Encore: Looking back on the legacy of ‘Shaft,’ 50 years later


1971 launched moviegoers to an iconic character, John Shaft.



ISAAC HAYES: Can you dig it?

SHAPIRO: The movie was a success for then-floundering MGM Studios. “Shaft” impressed a quantity of different movies which can be known as Blaxploitation cinema. We’re taking a second to revisit the sophisticated legacy of an American traditional first explored by NPR’s Marc Rivers earlier this yr.

MARC RIVERS, BYLINE: (*50*) years in the past, cultural critic Nelson George was 13 years previous, sitting in a darkened theater in Times Square. And then got here the electrical opening credit of “Shaft.”

NELSON GEORGE: The minute he comes off the subway and we hear that wah-wah pedal kick in, we’re like, whoa, sure. We’re on this world.

RIVERS: On display screen, a good-looking Black man sporting an extended leather-based jacket over a turtleneck sweater knifes his manner by New York visitors, glides by picket strains, shoots the breeze with a newspaper vendor. And simply who is that this man? A sultry voice breaks it down.


HAYES: Who’s the Black non-public dick that is a intercourse machine to all the chicks?


HAYES: You’re rattling proper.

GEORGE: You might’ve left the film after that and been feeling actually nice about your self.

RIVERS: In 1971, “Shaft” was a revelation and a rupture from the previous.


CLARENCE MUSE: (As Jasper) Boss, boss, obtained excellent news for you.

RIVERS: In the cinema of the Thirties and ’40s, Black males had been typically portrayed as servile or gradual.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I ain’t bothering no person, simply doing nothing.

RIVERS: They had been caricatures.

GEORGE: Black males had been neutered in movies for many years.

RIVERS: They had been additionally desexualized, says critic Nelson George. With the arrival of the sleek Sidney Poitier as a number one man in the Nineteen Fifties, there was progress, however it was quaint.

GEORGE: Then you had Sidney, who’s kind of, like, engaging, good-looking however not overtly sexual.

RIVERS: George says that following the ’60s civil rights period, issues modified. Audiences modified.

GEORGE: By ’70, ’71, the world is shifting. Instead of we will overcome, individuals are saying Black energy. And so there was a want in the tradition for not a suit-and-tie hero however somebody who mirrored the funky, freaky issues that had been going on.

RIVERS: That funk of “Shaft” got here much less from the plot than from the cool and commanding presence of its star Richard Roundtree, who began his profession as a mannequin…


RICHARD ROUNDTREE: (As John Shaft) I did not even introduce myself to you gents. My title is John Shaft. Freeze.

RIVERS: …And, of course, from Isaac Hayes’ electrifying rating.


RIVERS: The success of “Shaft” opened the door for movies like “Trouble Man” and “Super Fly” – tales of Black characters dealing with city decay, crime and preventing the man.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: He’s obtained a plan to stay it to the man. He’s super-hood, super-high – Super Fly.

RIVERS: Critics referred to as them Blaxploitation, a time period impressed by exploitation movies, late-night cinema outlined by intercourse and violence, movies that, in the event you had been younger sufficient while you noticed one, made you are feeling such as you obtained away with one thing. And a lot of the thrill got here from the indisputable fact that the protagonists in these motion pictures did get away. They received. And Black characters did not typically get to win on display screen. The film got here out on the eve of a recession, and studios had been trying to make quick and low-cost hits, says movie professor Racquel Gates.

RACQUEL GATES: And one of the issues that they do is that they kind of – and I say this jokingly and in full sarcasm – is that they keep in mind that Black individuals exist.

RIVERS: “Shaft” was an enormous hit. With a funds of half 1,000,000 {dollars}, it grossed $12 million. So studios cranked these movies out one after the different throughout the Seventies. But these movies all the time had their critics. Some Black organizations campaigned in opposition to them, saying they glorified drug sellers and violence and profited from unflattering portraits of Blackness. Here’s critic Nelson George once more.

GEORGE: Black individuals did not really feel prefer it ought to’ve been popularized. We really feel like that was pulling the race down. And to some extent, we’re making ourselves look unhealthy in entrance of white individuals.

RIVERS: Then there have been the girls in these movies. Many had been little greater than eye sweet. But there was additionally Pam Grier.


PAM GRIER: (As Foxy Brown) I’m not going to face right here and argue with you. Now, you higher inform me who you talked to as a result of it is both them otherwise you.

RIVERS: Grier turned a feminist icon for her larger-than-life motion roles in movies like “Coffy” and “Foxy Brown.” She instructed NPR in 2010 that she knew these girls.

GRIER: My mother was Coffy, and my aunt was Foxy Brown.

RIVERS: Film scholar Racquel Gates says Grier might discover a depth that wasn’t all the time on the web page.

GATES: Pam Grier brings such an genuine vulnerability and fragility to her portrayal, which I believe is in spite of no matter was in the script.

RIVERS: By the Nineteen Eighties, blaxploitation movies largely went out of type. But if there’s one side of their legacy that by no means went away, it is the music. In a dialog with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, Isaac Hayes described how he discovered the sound for Shaft’s theme.

HAYES: You know, they defined the character to me, you recognize, a relentless character all the time on the transfer, all the time on the prowl. And you have to get one thing to indicate that for the fundamental theme. I stated, what can I do? And I instructed Willie, the drummer – I stated, give me that hi-hat, man, some 16 notes – you recognize, (vocalizing). And he did that, and it labored.

RIVERS: Isaac Hayes turned the first African American to win an Oscar for music. It was additionally a success and paved the manner for different artists to create wealthy soundscapes of the movies that adopted, like Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” rating…


RIVERS: …Or Curtis Mayfield’s “Super Fly.”


CURTIS MAYFIELD: (Singing) Oh, Super Fly, you are going to make your fortune by and by.

RIVERS: Again, critic Nelson George.

GEORGE: So the early ’70s is, for me, one of the peak moments of Black musical expression. I imply, principally, the total hip-hop era of the ’80s and ’90s – its foundational music is that this music from the early ’70s.

ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD: I believe that is true.

RIVERS: Ali Shaheed Muhammad is a member of the group A Tribe Called Quest. He remembers how the “Shaft” soundtrack first hit him.

MUHAMMAD: It was an album that represented a personality that was a superhero for the Black neighborhood. And it confirmed the degree of genius that we’re in a position to compose on.

RIVERS: For years, there have been makes an attempt to reboot movies from the Blaxploitation period, from a brand new “Super Fly” to new “Shaft” motion pictures. They weren’t all the time essential or field workplace success tales. Racquel Gates thinks a worthy reboot would want to do extra than simply feed nostalgia.

GATES: What questions is it asking about energy? What questions are these movies asking about the kind of, you recognize, id of particular person Black individuals and their relationship or their duties to a bigger Black neighborhood?

RIVERS: 1971’s “Shaft” could or could not have answered these questions. But for a era of Black audiences who noticed it on the large display screen when it first got here out, the film was and stays a cultural touchstone. Again, Nelson George.

GEORGE: I imply, to today, I’ll inform you that I’ve obtained a complete bunch of turtlenecks and leather-based jackets that I’ve worn. You know, sure days, I put that factor on, and I’m Shaft.


HAYES: (Singing) Who is the man that may threat his neck for his brother man?


HAYES: Can you dig it?

RIVERS: I can dig it.

Marc Rivers, NPR News.


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