USA Daily News
Top US news in one place!


Reframing Representation: The Transformative Impact of 'Shaft' on the Depiction of Black Americans in Film


Opinion: After ‘Shaft,’ Black Americans in film were never portrayed the same way

Editor’s note: Sam Fulwood III is a writer and veteran news correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.

In the cinematic landscape of 1971, a cultural earthquake named "Shaft" rumbled through, leaving an indelible mark on the portrayal of Black Americans in film. The recent passing of Richard Roundtree at the age of 81 serves as a poignant reminder of the iconic character he brought to life, forever altering the narrative surrounding Black masculinity on the big screen.

In "Shaft," Roundtree's portrayal of John Shaft was a revelation — a swaggering, unapologetic private detective who sauntered through the diverse tapestry of New York City. From Greenwich Village to Times Square and Harlem, Shaft commanded attention, challenging and redefining the prevailing stereotypes that had long confined Black men to mild-mannered, subservient roles in cinema.

The film's opening scene, with Shaft defiantly flipping the middle finger to a white cab driver while crossing a bustling New York intersection, set the tone for a narrative that was anything but traditional. This audacious gesture was symbolic, signaling a departure from the conventional depiction of Black men in a cinematic landscape that had rarely acknowledged their presence, let alone celebrated their complexity.

"Shaft" was a cinematic departure from the norm, based on a pulp novel by Ernest Tidyman, a white writer. The decision by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) to take a chance on this unconventional project paid off handsomely. Gordon Parks, a renowned Black photographer, was entrusted with the directorial reins, and the result was a groundbreaking film that resonated with audiences far beyond expectations. With a modest $500,000 production budget, "Shaft" defied the odds, grossing an impressive $12 million in ticket sales and rescuing MGM from the brink of bankruptcy.

Beyond its financial success, "Shaft" birthed a cultural phenomenon that transcended the silver screen. Richard Roundtree's embodiment of Shaft became the archetype, if not the origin, of a distinctive Black male style colloquially known as "swag." This style, characterized by confidence, charisma, and a rebellious spirit, found successors in the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Will Smith, Denzel Washington, and Idris Elba, among others. The influence of Roundtree's unforgettable performance reverberates through the corridors of contemporary Black masculinity, shaping how it is perceived and celebrated today.

In the wake of "Shaft," the cinematic landscape for Black Americans underwent a tectonic shift. No longer confined to one-dimensional, subservient roles, Black men could be protagonists of their own narratives, defying stereotypes and embracing a diversity of characters that reflected the richness of their experiences. The legacy of "Shaft" is not just a cinematic footnote; it is a testament to the power of storytelling to redefine societal perceptions and pave the way for a more inclusive and authentic representation of Black lives in film.

Roundtree breathed life into a cinematic revolution, embodying an unprecedented on-screen fusion of arrogance and attitude, confidence and charisma, swagger and sexuality within the persona of a dark-skinned African American man. In the realm of "Shaft," a film boasting an almost entirely Black cast and a Black director, the convergence of cultural elements birthed a cinematic watershed. This was not merely a movie; it was a cultural touchstone, a product of a specific political and social moment.

Against the backdrop of Malcolm X's recent assassination at the Audubon Ballroom and the lingering echoes of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s tragic death, "Shaft" emerged in 1971 as a triumphant and defiant celebration of Blackness. The film resonated as a symbol of racial resistance and a testament to Hollywood's ability to construct enduring myths. Richard Roundtree, in his portrayal of John Shaft, became the embodiment of a complex narrative that challenged stereotypes and embraced the richness of Black identity.

The Academy Award-winning soundtrack, an integral character in its own right, echoed the pulsating heartbeat of Shaft's world. Who could discuss Roundtree's legacy without the infectious rhythm and soulful lyrics of the title track? Isaac Hayes, in composing the enigmatic score, captured the essence of Shaft's character, a man always on the move, roving, prowling. The soundtrack became an anthem, etching itself into the collective memory of those who experienced the film.

Roundtree's sartorial choices were equally iconic, birthing a decade-long fashion fascination among Black men for knee-length leather coats, turtleneck sweaters, and those crotch-grabbing tight pants. Even in the 2019 revival of "Shaft," these fashion choices made a cameo, a testament to their enduring cultural impact. The film not only showcased a distinctive style but also introduced the world to the "blaxploitation" genre, a movement of unapologetically Black storytelling.

While "Shaft" may not have been the inaugural blaxploitation film, it indisputably became the genre's standard-bearer. Melvin Van Peebles' "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" may have preceded it, but "Shaft" seized the spotlight with its low budget, high box office receipts, and an unapologetically Black attitude. In Roundtree's death, we mourn not just an actor but the enduring legacy of a cinematic pioneer whose impact reverberates through the soul of Black storytelling, forever altering the landscape of representation in film.

Parks, a luminary among still photographers in his era, seized the chance to helm a cinematic venture where the Black character defied convention—a sassy-mouthed, gun-toting figure unbound by the sacrificial narrative often imposed on Black protagonists. MGM, recognizing the potency of this departure, embraced the audacious angle, enlisting the African-American-owned UniWorld advertising agency to craft a campaign strategically tailored for young Black, inner-city audiences. The tagline was clear: "Shaft" was a film that reveled in poking fun at the White establishment.

As "Shaft" illuminated the screens of darkened movie houses, a seismic shift occurred, propelling the era of blaxploitation into prominence. The film wasn't merely a cinematic experience; it was a catalyst, giving rise to a cascade of imitative productions that heralded a Golden Age for Black actors. Black American men, yearning for a self-affirming hero, found their icon in the irreverent and charismatic Shaft—truly, as the lyrics proclaimed, "a bad mother (shut your mouth!) … But I’m talking about Shaft!"

This movie wasn't just a cultural phenomenon; it marked a pivotal breakthrough for Black talent in Hollywood. Until then, the prospect of seeing Black names scroll up the screen during closing credits, in roles other than supporting, seemed like an elusive dream. Richard Roundtree, embodying the indomitable John Shaft, shattered those limitations, becoming a symbol of empowerment and a harbinger of change in the entertainment industry.

In the annals of cinematic history, "Shaft" stands not only as a groundbreaking film but as a transformative force that reshaped the narrative for Black Americans in Hollywood. Gordon Parks, with his visionary direction, catapulted the character of John Shaft into the cultural zeitgeist, presenting a Black protagonist who defied stereotypes and dared to challenge the established norms. This audacious departure was not lost on MGM, which, in a savvy move, enlisted UniWorld to craft a campaign that targeted a burgeoning audience, signaling a shift in the cinematic landscape.

As "Shaft" illuminated screens, it ignited the era of blaxploitation, birthing a succession of films that ushered in a Golden Age for Black actors. Richard Roundtree's portrayal of Shaft became a rallying point for Black American men, offering a hero whose unapologetic swagger and resilience resonated deeply. The film wasn't just a success; it was a cultural touchstone, a celebration of Blackness that reverberated far beyond the confines of the movie theater.

Importantly, "Shaft" shattered the glass ceiling for Black talent in Hollywood. Before this cinematic triumph, the closing credits seldom bore the names of Black actors in roles beyond supporting. With Roundtree's iconic performance, the industry saw a paradigm shift—a recognition that Black actors could command leading roles and redefine the narratives that had long confined them.

In Richard Roundtree's John Shaft, we find not just a character but a symbol of empowerment, a harbinger of change. "Shaft" left an indelible mark, not only on the trajectory of Black representation in film but on the hearts and minds of audiences who witnessed the birth of a new era—a cinematic revolution that continues to resonate, reminding us that sometimes, in the world of storytelling, one character can change everything.