There’s no real mystery to why there’s a new film around called Shaft. The chance to use Isaac Hayes’s immortal theme tune would be temptation enough.
The whole blaxploitation genre has had a vigorous afterlife: parodied in I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, sampled and referenced in hundreds of hip hop records and videos, and copiously paid tribute to by Quentin Tarantino. And what actor is going to turn down playing a character who we all know is a ‘sex machine with all the chicks’?
But the original Shaft was the product of a very particular moment in American history, and had a social significance that far outweighed its importance in strictly cinematic terms. The new film, starring Samuel L. Jackson, has survived a troubled genesis to rise to the top of the US box-office charts. But the 2000 version of Shaft has a different meaning – and possibly a very different type of audience – from the original.
Shaft came out in 1971, a particularly turbulent time in black American history. The civil rights movement had given black Americans equal legal status at last, which in time would lead to mainstream political representation, a growing middle class and a substantial media presence. However, civil rights had failed to end racism, the Black Panthers were in bloody decline, the decay of the traditional manufacturing base – which hit black Americans hardest – had begun, and there was a heroin crisis in the inner cities.
In that context, films like Shaft meant more than their basic crime narratives would suggest. Blaxploitation movies were born of the same rage that fuelled the civil rights movement, born of a wish to shake things up.
Shaft wasn’t the first film in this upsurge. According to how you define it, that was either Ossie Davis’s Cotton Comes To Harlem or Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song (both 1970). And it’s not the most typical: as blaxploitation films go, it’s on the respectable side. John Shaft is a fairly traditional private detective, unlike the pusher and pimp anti-heroes of Superfly or The Mack. And while many of the later films were made by veteran white exploitation hacks, Shaft was directed by the distinguished photographer/writer/musician Gordon Parks (not to be confused with his son, Superfly ‘s Gordon Parks Jr).
But Shaft was the most successful blaxploitation movie. It had Isaac Hayes’s great soundtrack, which won an Oscar for the theme song. It had a whole array of white bad guys, from mobsters to corrupt cops. And it had Richard Roundtree as Shaft, looking impeccably sharp with his Afro and long, leather coat. In his book Hip Hop America , Nelson George ascribes the enduring appeal of blaxploitation films to their depiction of ‘aggressive black heroism’. That’s all there in the opening sequence to Shaft , as Roundtree strides fearlessly through the Manhattan traffic, raising his middle finger to a cabbie who dares question his right to the roads.
George writes: ‘Never in the history of American cinema had there been so many aggressive, I-don’t-give-a-damn black folks on screen. That is so crucial. Blaxploitation movies reserved little space for the singing of Negro spirituals, turning the other cheek, or chaste kisses. In fact, characters who possessed these qualities were often the brunt of much-appreciated derision. In blax ploitation, black people shoot back with big guns, strut to bold jams, and have sweaty, bed-rocking sex. Whatever story the often loopy plots hold, they are usually secondary to full-bodied action.’
Before then, blacks had a sketchy presence in mainstream movies, making do with whatever roles were on offer to Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr and Sidney Poitier. And although Poitier made some fine films and many courageous stands, his appearance in the absurd Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner in 1967 made him look like a man out of time, cinema’s Uncle Tom. After Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, the mood was ripe for something different.
The blaxploitation tornado had blown itself out by about 1976. There were two lousy Shaft sequels and a TV series. But blaxploitation has never drifted into the cultural wilderness, not least because, however vari able the films were, the music – by the likes of James Brown, Curtis Mayfield and Bobby Womack – was usually unbeatable.
Director John Singleton grew up in the hip hop era. His first and by far best film – Boyz N The Hood – took its name from an Eazy E track. He’s always used rappers in the cast: Busta Rhymes is in Shaft. But his obsession with Shaft predates even that: he claims he first saw it when he was three.
In the mid-Nineties he came up with the idea of doing a film about Shaft’s son. He wanted to do it on a low budget, with the energy and sexual brazenness of a hip hop video, and wanted Don Cheadle to star. But MGM, who owned the Shaft franchise, didn’t like the idea. So although Singleton directed the new Shaft, it’s a long way from his initial vision. Notorious producer Scott Rudin deemed the excellent Cheadle not famous enough: Jackson was brought in. Since the 51-year-old Jackson is only six years younger than Roundtree, he became Shaft’s nephew rather than his son.
The whole film became much more expensive. Along the way it lost the pulpiness and sexiness that Singleton had wanted: the result is a competent modern action movie with none of the retro gestures of Pulp Fiction and a lack of bedroom action that left Jackson feeling short-changed. Its cop turned vigilante storyline has its roots less in the first Shaft and more in Dirty Harry.
There are endless stories of trouble on set: Singleton fighting with Jackson, Singleton spending too much time in his trailer with extras and both Singleton and Jackson arguing with Rudin and uniting in contempt for writer Richard Price, a fine novelist who has done plenty of screenwriting ( Sea Of Love, Ransom ). At a press conference Jackson referred to Price as ‘that white man’. Even so, Price supplied the obligatory rich white bad guy (Christian Bale) and corrupt white cops, as well as one sympathetic white woman (Toni Collette).
The first Shaft had one intended audience: hip young black men. The new film has at least three potential audiences. The first are people who just want to see an action movie: these are the people Rudin thinks have heard of Jackson but not Cheadle. The second are the sons of the guys who were so inspired by the first Shaft : they should be pleased to see that for once Jackson doesn’t have to share the limelight with John Travolta or Geena Davis or Kevin Spacey. And the third, possibly most important, group are the white suburban teenagers who in their millions buy hardcore hip hop records by the likes of Wu Tang Clan and Dr Dre. If there is one thing the music business learnt during the Nineties, it was that you didn’t have to tone down hip hop for it to cross over.
But this special kind of crossover only works if the kids don’t think the records or clothes are aimed at them. They want the real thing, the thing that’s big in the South Bronx or Atlanta. And that’s the awkward position that Shaft occupies: it is a big summer movie, but it can’t be too much like any big summer movie. Jackson’s shaved head gleams from the cover of both Entertainment Weekly and Rap Pages . So far, that tightrope walk seems to have worked. But however much money it takes, Singleton’s film won’t mean as much as Parks’s did. The world has changed.
Also bobbling about the US box-office chart right now is Big Momma’s House , a massively unsubtle comedy starring Martin Lawrence. And coming up soon here are the relationship comedy dramas The Best Man and Love And Basketball . What’s interesting about those two is that they are middle-class black movies and have no appeal to white kids with ghetto fantasies. Then there are plenty of crude comedies starring rappers, and black crime films like Hype Williams’s sporadically brilliant Belly . Which is to say that Roundtree stepped into a near vacuum, offering something never seen before. Whereas the new Shaft exists in a world where the idea of ‘black movies’ as a genre is – finally – becoming redundant.
Changing times: 30 years of black cinema
1970: The release of Cotton Comes to Harlem and Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song herald the start of the blaxploitation genre.
1971: Shaft is first big-budget blaxploitation film. Isaac Hayes wins Oscar for the music. Shaft’s Big Score and Shaft in Africa follow.
1972: Two of America’s biggest pop stars provide the soundtracks to Trouble Man (Marvin Gaye) and Superfly (Curtis Mayfield).
1973-74: Pam Grier becomes Blaxploitation’s First Lady, starring in Coffy and Foxy Brown.
1976: Blaxploitation genre fades. But ensemble comedy Car Wash attracts black moviegoers.
1982: Eddie Murphy explodes on to the scene in 48 Hours and becomes one of the Eighties’ biggest stars.
1986: Spike Lee releases his first film, She’s Gotta Have It, emerging as figurehead for African-American cinema.
1989: Denzel Washington wins Oscar for his role in Glory. Do the Right Thing sparks debate with its look at New York racial tensions.
1990: Whoopi Goldberg wins Oscar for Ghost.
1991: Boyz N the Hood inspires a host of gritty films depicting the black urban experience.
1992: The release of Malcolm X.
1994: Hoop Dream, about aspiring basketball players, is a critical hit.
1995: Success of Waiting to Exhale shows there is a large audience for middle-class ‘female flicks’.
1997: Jackie Brown is a homage to blaxploitation.
2000: Singleton updates Shaft.
The original Shaft is rereleased 21 July. The new version will be released in November. www.blaxploitation.com
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