John Shaft
Created by Ernest Tidyman (1928-84)

Who is the man
Who would risk his neck for his brother man?

SHAFT!
Who's the cat who won't cop out
When there's danger all about?

SHAFT!
He's a complicated man
And no one understands him like his woman

JOHN SHAFT
You say this cat Shaft is a mean mother-

Shut ya mout'!
I'm talkin' 'bout Shaft!
Then we can dig it!!!

JOHN SHAFT, along with Peter Gunn, is one of the few P.I.s probably best known for his theme song. In this case, it's Isaac Hayes' Academy Award-winning, percolating, throbbing slab of funk theme for the 1971 film (based on Ernest Tidyman's novel of the same year) and subsequent hit single that set the tone for much of the following decade's black music, though little of it matched the visceral mean streets ferocity of its groove.

And Shaft was every bit as innovative as his theme song, both as the harbinger of the blaxploitation film explosion of the seventies, and within the literary genre of private eyes. Up until Shaft, black eyes were few and far between. In fact, except for Ed Lacy's Toussaint Moore, there weren't any of consequence at all. A few P.I.'s, either chock-full of racist stereotypes, or victims of a condescending whitewash, and that was about it. Shaft changed all that.

And Shaft wasn't just black. He was defiantly in-yer-motherfucking-face black. The original angry black dick, as violent as Mike Hammer. A chip on his shoulder and an attitude that left no doubt that he was a guy not to fuck with. And Shaft never backed down. As Raymond Chandler put it, in his essay, The Simple Art of Murder, "He will take no man's...insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him." He was always ready to mix it up, or even go to war.

Shaft's turf is the very mean streets of New York. He has expensive tastes, and likes to dress sharp. He has a swinging bachelor pad in Greenwich Village and works out of an office in Times Square, but his cases often take him into Harlem and other black neighbourhoods. His clients and friends come from the streets, and his cases often involve various black mobsters and/or radicals. He distrusts most whites, but he has little use for black radicals, either. He's content to be his own man.

The Shaft books, taken as a whole, are some of the toughest, best-written hardboiled P.I. novels of the seventies, and the three films, which cleaned up Shaft a bit, made an even huger impact on the population as a whole. A subsequent series of made-for-television movies, however, wimped out, emasculating both Hayes' score, and Shaft's character. About the only thing left from the films was actor Richard Roundtree as Shaft, looking bewildered. "Shaft on TV makes Barnaby Jones look like Eldridge Cleaver,"' was the way Cecil Smith of The Los Angeles Times put it.

Shaft's creator was Ernest Tidyman, a screenwriter also responsible for The French Connection and High Plains Drifter. So well received was Shaft by black people who were probably overjoyed to see a tough, smart, well-dressed black private eye more than holding his own in a white world, telling both cops and the mob to back off, that the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People bestowed an NAACP Image Award upon Tidyman, a true honour, given that Tidyman was white.

And it just had to happen, after all suffocating seventies nostalgia going on in the nineties: Shaft came back! But maybe he should have stayed away. John "Boyz 'n' the Hood" Singleton's helmed a big screen remake of the classic flick about "the black private eye who digs like a private sex machine with all the chicks", with Richard "Clockers" Price scripting, and Samuel "Pulp Fiction" Jackson starring. Richard Roundtree even popped up as the original Shaft, to hand over the family biz to nephew Jackson. Can you dig it?

I thought I would, especially given all the talent involved, but the end result was disappointing, to say the least. Shaft wasn't even a private eye anymore. Oh, they pump up the volume, and it's certainly entertaining, in a slick, pre-programmed way, but it's not 1971 anymore, that's for sure. It has all the edge of a Nerf ball, just another so-so over-ampled shoot-'em-up. The Isaac Hayes soundtrack is the best part.

UNDER OATH

  • "I remember seeing this, as a kid, back around 1974, and being blown away by how cool it all was, but now it just seems incredibly dated. Did everyone in Harlem really go around calling everyone "cat"? Still, a kick-ass score, and some great scenes."
    -- Duke Seabrook
    .
  • "I got into the Shaft books -- my introduction to detective fiction. I loved those books....I'd bought the pop record, the soundtrack to the original movie Shaft, and I thought that was terrific. And then I couldn't get in to see the film -- I wasn't 18 yet. So I bought the first Shaft book, and then the second film came out and the book came out with that, so I bought it, too. I kept up with Shaft long after the series was past its sell-by date...But it's sad, really. 'Cuz those stories were kind of "blaxploitation." Ernest Tidyman was a white writer, and I don't think he had his finger on the real pulse of what was happening in the black world."
    -- Ian Rankin, creator of the Inspector Rebus series, who cheerfully admits that he got Rebus' first name, "John" from John Shaft, and was evidently very down with the brothers in Scotland.

UNDER OATH SPECIAL: EXCLUSIVE TO THIS SITE

  • "I can say with some assurance that my father had no exploitative intent. He wanted his writing to be successful, sure, but he never intended to cash in on "black," per se. He just thought that it was time for a black hero, and he knew he could create a good one.
    .
    And the NAACP tended to agree. He was (and is, still) one of the few whites to ever be honored with an NAACP Image Award, which he received for Shaft. At the premiere of the film, at the deMille Theatre in New York, several notables from the film were introduced to the almost-entirely black audience, including Richard Roundtree and director Gordon Parks. When my father was introduced, no doubt more than a few eyebrows were raised.

    Why a black private eye? This was how my dad told it. Big cities like New York have winners and losers of all shapes, sizes, and colors, and it's really kind of random who comes out ahead. It was time for a black winner, whether he was a detective or a shoe salesman. So he created this character to be very tough, very cool, very black, a superhero of sorts.
    .
    And he touted the idea to his publisher, who was quickly sold on the idea and said "Great....what's this black private eye's name?" Oops, the one thing that hadn't been decided, and now my Dad was on the spot. As he tells it, he glanced out the window, which looked into an aperture of some sort between New York buildings, and a sign outside the window said "fire shaft." "Shaft," Dad replied to the publisher, "John Shaft."
    .
    People want to remember things in clusters and genres (and dub them), so I keep reading that Shaft was part of the "blaxploitation" of the 70s. Whatever that may refer to, I think it tends to ignore the fact that at the time Shaft came around, there was nothing else really like it. We're talking 1970, and people forget what it was like then. This is pre-Richard Pryor, pre-Michael Jordan, pre-Denzel Washington. No one was making money making heroes out of black people, let alone ones that could kick ass. So if Shaft was connected to some "blaxploitation" thing, it must have been the vanguard of it. After Shaft, it certainly wasn't lost on Hollywood that literally millions of black (and white) Americans felt they HAD to see that movie -- much in the way many blacks in 1977 felt compelled to watch Roots -- and I think the exploitation started immediately after Shaft. If Shaft had flopped, there arguably would have been no ensuing "blaxploitation."

    It's safe to say that Hollywood spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to pitch Shaft to America. It had no clue whether blacks OR whites would like it, and one way of dealing with this uncertainty was to add some extra black dialect (that is, white Hollywood's concept of black dialect, which is just how it sounded). This is why you see so many people awkwardly calling each other "cats," saying "right on, brother," and slapping five left and right. My father was mortified. He hated the idea that people would hear all that phony black dialect and think he had inserted all that crap.
    .
    ... in my dad's original concept, Shaft was a whole lot badder and blacker than Richard Roundtree. Roundtree was not the original favorite. He was considered just too pretty -- his background was modeling, I believe. Even in his trenchcoat, he didn't look like a private dick; he looked like a private lawyer. Shaft was taller and had darker skin, more prominent cheekbones, a bigger afro, and most importantly, he had that I'm-a-badass scowl. Like on Mod Squad, when Clarence Williams III wasn't happy and would coldly stare from behind his dark glasses -- that kind of scowl. The actor who perhaps resembled Shaft the most was Christopher St. John, who ended up with a bit part. But at the time, he was thought to be too old to be Shaft.
    .
    As for the new Shaft, I don't have a whole lot of opinion about it. In one sense, it strikes me as part of a "retro" mentality that involves combing through the trunks that we put in the attic in 1971 to see if there is anything interesting there. I mean, bellbottom pants and platform shoes are back...why not Shaft? I suspect that the criterion in all events is whether it will make money. But this time around it's a more sophisticated game. The real money in this remake may not be the box office at all, but the video marketing, or perhaps the merchandising, both of which Hollywood has gotten rather good at since Shaft first came out. I would like for Shaft to be a good role model, but...if they're true to Shaft's character, he won't be. He's complex, he's usually surly, he shoots people, and he gets paid by the hour."

    My dad died July 14, 1984. Cause of death was officially kidney failure, but it was a close race to be the first vital organ to give out. He smoked and drank all his life. I'm just glad that he and his creation have not been forgotten"
    -- Ernest Tidyman's son (name withheld upon request)
    .

SOME THOGHTS ON THE NEW SHAFT FLICK

  • PRO: Action scenes are nicely done. Samuel Jackson is very good in the title role. The two main villains are quite well-drawn. It's great to see Richard Roundtree again. That music is still great. Good story.
    .
    CON: Didn't they listen to the soundtrack? The lyric is "Who's the black PRIVATE dick?" not "Who's the black police dick?" I've got nothing against cop pictures, but Shaft is supposed to be a private eye, not a cop? Even though he quits the force about halfway through the movie, and seems to be setting up as a PI at the very end of the movie, he never really stops being a cop in his own mind (or the audience's). Even the closing sequence in which he seems to be quitting for good to go into private business leaves a little room for doubt as he goes out on one last police call.
    .
    And, nice as it was to see Richard Roundtree again, I found all this "passing the baton" stuff a little forced. I mean when they re-cast James Bond or Tarzan or Batman, they don't say that the new guy is the old guy's kid brother or nephew or cousin or something. They just say a different actor is playing the same character. Besides, if I recall the books correctly, Shaft is an only child, which means he had no siblings, which means he couldn't have a nephew.
    .
    When you've got a gorgeous woman like Vanessa Williams in the movie, why try to make her look homely (it didn't work anyway)?
    .

    The insistence that this "isn't a re-make" (which is quite true by the way), is a little confusing given that the title is Shaft (just like the original) and the credits say "based on the novel by Ernest Tidyman" (just like the original). If they want to differentiate it from the first film, why not give it some more appropriate title like The Return of Shaft or something and a more precisely correct credit line like "based on CHARACTERS created by Ernest Tidyman?"
    -- Jim Doherty of Chicago
    .
  • "You are aware, aren't you, that Shaft dies in The Last Shaft? This apparently was never published in the USA, and my copy is a British paperback. It is not the same book as Goodbye, Mr. Shaft. Also...rumors persist that some of the Shaft novels were ghosted...probably the paperback originals. Nonetheless, I am a huge Shaft fan -- Shaft in Africa rules... I did like the new movie, but it disappoints me the P.I. aspect was played down so much. Roundtree is still the man."
    -- Max Allan Collins

NOVELS

  • Shaft (1970)
  • Shaft Among the Jews (1972)
  • Shaft's Big Score (1972)
  • Shaft Has a Ball (1973)
  • Goodbye, Mr. Shaft (1973)
  • Shaft's Carnival of Killers (1974)
  • The Last Shaft (1975)

FILMS

  • SHAFT... Buy this video.....Buy this DVD
    (1971, MGM)
    Screenplay by Ernest Tidyman and John D.F. Black
    Based on the novel by Ernest Tidyman
    Directed by
    Gordon Parks
    Produced by Joel Freeman
    Music by Isaac Hayes
    Original Theme written and performed by Isaac Hayes
    Starring Richard Roundtree as JOHN SHAFT
    Also starring
    Moses Gunn, Charles Cioffi, Christopher St. John, Gwenn Mitchell, Lawrence Pressman, Victor Arnold, Sherri Brewer, Rex Robbins, Camille Yarbrough, Margaret Warncke, Joseph Leon, Arnold Johnson, Dominic Barto, George Strus
    .
  • SHAFT'S BIG SCORE!.. Buy this video....Buy this DVD
    (1972, MGM)
    Screenplay by Ernest Tidyman
    Based on
    the novel by Ernest Tidyman
    Directed by Gordon Parks
    Produced by David Golden, Roger Lewis and Ernest Tidyman
    A Shaft Productions Ltd. production
    Original music by Gordon Parks
    Tagline: You liked it before, so he's back with more, SHAFT'S BACK IN ACTION!
    Starring Richard Roundtree as JOHN SHAFT
    Also starring Moses Gunn, Drew Bundini Brown, Joseph Mascolo, Kathy Imrie, Wally Taylor, Julius Harris, Rosalind Miles, Joe Santos, Angelo Nazzo, Don Blakely, Melvin Green Jr., Thomas Anderson, Evelyn Davis, Richard Pittman, Robert Kya-Hill, Thomas Brann, Bob Jefferson
    .
  • SHAFT IN AFRICA.. Buy this video....Buy this DVD....
    (1973, MGM)
    Screenplay by Stirling Silliphant
    Based on
    characters created by Ernest Tidyman
    Directed by John Guillermin
    Produced by René Dupont
    Associate producer: Roger Lewis
    Original music by Johnny Pate
    Theme Song: "Are You Man Enough?" by The Four Tops
    Tagline:
    The Brother Man in the Motherland.
    Starring Richard Roundtree as JOHN SHAFT
    Also starring
    Frank Finlay, Vonetta McGee, Neda Arneric, Debebe Eshetu, Spiros Focás, Jacques Herlin, Jho Jhenkins, Willie Jonah, Adolfo Lastretti, Marne Maitland, Frank McRae, Zenebech Tadesse, A.V. Falana, James E. Myers, Nadim Sawalha, Thomas Baptiste, Jon Chevron, Glynn Edwards, Cy Grant, Jacques Marin, Nick Zaran, Aldo Sambrell
    .
  • SHAFT.....Buy this video.....Buy this DVD....
    (2000)
    Screenplay by Richard Price
    Based on characters created by Ernest Tidyman
    Directed by John Singleton
    Tagline: Still the man, any questions?
    Theme composed and performed by Isaac Hayes
    Starring Samuel L. Jackson as SHAFT
    Also starring
    Richard Roundtree, Vanessa L. Williams, Jeffrey Wright, Christian Bale, Dan Hedaya, Busta Rhymes, Toni Collette, Philip Bosco, Will Chase, Jennifer Esposito, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Josef Sommer

TELEVISION

  • SHAFT
    (1973-74, CBS)
    7 90-minute television movies
    Premiere: October 9, 1973
    Last Original Broadcast: February 19, 1974
    Based on characters created by Ernest Tidyman
    Developed for television by William Read Woodfield and Allan Balter
    Producer: William Reed Woodfield
    Executive Producer: Allan Balter
    An CBS/MGM Television Production
    Part of The New CBS Tuesday Night Movies, rotating with Hawkins, which starred James Stewart.
    Theme Music: Isaac Hayes
    Music: Johnny Pate
    Starring
    Richard Roundtree as JOHN SHAFT
    with Ed Barth as Lieutenant Rossi
    Part of The New CBS Tuesday Night Movies, rotating with Hawkins, which starred James Stewart.
  • "The Enforcers" (October 9, 1973)
  • "The Killing"
  • "Hit-Run"
  • "The Kidnapping"
  • "Cop Killer"
  • "The Capricorn Murders"
  • "The Murder Machine" (February 19, 1974)

RELATED LINKS

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. A very special thanks to Mark Sullivan, Gerald So and Ernest Tidyman's son (name witheld upon request) for their input.


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