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As Gordon Parks’ blaxploitation classic “Shaft,” released nationwide on July 2, 1971, celebrates its 50th anniversary, a proper revision of its ethos is overdue. An anachronistic “Shaft” that promotes an outmoded 007 brand of masculine toxicity — an obsession with shiny possessions including cars, clothing, guns, and of course, women, while relishing violence as the most innate means to an end — may not quite cut it anymore.
That doesn’t mean the character should be neutered; but a post-Trump, post-George Floyd “Shaft” should intrigue executives in an industry that loves to exploit known IP, especially as it contends with an uncertain, rapidly evolving environment. The world does not need a Black James Bond right now; it needs a “Shaft,” updated to clash head-on with a backdrop that isn’t all that different from the era that led to a proliferation of movies like it.
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For years, Idris Elba has had to react to speculation about his potential turn as James Bond, even though the actor has nixed the idea, if only because the conversation around it hasn’t always been pretty.
“You just get disheartened when you get people from a generational point of view going, ‘It can’t be’, and it really turns out to be the color of my skin,” he said in a 2019 interview with Vanity Fair. “And then if I get it and it didn’t work, or it did work, would it be because of the color of my skin? That’s a difficult position to put myself into when I don’t need to.”
He was right. He didn’t (and still doesn’t) need to; not when he has the successful “Luther” television franchise in his back pocket as a possible movie franchise.
And if not Luther, there are existing literary figures who happen to be Black that could very well become central to their own film franchises; like any of Walter Mosley’s heroes — Easy Rawlins, Fearless Jones, and Leonid McGill. Or Ernest Tidyman’s charismatic streetwise detective personified by Richard Roundtree in a career-defining role as the title character, John Shaft. It’s proven IP with potential, otherwise the franchise likely wouldn’t have been rebooted with two more movies, both titled “Shaft,” directed by John Singleton (2000) and Tim Story (2019) respectively, starring Samuel L. Jackson as a relative of the legendary private investigator.
Neither was a worthy successor, doing nothing to improve on the original, or having anything of consequence to say. Either would’ve been better served as a sendup; like “Black Dynamite,’ an unapologetic lampooning of the blaxploitation genre.
Singleton’s didn’t carry the same political heft of the original, but, possibly due to the director’s vision, it seemed to recognize and attempt to walk in the 1971 film’s footsteps with a serviceable plot about corrupt police officers and the flimsy judicial system. Story (known more for his romantic comedies and Kevin Hart vehicles) offered a generation-spanning take, adding Jesse T. Usher as Jackson’s estranged son, upping the folly significantly, ultimately failing, seeming content to rest on the laurels of the franchise’s legacy.
Both featured Roundtree as the original Shaft, although in peripheral roles.
There’s still room for a reboot of the franchise, but it would require an imagination that hasn’t been demonstrated so far. The original Roundtree film did produce two sequels that simply couldn’t match the original’s potency: “Shaft’s Big Score!” (1972) was made for more than thrice the budget of the first film ($1.9 million versus $500,000); and “Shaft in Africa” (1973) cost even more ($2.1 million), while grossing significantly less than the previous two — even less than it was made for.
There was a short-lived “Shaft” television series that was canceled after just seven episodes.
The original “Shaft” was a gritty personification of the times, a new kind of Black hero that met violence with violence that wasn’t always about reconciliation. But the movie didn’t dig too deep, especially in contrast to the far more radical “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” that preceded it, or “The Spook Who Sat By the Door,” two years later, that came with a toolbox for how to start a revolution. But Roundtree’s Shaft did become a symbol of Black power.
Melvin Van Peebles’ independently-financed “Sweet Sweetback” is generally considered the first blaxploitation film. However, as the epitome of cool, and favored by a wider release, the studio-backed “Shaft” is arguably more directly responsible for helping spawn that era’s “Black film renaissance” — a trite term that has since been used to reflect an ostensible renewed interest in content aimed at Black audiences.
Coined after the release of “Super Fly” in 1972, “blaxploitation” continues to be a pejorative, synonymous with an inferior brand of cinema that emphasized the latter part of this compound term. From the perspective of producers and financiers, it was cinema that was not to be taken too seriously, in much the same way that Black cinema continues to be relegated to second class status in terms of overall budget concerns, vis-à-vis typical mainstream Hollywood productions.
It would be redeeming to say that the movement influenced the next generation of Black filmmakers, but it’s uncommon that filmmakers of any color list blaxploitation movies as an inspiration. Their short-lived popularity did not lead to any documented lasting economic power for Black creatives. And maybe, for that reason, the movement remains misplaced within the American film context, as a devalued catalog that starred Black actors and dealt with themes that were relevant to the Black community, even though the characterizations were often bogged down by stereotypes.
In an effort to mainstream the character and the movies he appeared in, Shaft has sometimes been referred to as “the Black James Bond.” It’s an association that strips the original of any discernible sociopolitical relevance. While the film did attempt to transcend the genre’s limitations, and borrowed tropes from the 007 series in sequels like “Shaft in Africa,” the character’s popularity comes from his appeal to Black audiences because he fearlessly takes on “the system,” while in complete control of his economic, political, and sexual life. The aesthetic of the film, which rejected any white American notions of cultural assimilation, played into a sociopolitical ideology that was common among Black Americans in the years just after the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
It was the kind of assimilationism proposed in the films of Sidney Poitier, as civil rights leaders were murdered and footage of Black bodies under constant brutalization by authority figures flooded news reels. “Shaft” (and “Sweetback” before it) was simply weary of a timeline of Black representation on screen that evolved from the inflammatory racist depictions in “The Birth of a Nation” to a more subtle racism that relegated Black actors to mostly peripheral, servile roles next to white protagonists. Even Poitier, for all his unmatched accomplishments, celebrity, and crossover appeal, couldn’t entirely escape the restrictions Hollywood placed on Black performers of his generation.
The blaxploitation era was designed by a studio system in need of a liferaft, to engage young Black viewers especially, by tapping into the political energy of a burgeoning revolutionary movement, the likes of which the country had yet to see, and channeled it into larger-than-life Black characters who got away with beating “the Man” in settings that were grounded in reality. Exemplary of the movement, “Shaft” foregrounded Blackness in a way that studio films before it had not, featuring the first mainstream Black action hero, who came along as the country was still reckoning with an overall atmosphere of radical change that Hollywood didn’t immediately adjust to.
Similar conditions are at work in the present: an industry in flux; and a nationwide racial reckoning that has helped prompt a “new” discovery of the profitability of the Black film audience, which recent studies from all sorts of academic institutions and industry organizations have reported.
These are all ideas that, collectively, could infuse a revitalized Shaft with an urgency and relevance to be interrogated on screen for many films to come.
There’s no need to make James Bond black. There’s an equally brooding soul in Shaft. He isn’t Jesus Christ in leotards and a red cape. But he believes in something — primarily justice — despite his many vices.
Roundtree played the character as a Vietnam vet turned uncompromising New York City detective hired by a local mobster to find his kidnapped daughter. Shaft knew New York; he especially knew Harlem, and its colorful cast of characters. As was often the case in blaxploitation films, the Black community was portrayed as a unified whole, as youths, who volunteer to assist Shaft’s rescue mission (Van Peebles’ “Sweetback,” and films that would come decades later, including “Queen & Slim,” employed this idea).
Shaft’s girlfriend was Black, but he didn’t reject adoring white women, breaking cultural taboos of the day. And he treated white police officers — depicted as occupying forces in Black communities — with a mocking disdain.
The film’s plot is perhaps less important than the depiction of an African American man with power, swagger, a cool car, and a desire to right injustices perpetrated against Black people, and maybe even accomplish something greater that’s transcendental.
Is Bond or Shaft the ideal man? We see him, all-powerful, confident, and seemingly indestructible. But inside, he longs to live simply, and be free of a burden that routinely requires him to be a savior. That alone — a besieged superhero of sorts, and his desire to be “normal” — could be developed into something special, when a Black lead is introduced, especially in the present day.
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