So long, suckers! There'll never be a star like me again.
Richard Roundtree, during his long show business career, appeared in scores of movies and television shows, but his first film role was in Shaft and he'll always be known for what can only be described as a cultural awakening, a watershed moment that moved black-centered cinema into the mainstream. It precipitated a flood of capital brought to bear on the genre by investors seeking easy returns, which undermined blaxploitation cinema much same way capital brings a flood of condos to a thriving ethnic neighborhood. Even so Shaft has stood the test of time, is one of the better action movies of the 1970s, generated the sequels Shaft's Big Score and Shaft in Africa, as well as a series of novels, and has remained within the American consciousness thanks to its popular soundtrack, its many lyrical references in hip-hop, and its one-of-a-kind star. Roundtree died today at age eighty-one.
Shaft hit America and changed the game.
We've discussed quite a few blaxploitation movies, but have neglected the 1971 thriller Shaft. What can you say about the granddaddy of them all, the movie that helped change Hollywood thinking about what viewpoints would sell? Many of the black oriented movies that came afterward were cash grabs, and for that reason most of them weren't good. No such problems exist with Shaft. It's fast, furious, and fun. Our viewing was a reminder that in addition to being a detective movie and a movie that centers black experiences, it's also a neo film noir in both execution and mood. Directed by acclaimed photographer and photo-journalist Gordon Parks, Shaft is gorgeous work, made mostly in actual locations around New York City, and sprinkled with symbology and visual metaphor right from the opening credits.
The character of Shaft is important in film history. Because the theme song is so widely heard most people know Shaft is a bad mother shut-your-mouth, but as the song also says, he's complicated. He lives in Greenwich Village in a bachelor pad decorated with modern art and filled with books. He's kind to children and helps people in need. He has feelings for his girlfriend but will not be tied down and is obliging toward other women who desire him. And he's a friend to any people who treat him with respect. This extends to his local bartender, who's gay and dispenses a familiar pat to Shaft's ass that we can assume isn't the first or last. A bad mother shut-your-mouth? For sure, but he's so much more. And likewise, Shaft is more than a detective movie. It's a cinematic achievement that entertains visually, intellectually, and viscerally. It's a must watch. It was first seen by the public at a special premiere in Detroit, Michigan today in 1971.
Shaft comes out swinging in the third entry in his revered blaxploitation franchise.
This John Solie poster of Richard Roundtree brandishing a massive shillelagh or whatever was made for the third film in his iconic Shaft trilogy, Shaft in Africa, which was released today in 1973. Film series often try to go bigger with each entry, so it's no surprise that this one went clear to Africa during the height of the blaxploitation wave. Looking at the poster, we wonder if the stick gimmick influenced the next year's Black Samson, in which Rockne Tarkington carried a shillelagh of his own. Cinema being generally referential, we're guessing yes. But the similarities between the movies ends there. Black Samson was exclusively concerned with urban Los Angeles, while Shaft in Africa spans three continents and touches on some unusual subject matter.
The story revolves around New York City private dick John Shaft being asked to bring down a modern slavery ring. We should note, for any who don't know, that this evil thrives in 2022. In modern slavery, people desperate for work are offered foreign jobs that turn out to be brutal and pay so little—or nothing—that its victims are trapped. They can neither escape nor go to the police, because they soon learn that their work papers are fraudulent, and are told by their enslavers that the police will imprison them for illegal immigration. Operations of this sort have been broken up in recent years in New York, Georgia, and Texas, where a sex slavery ring was uncovered in Dallas. Elsewhere, slavery rings have been busted in the British Midlands, Australia, and perhaps most notably in Dubai, where Amnesty International says forced labor was used to prepare Qatar for the upcoming World Cup.
Shaft is tasked with traveling to Ethiopia, where he will pose as a local and allow himself to be recruited by slavers so he can gather evidence for French authorities, who have learned that the victims end up in Paris. Unfortunately, Shaft quickly realizes his cover has been blown and that he can't trust anyone. In a classic American cinema example of vigilantism becoming the last best option, he decides that rather than gather evidence against the slavers it'd be better if he went human tornado on the whole stinking lot of them. He becomes, in essence, the classic cop out of control, leaving chaos in his wake as his erstwhile handlers survey the damage and occasionally go sacre bleu!
In an interesting subplot, Vonetta McGee plays Aleme, tasked with teaching Shaft local ways and a bit of language. Shaft is dismayed to learn that she's on the cusp of receiving her clitoridectomy, a coming-of-age ritual generally referred to these days as female genital mutilation. Shaft: “Listen, baby, how in the hell are you gonna know what you're missing unless you give it a little wear and tear before they take it away?” It's glib, but there's a serious undertone—probably not enough for anyone horrified by the practice, but you really can't expect more for the time period. It's actually amazing it was mentioned at all. Because this is a Shaft movie, Aleme has a hands-on experience with the hero's big brown stick and decides she better hang onto her clitoris after all.
What can you say about a movie that features Roundtree reprising his immensely popular and groundbreaking private eye, and that deals with two hot-button social issues decades before they were on the minds of the Western public? The budget is big, the pace is fast, and the international setting in and around Addis Ababa, with some scenes shot in Massawa, Eritrea, and a climax staged in Paris, offers plenty of appeal. In addition, there's McGee, a very beautiful actress who in this outing looks even better than usual, while Serbian actress Neda Arnerić plays a ridiculously horny femme fatale who'll do anything to get Shaft in the sack. Action, commentary, sex, and a bit of humor—those are excellent ingredients, but even with all that and the virtual kitchen sink thrown in we don't think Shaft in Africa is as good as the original. But that's no surprise. There's really nothing like the first time.
He's a complicated man—nobody understands him but his mechanic.
This is about as chill as you can get. The above shot, which has been floating around online for a while now, was first published in Custom Bike-Chopper, aka Custom Chopper, in 1976, and shows the legendary Isaac Hayes astride his turbocharged Kawasaki chopper on a sunny Southern California day. With the sandals and socks, it's like he never left his sofa. His bike has one-of-a-kind handlebars, a filigreed gearbox, a gold-plated roller chain, and more. It's extravagant, but the guy wrote the massive hit song, “Theme from Shaft.” He had to do something with all that royalty money. As the lyrics explain, nobody understands him but his woman—who we assume built his bike.
We've talked about Hayes before. He starred in a number of films, but of the ones we've seen so far, the most interesting is the 1974 blaxploitation flick Truck Turner. We talked about it at length a while back, and long story short, it's terrible but amusing. He also appeared in the fun John Carpenter b-movie Escape from New York in 1981, and was a running character on the animated show South Park. We'll get back to Escape from New York later, probably. In the meantime, you can see U.S. and Italian Truck Turner posters here and here, read our thoughts about the film at the first of those links, and check out a promo image of Hayes in considerably less relaxed mode here.
He scored big in 1971. In 1972 he returned for a double dip.
Once you go blaxploitation you never go back. At least for a day or two. Above is the U.S. promo poster for another movie from the genre, 1972's Shaft's Big Score, starring the legendary Richard Roundtree. Shaft is obviously a name meant to conjure sex, so it makes sense that the poster is so phallic, with Roundtree sticking that long black rod in the viewer's face. Shaft's Big Score was the sequel to 1971's Shaft, which was a landmark in American cinema that hammered home the growing realization in Hollywood that there was money to be made by showing audiences people like themselves. White audiences had lived that reality since the first moving pictures, but mostly never considered the privilege they were enjoying. Shaft helped demonstrate that all people liked it, and helped define the future for film studios. The focus was black, the cast was diverse, and the money rolled in. Which brought about Shaft's Big Score. We've seen better movies, but we've sure seen worse too. You can read what we thought about it here.
You never forget the first time.
We recently saw the latest reboot of the classic blaxploitation film Shaft with Samuel L. Jackson, Jesse Usher, et al, and while the parties involved in that effort have their unique charms, this photo pretty much covers what made Richard Roundtree the best. He was, and remains, a bad mother— Shut your mouth! He was born today in 1942, and this photo dates from 1971.
Who's the hardest dick in New York City? You know who.
We don't know about you, but we had no idea Shaft was a novel that predated the movie until we saw the above cover art. Written by Ernest Tidyman, this originally appeared in 1970 and was quickly snapped up by Hollywood. That edition was a hardback with a black and white cover by Mozelle Thompson and is rare. The edition you see at top was published in 2016 by Dynamite Entertainment and is widely available.
Plotwise, Shaft is hired to find a drug kingpin's kidnapped daughter with the help of Black Panther style revolutionaries. Tidyman's take on New York City and the social climate of the time is entertaining and the violence is swift and brutal. Because filmdom's Shaft was inclusive in his views, even to the extent of a jokingly flirtatious friendship with a gay bartender, we were surprised by the book's homophobia. Tidyman saw Shaft as ultra tough and therefore anti-gay, but the filmmakers saw right through such silliness and decided to turn that aspect of the book on its head. Another change is the treatment of the drug kingpin's daughter. In the movie she's merely kidnapped, but in the novel her captivity takes the form of narcotic and sexual slavery.
In terms of white authors inhabiting the personas of black Big Apple detectives, the trailblazing Ed Lacy did it better with 1958's Room To Swing, but Tidyman manages well enough, we think, even if his prose sometimes meanders. Though we read Shaft only because it was the wellspring of an excellent blaxploitation flick, turns out the book is worth a gander on its own merits. Tidyman also wrote like five sequels. We know nothing about those, but maybe we'll have a look.
Who’s the man? If you don’t know you better ask somebody.
After scoring a huge hit with the 1971 detective drama Shaft, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer doubled down by rushing out a bigger budgeted sequel the next year. It was called Shaft’s Big Score, and you see the Japanese promo above, made for its Tokyo premiere today in 1972. Some of the acting in Score isn’t great, which was also true of the first film, but as a whole it makes a nice companion piece to Shaft. John Shaft gets in the middle of the Italian and black mobs in New York City, and along the way there are brawls, bullets, and lots of badassedness. The movie also features blaxploitation heavyweights Moses Gunn, Wally Taylor, Drew Bundini Brown, and female foils Kathy Imrie, Rosalind Miles, and the amazing Kitty Jones.
A long while back when discussing the 1968 movie 100 Rifles, we talked about the honesty of cinema from that period. It's a quality that extends into blaxploitation as well. When we say honesty, we don’t mean correctness. Casual racism abounds in blaxploitation, and of course sexism and homophobia make appearances too. But at least the genre acknowledges racial discord as an everyday element of American life. Unfortunately, Hollywood has devoted more and more time over the last thirty years to making soulless action epics and laughless comedies, constantly reassuring ticket buyers that everything is hunky dory. Yes, Hollywood would occasionally take on racial issues in big, Oscar grubbing dramas, but nearly all of those movies, no matter how downbeat, had an implicit message that America was getting better. Well, guess what? It isn’t.
Nearly half of America’s prisoners are inside for drugs, and 40% of that subset is black, even though whites are more likely to sell drugs, and they consume the same amount as blacks—not only per capita, but by percentage. Multiple studies show the same result. Despite this, black drug offenders land inside the increasingly for-profit prison industry at 10.1 times the rate of whites. Uncomfortable facts, but facts they are. Blaxploitation movies acknowledge a wide range of social problems while weaving them into the fabric of popular cinema. Nobody walked away from Shaft’s Big Score thinking that America was becoming a post-racial Eden, yet nobody walked away denying that the movie was immense fun. Entertainment that reflects the real world. Is that really so hard to do?
Trouble in the distance.
This great promo of American actress Rosalind Miles was made for her role in the low budget Georgina Spelvin actioner Girls for Rent, aka I Spit on Your Corpse. Don’t ask. Anyway, Miles is probably more familiar to movie buffs for Shaft’s Big Score, and she also appreared in Friday Foster, The Black 6, and on several television shows. This image dates from 1974.
To dance, to sing, to laugh, or to just be.
Above, American actress Judy Pace, who appeared in such films as Cool Breeze and Cotton Comes to Harlem, and on television shows like Kung Fu, Mod Squad, and Shaft, seen here expressing herself circa 1968.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1936—Crystal Palace Gutted by Fire
In London, the landmark structure Crystal Palace, a 900,000 square foot glass and steel exhibition hall erected in 1851, is destroyed by fire. The Palace had been moved once and fallen into disrepair, and at the time of the fire was not in use. Two water towers survived the blaze, but these were later demolished, leaving no remnants of the original structure.
1963—Warren Commission Formed
U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson establishes the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. However the long report that is finally issued does little to settle questions
about the assassination, and today surveys show that only a small minority of Americans agree with the Commission's conclusions.
1942—Nightclub Fire Kills Hundreds
In Boston, Massachusetts, a fire
in the fashionable Cocoanut Grove nightclub kills 492 people. Patrons were unable to escape when the fire began because the exits immediately became blocked with panicked people, and other possible exits were welded shut or boarded up. The fire led to a reform of fire codes and safety standards across the country, and the club's owner, Barney Welansky, who had boasted of his ties to the Mafia and to Boston Mayor Maurice J. Tobin, was eventually found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
It's easy. We have an uploader that makes it a snap. Use it to submit your art, text, header, and subhead. Your post can be funny, serious, or anything in between, as long as it's vintage pulp. You'll get a byline and experience the fleeting pride of free authorship. We'll edit your post for typos, but the rest is up to you. Click here
to give us your best shot.