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Is Shaft Still the Icon of Blackness He Used to Be?: A Roundtable

‘Shaft is an impossible definition of black maleness, and I often wonder how many brothers ruined their lives and relationships trying to manifest that shit’

Shaft’s back, y’all! The man with the greatest theme song in the history of movies returns to the big screen today. This latest installment follows on the low-platformed heels of the John Singleton-directed reboot of Shaft back in 2000. Now, 19 years later, Samuel L. Jackson reprises his role as the black leather-clad badass, John Shaft. This time, though, he’s out to help his estranged son, John Shaft Jr. According to IMDb, the youngest Shaft is “a cybersecurity expert with a degree from MIT” and must “enlist his family’s help to uncover the truth behind his best friend’s untimely death.”

Just like the 2000 version, this edition of Shaft is billed as an action comedy. It remains to be seen, however, if the movie will deliver on its promise of either action or comedy. The early reviews have been mixed. In particular, Benjamin Lee, a critic at the Guardian, complained about the misguided feel of the film’s throwback energy; rather than recapture the swagger of the original from the 1970s, instead “we’re shown time and time again that for the youngest Shaft, the more he embraces modern, ‘softer’ qualities, the less of a man he is. Skinny jeans, coconut water, desk work — all treated with unbridled disdain as for his father they all symbolize femininity or, even worse, homosexuality.”

That’s a damn shame, because it’s difficult to overstate how monumental the original Shaft is. Released in 1971, starring newcomer Richard Roundtree and his perfect afro, the film sparked a cultural revolution. Directed by famed Life magazine photographer Gordon Parks, the original was a beautifully shot movie — urban, stylish and ahead of its time. Parks was already famous for his photos of rarely seen sides of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the daily lives of ordinary black folks. With Shaft he aimed to highlight black life in a new way for the big screen.

One of the smartest choices Parks made was to hire Isaac Hayes to compose his film’s soundtrack. Hayes was only 27 at the time and had never scored a film. In author Rob Bowman’s Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records, Hayes recalled, “We walked in, and the engineer says, ‘Okay, where is your sheet music?’ ‘We ain’t got no sheet music. We don’t use music. We don’t write anything. We’re just going to do it headwise.’ ‘Say what? You ain’t got no music?’”

The Shaft soundtrack would not only become one of the most identifiable pieces of music recorded in the 20th century, it won Hayes a Golden Globe, two Grammys and an Oscar. “Theme from Shaft also reached number one on the Billboard charts and became the song of the summer in 1971.

Parks’ imagery, Hayes’ soundtrack and Roundtree’s portrayal of a black private detective who didn’t take no shit, all combined to unleash a seismic shift in the culture. There was the world before Shaft and the world after Shaft. The movie was such a blockbuster, it created a whole new genre of film: blaxploitation. And all the subsequent films therein aimed to be just like Shaft: a hyper-stylish, urgent, gritty, urban story of a black hero (or heroine, usually Pam Grier) sticking it to The Man. Because everyone knew: Shaft was a bad mother… (Shut your mouth).

To examine how Shaft continues to shape the culture, as well as to discuss the 2000 Sam Jackson reboot and the promise of this latest installment, I convened a multigenerational roundtable of black men, which even included my 68-year-old pops, Zaron Burnett Jr., since he’s the one who introduced me to the films. The other participants: writer Carvell Wallace (44); designer Michael Collett (33); and fellow MEL contributor Dave Schilling (34). Here’s what they had to say…

As far as Shaft films go, there’s the 1971 original with Richard Roundtree, the 1972 sequel Shaft’s Big Score!, the 1973 follow-up sequel Shaft in Africa and Shaft, the John Singleton reboot with Sam Jackson. Which is your favorite?
Schilling: I’m sure I’m the only one who likes the 2000 Samuel L. Jackson reboot the best. It’s a generational thing. My favorite James Bond is Pierce Brosnan.

Carvell: I feel like the 2000 Shaft is the technically superior film, mostly having to do with the cast, as Sam Jackson delivers an understated masterpiece in an over-the-top setting. Then you have Christian Bale, Toni Collette, Vanessa Williams, Andre Royo, sleazy character legend Dan Hedaya, Sonja Sohn and Busta Rhymes. Not to mention, Jeffrey Wright with a rousing (though fairly problematic) turn as a heavily accented drug dealer that definitely would get him canceled today. It’s a really great cast. And it gives such necessary depth to what might otherwise be one-dimensional characters (and which actually were one-dimensional characters in the previous versions).

Collett: I have a confession: I haven’t seen Shaft in Africa. Nor have I seen the entirety of Shaft’s Big Score!. If I had to pick between the 1971 original and the 2000 reboot, it’s probably a toss-up. The 1971 original is glorious. But it’s also what a buddy of mine used to call “old movie/slow movie” pace. And it does have a couple moments of misogyny. The 2000 reboot with Sam Jackson has Sam Jackson going for it. But it has Busta Rhymes really awful Ja-fakin accent all through it, which has got to go in the negative column. Honestly, the soundtrack of the first one tips the scales. Isaac Hayes, pre-Scientology? Perfect.

Pops: The first one. The original Shaft. The other two sequels, I saw parts of both of them. But I didn’t care about those two. In the original, Gordon Parks was doing interesting things with 1970s urban living. As opposed to, well, Shaft in Africa. The first one was an interesting artistic idea. The second two were just blaxploitation.

Do you remember how Shaft was first described to you, before you’d ever seen a single minute of it?
Carvell: I remember my mother really loving the soundtrack. She was really into the part where they go, “He’s a bad mother… Shut your mouth.” I always loved how much my mother loved that. How much pure joy that brought her.

Schilling: The original Shaft was originally described to me by my mother as “the best movie ever made.” I was sold from there.

Collett: Probably via the theme song, which I would’ve heard before I saw the film. We had the soundtrack on vinyl when I was growing up. It was one of the first records I ever sampled in my erstwhile, long ago career as a beatmaker.

More largely, Shaft was something that your uncles would put you onto. It wasn’t the type of film that my mom was going to rent for me when I was 12. But it’s absolutely the kind of film that your cool uncle might have in his VHS collection when you got dropped off at his place for a long summer weekend. Although, that was never really the case for me. My cool uncle had Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan films because he was a cool Korean guy. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I watched Shaft with my friends, and we’d watch it ironically. Maybe irony isn’t the right word. But at Penn State, for the five black guys who were there and didn’t play football, we all sorta knew each other, and blaxploitation was a common cultural currency among us. Those aesthetics, that 1970s vibe. Plus, Shaft fucked white girls. We all did a fair bit of that at Penn State. [Laughs] There was definitely some concurrence there.

Pops: Richard Roundtree had been in the Duke ads –– for Duke hairspray, which was like Afro Sheen. It was one of the first sprays that people used to style their afros. He was the model from the ads. So everybody knew him because afros were new. Plus, Roundtree had a perfect afro. When Ebony announced that he was going to be the star of Shaft, we couldn’t wait to see it. After all, he already had the afro!

Then we heard Isaac Hayes was doing the music and Gordon Parks was doing the directing, and we didn’t give a damn what the movie was about — if you got Gordon Parks, Isaac Hayes and Richard Roundtree… shit. It was 1971. Vietnam was going on. We got all this stuff happening in the world, and this movie comes out that expresses exactly how we’re feeling. I mean, Shaft was about being black and in the city in 1971. And that was very much on our minds.

The iconography of Shaft is obviously next level Blackness. All black everything. Undisputed badass. Do you have a favorite piece of his look? Like, what Shaft look would you wanna rock?
Collett: It has to be the coat. Shaft is the coat. If I were a fashion designer I would have such a blast tying the Shaft coat with Jamie Foxx’s outfit in Django Unchained.

Pops: The mock turtle. In a couple of scenes, he wore a mock turtleneck, which became a very popular look. We ran out and got those. The funny thing was: All the black guys I knew got ‘em, and all the Italian guys I knew got ‘em. [Laughs] It was like Bruce Lee where you have this badass that everyone wanted to be like, regardless of who or what they were. My friend Roland was an Italian guy, and Shaft was his role model. Shaft may as well have been Italian to him. He admired everything about how he dealt with the world. To me, Shaft was an incomplete character, because he was so unrealistic. But it was okay because movies didn’t have to be real.

Schilling: Any time a black man wears a turtleneck, it works. I suppose I associate it with the Panthers and various 1970s revolutionary movements. Also, it’s fascinating to me that you’d dress a smoldering sex symbol in a piece of clothing that hides more skin rather than less.

Carvell: Obviously, he was an early progenitor of the turtleneck. But my favorite look of his comes from Act 1 of Shaft in Africa. He’s evolved out of the black-on-black, Panthers look. He’s got tan-on-tan, a trench, maybe a tie? It’s an altogether more modern fit. Shaft isn’t downtown as he was in the first one when he lived in a basement apartment in the Village. He’s a Midtown cat now — Central Park adjacent with a suit. I like that look.

I’m also a big fan of his living room in the first Shaft, where I thought I saw a Milo Baughman T-Back chair. And of course, there’s the clown oil painting in his Village apartment that’s horrifying and amazing and definitely reminds me of the type of shit that would be in my aunties and uncles’ houses when I was growing up.

Have you ever, or have you ever been tempted to dress-up as Shaft for Halloween?
Carvell: I would never invite the comparison.

Collett: Fuck yes! Are you kidding me?!?! Shaft is the ultimate zero-effort black guy Halloween costume. [Laughs] A few weeks before, you stop getting your hair cut. You get out all the black clothes in your closet. Pick your hair out. When anybody asks you what you are, you say, “I’m Shaft, motherfucker!” It’s the ultimate no-budget black man Halloween costume. Who’s gonna argue with you? You’re a black man in all-black saying, “Motherfucker!” at people. [Laughs]

Pops: We didn’t have to dress like Shaft for Halloween, we did it in real life! [Laughs] Halloween, my ass. [Laughs] Look, if you came into JJ’s Bar in 1971 or 1972, you would’ve seen 19 people sitting there dressed like Shaft. And I was one of ‘em. [Laughs] All of us in leather coats — which you didn’t take off. Under the coat, you had a mock turtle. And then the same color pants as the mock turtle. So if you had a black turtleneck, you’d have black pants. A grey turtleneck, grey pants. A maroon turtleneck, maroon pants.

If they would’ve come in and turned the lights on, it would have been a rainbow of Shaft. [Laughs] There would’ve been two white guys, too, and one of them would’ve had an afro. [Laughs] Similarly, we all had low-platform shoes, hip-hugging bell bottoms and a gold medallion on our chests. I should mention, too, that the coat was always open — I don’t care how cold it was. In fact, it could be so cold you couldn’t breathe, but the coat had to be open so people could see your colors.

“The Theme from Shaft” — it’s hard to be a black boy or black man and hear that song and not have some daydreams of being as badass as John Shaft. Did the theme song speak to you?
Carvell: Definitely! That song is, in a sense, everything about Shaft. It’s irresistible. It’s epic. It’s beautifully composed (though I’d argue that Gordon Parks’ score for Shaft’s Big Score! is better). But it’s also absurd. I mean, it lays out in the lyrics that he’s the greatest lover of all time, also a hero who saves every oppressed brother alive but also can’t be understood by anyone but his woman, who, by the way, he cheats on unmercifully and kicks out of his house all the time so he can be alone or go do some Shaft business. It’s an impossible definition of black maleness, and I often wonder how many brothers ruined their lives and relationships trying to manifest that shit.

Collett: For me, the theme song was totally about messing with the stereo while my parents were out — that illicit feeling of almost hearing your first motherfucker on wax, at 9 or 10. The sexiness of the whole thing made you feel like you were getting away with something. And the back half of that soundtrack is criminally underrated. It’s a really, really great film score — especially for a young kid who was interested in soul music and sampling. It was just a fantastic album. You hit that wah-wah guitar right now, and I’ll start pimp-walking.

Schilling: In the same way that the Indiana Jones or James Bond themes promise adventures and excitement, “The Theme from Shaft” offers up a whole world of possibilities in just a few notes. As a biracial Jewish boy, I wish I could’ve had a Shaft-themed bar mitzvah.

Pops: The Theme from Shaft” was a modern version of a black national anthem. And it was Isaac Hayes. He wrote all the songs for Sam & Dave, like “Hold On I’m Coming.” We knew him as a songwriter, so in 1969, when he came out with “Hot Buttered Soul,” nobody could believe it. It was like, What the fuck is this?! It was completely unfamiliar, the long introductions in particular. It was like 9- and 10-minute long records. You couldn’t play shit on the radio. There wasn’t one song of his that could make it on the radio, not until Shaft.

Still, in 1971, Isaac Hayes was like Beyoncé –– he had a position where he was above everybody else. Whatever Beyoncé has coming out next, you wait for it. That’s the way Isaac Hayes was.

Both Richard Roundtree and Sam Jackson are icons of defiant Blackness, thanks in large part because of Shaft (for Roundtree especially). What do you think that’s meant for the rest of their careers?
Collett: I think Richard Roundtree suffers from what a lot of blaxploitation icons suffer from, which is that there’s no country for old black actors. And you just end up having to sort of reference this one thing that they did. Like what happened to Delroy Lindo? Where’s Ving Rhames? Where’s Yaphet Kotto — that Easter Island statue looking motherfucker? [Laughs] I was really happy that Giancarlo Esposito was able to get a second wind. But he’s a light-skinned nigga with wavy hair, we always manage. [Laughs]

I’m a little disappointed that I can’t think of anything else that Richard Roundtree has done. I’m obviously a big fan of him as Shaft. And I’m always glad anytime they bring him back as Shaft. Get my man some money. So I’m gonna support the new Shaft. Fuck! I forgot about Brick. Richard Roundtree was the vice principal in that. I totally just remembered that. I watched Brick a few times and didn’t think of that as him. That was a very good film.

Pops: Sam is my friend. I know him and his wife LaTanya. But I’m not a fan of cinematic blackness, as an idea. I’m a fan of cinematic honesty. I don’t have a special standard for black people to do black things. I’ve seen black people do everything. So I don’t think there’s anything that black people are supposed to do, or not supposed to do. What I want to see is the person acting like he thinks he’s supposed to be there, as opposed to thinking that it’s unusual, or that he’s accomplished something by being there. Richard Roundtree’s character of Shaft had a fully developed arrogance. It was directed at white folks, but it was equally directed at black folks. That’s one of the things about arrogance, it’s not directional, it’s a characteristic.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Sam because Sam will do any role. Sam is a recovering addict. And one thing he doesn’t ever want to have is time on his hands. So he plays golf and he acts. If he’s not acting, he’s playing golf. If he’s not playing golf, he’s acting. That way there’s no time for the demons to get a seat at the table. Recognizing that, I only see his movies that are ones I’m concerned with. That said, what I really like about his work is that Sam never plays a character as if a black person shouldn’t be there. So many black folks play that fish-out-of-water bullshit. Like D.L. Hughley — he plays it like “ain’t this a bitch that a black person is doing this?” But I never get that feeling from Sam. When he was Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction he was absolutely Jules Winnfield, and he belonged wherever he was.

As has been mentioned, Shaft launched the Blaxploitation era. Rather than compare Shaft to those who followed him, who else in the cinematic universe would you compare to Shaft? Like, for instance, would you say that Shaft is the Black James Bond? The Jason Bourne of the ‘hood? The Dirty Harry of the streets? The Sam Spade of Harlem?
Schilling: It’s funny that Shaft has to always be compared to white action-adventure characters. It’s almost limiting to say such things. He’s an iconic character without the need to put him next to a white equivalent. I don’t love the trailer for this new Shaft, but I did enjoy the line Sam Jackson has where he says, “If [James Bond] was real, he’d be the white me.” What makes Shaft special is that he means something to the black community. He’s ours rather than taking a character like Batman or Bond and casting a black actor to appeal to us. Sure, it would be great to see Idris Elba play Bond, but his Bond could never have the significance Shaft has had over the span of almost 50 years. Even if this new film is not to my liking, at least there will be a Shaft for the current generation, so the legacy can continue.

Carvell: The Dirty Harry comparison is a good one, especially in the 2000 version when he literally is the out-of-control cop. And since the character was written by Ernest Tidyman, who went on to script The French Connection, it’s easy to see a link between Shaft and Popeye Doyle. But the first time I watched Shaft in adulthood, his character more put me in mind of John Wayne, or another Clint Eastwood role: The Stranger in High Plains Drifter, also written by Tidyman.

In the pantheon of American identity, Shaft strikes me as descending from the cowboy lineage. He’s violent, stoic and isolated. His isolation really struck me in the 1971 film as Gordon Parks has this long opening of him navigating his way through Times Square. He doesn’t talk about his feelings. He doesn’t trust anyone. He doesn’t have any real friends. He only communicates through sarcasm and punching people. He strikes me as very lonely — a beloved hero but one with no real home.

Pops: A lot of Shaft’s appeal for me and the people I knew was that “it’s about damn time” feeling. It was “about damn time” that we had a character who wasn’t fighting racism, and wasn’t fighting in the civil rights movement. Shaft was a private eye. It was a great departure. It opened new areas where black men were presented to the public. In 1971, there was a lot happening with black nationalism and black radical groups. The New Haven 21 Black Panther trials, the Chicago Seven, the Harrisburg 7 — all of these different trials of radicals were happening. In the middle of all of that, Shaft was being a badass in New York. It’s what we wanted to see. It wasn’t apologetic. It wasn’t humble. It was like, “Yeah, motherfucker, we here.”

In that way, he was definitely more like Sam Spade than James Bond. You know how Sam Spade’s character throughout the movie was atypical. That’s the way Shaft was — atypical, but still familiar to us. Like, “Y’all know me.”

Collett: It’s interesting that you brought up James Bond and Jason Bourne. They’re not only examples of virile white manhood, but also of empire. That’s the distinguishing thing with Shaft — he doesn’t side with empire. Shaft is bigger than America. Shaft is for Black people. I remember being in Brazil and hearing a Brazilian version of the Shaft theme song that people were hella excited about. I think wherever you see unapologetic, sexually potent images of black men in film you see Shaft.

Does that make Shaft our James Bond? Maybe. But we’ve talked about the problem with a Black James Bond being that he’s so beholden to empire and imperialism that you can’t make him a black guy. The brilliance of Shaft is they didn’t make him a cop, they made him a private dick. That was one of the things I was bummed out about with the 2000 remake, they made him more of a cop.

Minus that film, though, I’d place him more comfortably with the Sam Spade-type private detectives. The murkiness of the private dick — he has to go do some things that may be unsavory, but they’re all in the service of the case and this dame. Basically, the willingness to do dirt, break the law and have a good time. There’s that sense of more life and fullness, which puts him more in line with detectives and antiheroes than unbeatable superspies.

What’s your favorite scene or line of dialog from a Shaft film?
Collett: The first thing that pops in my mind is, “Now, do you want the D, or do you want to be held?” [Laughs] Both Samuel L Jackson and Richard Roundtree say it in their respective films. I’ve always loved that, but I don’t get as much cause to say it as one might hope. [Laughs] But other than a poignant “motherfucker,” I don’t think of Shaft as a one-liner type guy. There’s more subtlety to him than that.

Carvell: I’d have to go with the final chase scene in Shaft’s Big Score!. Putting aside what an absurdly long chase it is between a helicopter, a speed boat and like five cars, Parks does all of this iconography in the way it’s shot that l love. There’s a portion where John Shaft is being pursued by white men in all these vehicles, and he finds himself among a shoulder-high patch of heather, the wind is blowing and he’s out numbered, out-gunned and sweating. The sudden appearance of plants and fields in an urban setting puts one in mind of a runaway slave. I would think intentionally. There’s a desperation, an earthy blood and bone for survival quality in the way that scene unfolds — one lone black man trying to get free against a whole society of whites. In that scene, Parks also includes a reference to his iconic 1952 photograph Emerging Man, as Shaft peeks out from his hiding place. It just gives me chills.

Emerging Man by Gordon Parks

Pops: I liked the character played by Drew Bundini Brown. He was a henchman who didn’t waste words. He was like my dad’s friends when they came in and said something to you. They didn’t have an extra word in the sentence. [Laughs] That actor, Drew Bundini Brown, was also Muhammad Ali’s trainer. He also wrote that famous Ali line, “I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” Bundini had my favorite line in Shaft, too, when he says, “He picked my man up… and threw him out the goddamn window.”

Last question: Do you have favorite memories related to Shaft, watching it, or maybe joking about it with friends or partners?
Carvell: I feel like when me and my brother were little in the 1980s watching all those movies, we knew they were old but we also knew they were somehow, in some unnamable way, connected to our father. So I think we watched as a way of connecting with him, or maybe even embodying him in our own little ways. When I look back on it, It was sweet, in a legacy-of-toxic-masculinity kind of way.

Pops: In 1971, when Shaft came out, I was working at Greystone Park State Hospital in Morris Plains, New Jersey as a conscientious objector. That’s how I avoided going to Vietnam, because I was very much against the war. At the hospital, we had a softball team and all of our girlfriends would come out to the games. On Fourth of July weekend, we had a cookout and all decided to go see Shaft together. So about 40 of us drove down to Newark to see Shaft.

Imagine having two rows in a theater, and it’s nothing but you and your friends. We had the back two rows. We’re back there clowning. We’re smoking cigarettes — in those days you could smoke anywhere. And of course we’re smoking reefer, too. We’re putting rum in all our Cokes. By the end of the movie, we were all drunk. Then Isaac Hayes started playing again over the credits. We danced down the aisle. And when we started dancing, everybody else in the theater started dancing. It became like a little dance party. Then we danced on out. So yeah, that’s my memory of Shaft. [Laughs]