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 outside the shamus gang 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 pop 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 defiant 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." Shaft was always ready to mix it up, or even go to war.

His turf was the very mean streets of New York. He had expensive tastes, and liked to dress sharp. He had a swinging bachelor pad in Greenwich Village and worked out of an office in Times Square, but his cases often took him into Harlem and other black neighbourhoods -- and later, around the world. But his clients and friends come from the 'hood, and his cases often involved various black mobsters and/or radicals. He distrusted most whites, but he had little use for activists or politicians of any colour. 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 in the lead role, looking bewildered. "Shaft on TV makes Barnaby Jones look like Eldridge Cleaver,"' was the way Cecil Smith of The Los Angeles Times put it. And it wasn't meant as a compliment.

Shaft's creator was Ernest Tidyman, a screenwriter who also scripted such films as The French Connection and High Plains Drifter. So well received was the film by blacks -- no doubt 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 NAACP bestowed its Image Award upon Tidyman. It was a true honour, given that Tidyman was white.

* * * * *

Fast forward a couple of decades or so... 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 bucks, 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 pumped up the volume, and it's certainly entertaining, in a slick, pre-programmed , pass the popcorn sorta way, but it was just another movie; a clear indicator that it wasn't 1971. It was a marketing strategy with a movie as an attachment, with all the edge of a Nerf ball and all the soul of a paper cup, just another over-ampled shoot-'em-up. The Isaac Hayes soundtrack is the best part.

And indeed, when I first saw it in a theatre, the only time the audience truly perked up was when the first few notes of the theme came throbbing through the speakers.

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 (heartily recommended), who cheerfully admits that he got Rebus' first name, "John" from John Shaft, and was evidently very down with the brothers in Scotland.

THOUGHTS ON THE (THEN) 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
    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

Great piece from 2003 by Ray Embrack, from Allan Guthrie's amazing Noir Originals site.

A son remembers....

Steve Aldous, the author of the upcoming The Complete Book of Shaft, tracks down who wrote what. From The Rap Sheet.

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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