Depending on who you ask, the film that gave birth to Blaxploitation differs. Cotton Comes to Harlem is hailed by some pundits as the progenitor. Chronologically, it was the first, but some folks dispute its classification as a Blaxploitation movie. Elsewhere, others have credited Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song as the one that started the trend. That film is certainly very much in line with other flicks that define the style.
Due to its massive success and cultural impact, though, Shaft is often accepted as the O.G Blaxploitation opus. It’s undoubtedly the most influential film of the bunch. On top of spawning several sequels, a TV series, reboots, and countless knockoffs, Shaft paved the way for an era in American cinema that saw black actors and filmmakers take center stage without serving as sidekicks or lackeys to whitey.
Based on the novel by Ernest Tidyman and starring Richard Roundtree as the titular “private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks,” Shaft follows our suave hero’s quest to retrieve a local crime lord’s kidnapped daughter. However, the job involves going up against the Mafia, so the detective assembles a team of militant Black mercenaries to help him save the day.
Audiences were hungry for movies like Shaft back in the ‘70s. The French Connection and Dirty Harry, both of which featured masculine, renegade cops who took no shit and marched to the beat of their own drum, helped usher in a popular time for violent, action-packed cop pictures. Shaft was cut from a similar cloth in terms of its story and edgy sensibilities. The only difference was that Shaft was given an African-American makeover.
That being said, Shaft wasn’t conceived initially to break boundaries and create a more diverse playing field when it came to representation. Despite being based on novels about a Black character, the first iteration of the script was whitewashed. However, when director Gordon Parks — a pioneer of Black cinema — decided to cast Roundtree, the film became something else entirely.
With Roundtree on board, the (mostly white) creators behind the film’s creation sought to make it identifiable with Black audiences. For example, the militants who help Shaft were given a more prominent role in a bid to highlight the burgeoning Black Power Movement of the time. Furthermore, Shaft had more of a connection to his neighborhood than he did with the law. To sweeten things, soul legend Isaac Hayes was also hired to compose and perform the iconic theme song, which won him an Oscar.
A common criticism of Blaxploitation movies is that they reinforce negative stereotypes and portray race in a problematic light. Shaft was no different. While he enjoyed the film, the New York Times’ Vincent Canby even predicted that a boom of like-minded movies would follow in its wake and they would change these perceptions of the Black community in entertainment.
“[Having] watched the extraordinary receptions given to both ‘Sweet Sweetback’ and ‘Shaft’ I’m led to wonder if, perhaps, the existence of what seems to be a large, hungry, black movie audience—an audience whose experiences and interests are treated mostly in token fashion by TV—might not be one of the more healthy and exciting developments on the current movie scene.”
As history has shown us, Shaft did indeed spearhead a wave of films that adopted similar ideas. In spite of their unenlightened qualities, though, these films were entertaining and provided a welcome and successful alternative to the predominantly white fare that had been so commonplace in film and television until then. One positive I’m sure that we can all agree on is that they allowed Black actors and filmmakers to thrive in an industry that had neglected them for so long.
All in all, Shaft was a risk that paid off. The film shattered some glass ceilings that led to more doors being opened across the board. For instance, without Shaft, there wouldn’t be movies like Coffy. Without like Coffy, Pam Grier might not have become America’s first female action star. That’s a pretty cool legacy right there.