemble Company. He made his film debut in Allen Funt's What Do You Say to a Naked Lady (1970). His salary for Shaft was a mere $12,000, but a year later he was able to quadruple his asking price to return in Shaft's Big Score (1972). After Shaft in Africa (1973), Roundtree had prominent roles in Man Friday (1975) with Peter O'Toole and the Roots (1977) miniseries but never again enjoyed A-list status, keeping busy instead as a jobbing character actor. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993, Roundtree underwent treatment and in remission became a spokesman for early detection and prevention.
When Richard Roundtree auditioned for the role of John Shaft, director Gordon Parks (being rewarded by MGM with this assignment after the success of his semi-autobiographical The Learning Tree, a 1969 adaptation of his 1963 novel) had him wear a fake moustache. On the first day of shooting, however, Parks was alarmed to find Roundtree ordered to shave off the facial hair he had grown prior to shooting on the order of producer Joel Freeman. Although Sidney Poitier had broken the color barrier on black-skinned leading men in Hollywood films, he did it clean shaven and presentable to white audiences; Parks (who sported his own flamboyant cookie duster) wanted John Shaft to make it on his own terms, to be the first black movie hero to sport his own sense of style, from his flapping leather "maxi" to his macho handlebar moustache. After Parks confronted Freeman, who admitted he had no good argument as to why he had ordered Roundtree to shave, Shaft got to keep his moustache.
While Shaft is now considered a quintessential New York movie, Parks also had to fight to keep the production based there. With winter setting in at the start of principal photography in January of 1970, newly-hired MGM studio boss Jim Aubrey (who had been brought onboard to keep spending in line and save the studio from impending bankruptcy) feared that cameras frozen by Eastern frost would create problems and delays and bloat the film's modest budget. (The shift westward would also have entailed firing everyone on the payroll except Richard Roundtree.) Flying to Hollywood with less than twenty-four hours before the first day of shooting, Parks sat down with Aubrey (whose reputation for merciless decision-making had earned him the nickname "The Smiling Cobra") and through a combination of charm, perseverance, threats (that he'd quit if he had to film in Los Angeles) and bullsh*t (including unsupportable claims that he had at his disposal state-of-the-art cameras with built-in heaters) convinced Aubrey that he could bring the film in under budget. With the studio executive's tempered blessing ("If you screw up, your ass is mine"), Parks turned right around and headed back east. He brought Shaft in on time and under budget. And the rest is New York history.
Producer: Joel Freeman
Director: Gordon Parks
Screenplay: John D.F. Black; Ernest Tidyman (screenplay and novel)
Cinematography: Urs Furrer
Art Direction: Emanuel Gerard
Music: Isaac Hayes, J.J. Johnson
Film Editing: Hugh A. Robertson
Cast: Richard Roundtree (John Shaft), Moses Gunn (Bumpy Jonas), Charles Cioffi (Vic Androzzi), Christopher St. John (Ben Buford), Gwenn Mitchell (Ellie Moore), Lawrence Pressman (Sergeant Tom Hannon), Victor Arnold (Charlie), Sherri Brewer (Marcy), Rex Robbins (Rollie), Camille Yarbrough (Dina Greene), Margaret Warncke (Linda), Joseph Leon (Byron Leibowitz).
C-101m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Richard Harland Smith
Gordon Parks: Photographer by Skip Berry
A Choice of Weapons by Gordon Parks
Voices in the Mirror: An Autobiography by Gordon Parks
A Hungry Heart: A Memoir by Gordon Parks
"Gordon Parks: Each day is still too short in the wide-ranging life of the master multitasker" by Roy Rowan, Smithsonian magazine, Volume 36, Issue 8, November 2005
A Choice of Colors: Spike Lee and the African American Filmmakers by K. Maurice Jones
"I'm Talking About Shaft" by Michael Parker, Southern Culture Volume 12, Number 3, Fall 2006
Richard Roundtree interview by Tavis Smiley, May 2008
Crime Movies by Carlos Clarens
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock'n'Roll Generation Saved Hollywood by Peter Biskind