Sometime around the turn of the 1970s, Hollywood realized there was a huge potential audience for movies about people who were sick and tired of being sick and tired.
They were tired of looking around them and seeing the bad guys win. They were tired of the good guys having one hand tied behind their backs.
So Hollywood created Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, a cop who did what was necessary to nail sociopaths and psychos. It gave us Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey, an average citizen who turns vigilante after his wife is murdered and no one does anything about it. These films and their sequels rang up such healthy ticket sales that the genre expanded into a mini-industry, eventually making action hero stars out of Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Bruce Willis and other heavily muscled men who blasted through red tape and rules to exact satisfying revenge on sneering lowlifes.
And very early in this process it gave us John Shaft, played by Richard Roundtree, who parlayed Shaft into a career that ran more than 50 years, right up to his death Tuesday from pancreatic cancer at the age of 81.
The saga began with 1971’s Shaft, a fast-paced action flick in which private investigator Shaft rescues the daughter of a shady Harlem mobster from a pack of shadier downtown mobsters. In the process he works both with and around the cops, he scores with a bunch of good-looking women, he kills a brigade of bad guys and he does it all with a style and attitude that says he knows exactly how good he is.
Shaft isn’t technically the first black action hero. In 1932, for instance, pioneer black director Oscar Micheaux shot The Girl From Chicago, in which a black federal agent rescues a woman from mobsters.
But The Girl From Chicago, shot with no money and a largely amateur cast, was a “race movie,” shown to a modest black audience and ignored by everyone else. That was just how it worked for the first 60 or 70 years of the movie biz. Gene Autry parlayed his singing cowboy persona into a $320 million fortune. Herb Jeffries, “The Black Singing Cowboy,” who starred in the likes of Two-Gun Man From Harlem, lived to be 100.
Roundtree came along at the right time. Hollywood, paralleling other realms of corporate America, had decided it might be wise to start incorporating more than just Sidney Poitier into its hiring and product.
Shaft, not the first “black” movie of the era, wasn’t a big gamble. It was budgeted at $500,000. So when it earned an estimated $12 million, it was speaking Hollywood’s language — and while the wheels turned slowly, it helped chop the path that would eventually lead to the likes of Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington.
Shaft also got a boost from Isaac Hayes’s theme song, which won a best song Oscar and sailed to the top of the pop charts in the fall of 1971 — though interestingly, it only reached №2 on the black music chart.
But the real selling point of Shaft was Roundtree, who described the movie as an old-style “Saturday night shoot-‘em-up.” He also suggested what was unique about John Shaft is that he was a black man who breezed past all the standard qualifiers of most previous black movie characters. He had a good job, he was good at his job, he knew how to play the white people in his life. He liked women and was as unplagued by moral codes in personal relationships as he was in his professional conduct.
None of that made him a white guy in dark skin. He lived in the black world, he moved in the black world, and if his corner of that world was often violent, he understood and accepted how it worked.
And in the end, he was a good guy. Angelic, no. But he did what Hollywood realized so many people craved: Instead of running for cover from the bad guys, he neutralized them. In 1970s Hollywood, a whole lot of folks just needed killing.
While Richard Roundtree ultimately made five Shaft movies, the last in 2019 with Samuel L. Jackson as his son and Jessie T. Usher as his grandson, he wasn’t defined by John Shaft. He scored hundreds of roles, in shows from Roots to Desperate Housewives, playing a rainbow of characters whose common thread was being human.
Talking to BSO Entertainment in 2019 about the progress of black performers over the last half century, he clearly knew what he had helped seed.
“You look at someone like Viola Davis,” he said. “These are talents that can stand alone, who are beasts, that can make demands and be heard and listened to. They can put out incredible projects with no apologies. It’s not just standing in a corner or being an afterthought. They drive the narrative. It’s wonderful to see.”
It’s not wiping out all the bad guys. It’s progress.