Looking Back On The Legacy Of 'Shaft,' 50 Years Later
Fifty years ago, cultural critic Nelson George was 13 years old, sitting in a darkened theater in Times Square — then came the electric opening credits of "Shaft." "The minute he comes off the subway, and we hear that wah-wah peddle kick in, we're like, 'Whoa, yes. We're in this world,' " he recalls.
On screen, a handsome Black man wearing a long leather jacket over a turtleneck sweater knifes his way through New York traffic, glides through picket lines, shoots the breeze with the newspaper vendor. And just who is this man? A sultry voice breaks it down. "You could've left the movie after that and been feeling pretty great about yourself," George says. In 1971, "Shaft" was a revelation and a rupture from the past.
In the cinema of the 1930s and '40s, black men were often portrayed as servile or slow. They were caricatures. "Black men were neutered in films for decades," George says. They were also de-sexualized, he adds. With the arrival of the graceful Sidney Poitier as a leading man in the the '50s, there was progress but it was quaint. "Then you had Sydney who's sort of like attractive, handsome, but not overtly sexual," George says.
He adds that following the 1960s' civil rights era, things changed; audiences changed. "By [1970 to 71,] the world is shifting. Instead of 'We shall overcome,' people are saying, 'Black power.' And so, there was a desire in the culture for not a suit-and-tie hero, but someone who reflected the funky, freaky things that were going on."
The funk of "Shaft" came less from the plot, than from cool and commanding presence of its star, Richard Roundtree, who started his career as a model. His performance does not encompass, of course, Isaac Hayes' electrifying score. The success of "Shaft" opened the door for films like "Trouble Man" and "Superfly," which told stories of Black characters facing urban decay, crime and fighting the man.
Critics called it Blaxploitation cinema, a term inspired by exploitation films: late night cinema defined by sex and violence. Films that, if you were young enough when you saw one, made you feel like you got away with something. Much of the thrill came from the fact that the protagonists in these films did get away — they won. Black characters didn't often get to win on screen. The movie came out on the eve of a recession and studios were looking to make fast and cheap hits, says film scholar and historian Raquel Gates. "And one of the things that they do is they sort of — and I say this jokingly, in full sarcasm — is they remember that Black people exist," she adds.
"Shaft" was a huge hit. With a budget of half a million dollars, it grossed 12 million dollars. Studios cranked these films out one after the other during the 1970s. But these films always had their critics; some black organizations campaigned against them, saying they glorified drug dealers and violence, and profited from unflattering portraits of blackness. "Black people feel like it shouldn't have been popularized. We feel like, that was pulling the race down — and to some degree, we're making ourselves look bad in front of white people," George says.
There were also the women in these films. Many were little more than eye candy, but not Pam Grier. She became a feminist icon for her larger than life action roles in films like "Coffy" and "Foxy Brown." In 2010, Grier told NPR that she knew these women: "My mom was 'Coffy' and my aunt was 'Foxy Brown.' " Gates says Grier could find a depth that wasn't always on the page. "Pam Grier brings such an authentic vulnerability and fragility to her portrayal, which I think is in spite of whatever was in the script," she says.
By the 1980s, Blaxploitation films largely went out of style. If there's one aspect of their legacy that never went away, it's the music. In a conversation with Fresh Air's Terry Gross, Isaac Hayes described how he found the sound for "Shaft's" theme. "You know, they explained the character to me, you know: 'A relentless character, always on the move, always on the prowl.' And you got to get something to denote that for the main theme. I said, 'What can I do?' " he recalls. "And I told Willie, the drummer, I said, 'Willie Hall,' I said, 'Give me that high hat, man, some 16 notes.' ... And he did that. And it worked."
Hayes became the first African-American to win an Oscar for music in film. It was also a a hit and paved the way for other artists to create rich soundscapes for the films that followed like Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man" score or Curtis Mayfield's "Superfly." "So the early '70s is, for me, one of the peak moments of black musical expression. I mean, basically, the entire hip-hop generation of '80s and '90s — its foundational music is this music from the early 70s," George says.
"I think that's true," A Tribe Called Quest member Ali Shaheed Muhammad says. He remembers how the "Shaft" soundtrack first hit him. "It was an album that represented a character that was a superhero for the Black community," he says. "And it showed the level of genius we're able to compose on."
For years, there have been attempts to reboot films from the Blaxploitation era, from a new "Superfly," to new "Shaft" movies. They weren't always critical or box office success stories. Gates thinks a worthy reboot will need to do more than just feed nostalgia. "What questions is it asking about power?" she asks. "What questions are these films asking about the sort of, you know, identity of individual Black people and their relationship or their responsibilities to a larger black community?"
1971's "Shaft" may or may not have answered these questions. But for a generation of black audiences who saw it on the big screen, when it first came out, the movie was — and remains — a cultural touchstone. "I mean, to this day, I will tell you that I got a whole bunch of turtlenecks and leather jackets that I've worn. You know, certain days, I put that thing on and I'm Shaft!" George says.
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