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The Unlikely, Gritty Origins of John Shaft

Shaft has drifted through pop culture for so long — and through so many different incarnations — that it’s hard to pin down just who the character is

Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks? The answer, of course, is Shaft. John Shaft. But who is he really? The answer to that question is a little more complicated than you might think. 

In the 2019 film Shaft (the third to bear that title), John Shaft Jr. (Jessie Usher) says of his father John Shaft II (Samuel L. Jackson, and yes that “II” is confusing — we’ll get to it), “He thinks he’s the black James Bond.”

Shaft II replies, “If that motherfucker was real, he’d think he was me.” But the line hits closer to the truth than the film acknowledges. Like James Bond, John Shaft began life in the pages of a novel but became an icon via the movies. And, also like Bond, the journey from page to screen changed him. 

Everyone knows Shaft’s name, but the character has drifted through pop culture for so long and through so many different incarnations that it’s hard to pin down just who he is — even with an Oscar-winning Isaac Hayes theme song that lays out the details.

Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft” unforgettably plays over the opening credits of the 1971 film as star Richard Roundtree stalks the wintry streets of Manhattan, but Shaft’s story begins in Cleveland, birthplace of writer Ernest Tidyman. A white journalist, Tidyman took the circuitous route to creating the black private eye hero who made his debut in the pages of the 1970 novel Shaft. The son of the chief police reporter for Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, Tidyman moved from writing job to writing job before and after serving in the military in the years just after World War II. He drifted from Houston back to Cleveland then on to Detroit then back to Cleveland until finally landing ing New York in 1960, where he worked for both the Post and the Times. Per Steve Aldous’ exhaustive 2015 book The World of Shaft, Tidyman also took less traditional jobs in journalism, fabricating out-there stories for tabloids with names like Confidential and Whisper and working as an editor at men’s adventure magazines like Stag and Male, where fact and fiction mingled freely.

He first made the attempt to leap to pure fiction via Flower Power, by all accounts an attempt to cash-in on 60s counterculture written by a man who didn’t get it. His second attempt, however, would prove more successful. And here’s where it gets tricky: the first, grittiest, most uncompromising incarnation of John Shaft came from a white writer in his early forties looking for a way to branch out into fiction (and make some money after his third divorce). Shaft wasn’t even fully Tidyman’s idea. Tired of publishing, in his words, “Agatha Christie clones,” Macmillan editor Alan Rinzler wanted a black hero and reached out to Ron Hobbs, one of the era’s few African-American literary agents. Hobbs pointed him toward Tidyman who took on the assignment of creating a tough hero for the tough times. As Rinzler tells it, Tidyman didn’t ace the assignment, turning in a too-polite first draft of the novel’s opening chapters. 

A second pass, however, apparently needed no further toughening and on April 27th, 1970, readers met John Shaft, a former thief and Vietnam veteran now working as a private detective — and soon to take on a case that would find him brushing up against the mob, the police, and a group of black militants. However unlikely its origins, Tidyman’s Shaft remains a brisk, convincing read. Deeply immersed in Shaft’s point of view, it’s filled with the protagonist’s conflicted, sometimes ugly (and occasionally alarmingly homophobic), observations about early 70s New York. From his headquarters in a run-down Times Square, Shaft sees the city as a place of chaos, struggle, and unending threat. It’s also the only home that suits him. In one of the novel’s most memorable stretches, Shaft takes refuge at the home of his accountant Marvin Green and his wife Helen. He reflects that he’s thankful to have them as “friends and the caretaker of the one sanctuary to which he might retreat from the churning snarling city” but also that he “couldn’t stand it for any length of time.” The “slow death of the suburbs” was for others, but not for him.

Instead, he lives a life of sex, violence, and betrayal, and though the novel ends with him getting into a cab and heading to the airport for parts unknown, Tidyman’s Shaft feels inextricable from the city that forged him. If Tidyman has a dubious claim on authenticity in terms of lived experience, his novel remains rich with the details of Shaft’s New York and persuasive in the way it depicts the swirling emotions of a man doing his best to survive a place seemingly determined to pull him apart.

Fortuitously, the task of bringing that city to life for Shaft’s film adaptation fell to one of the greatest photojournalists of the 20th century. A self-taught photographer (and writer and composer) Gordon Parks had chronicled black life in America since the 1940s. His Shaft doubles as a record of New York at its grimiest, following Shaft through troubled streets and finding, in star Richard Roundtree, the embodiment of a hero who both looked at home in those streets and capable of floating above them. It’s a slick, propulsive film that transforms John Shaft from a tortured protagonist to something close to a superhero. Others would soon follow via a boom of blaxploitation films that gave 70s moviegoers dozens of larger-than-life heroes and anti-heroes. If their lineage can’t always be traced directly back to Shaft, the film’s box office success opened up the opportunity for them to exist.

It also created a demand for Shaft sequels, and in the years that followed, the split between the Shaft of film (and later TV) would grow even more pronounced. Shaft arrived in theaters with a screenplay credited to Tidyman and John D.F. Black, but Tidyman — who won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar of another 1971 film, The French Connection —  had mixed feelings about the final product. Those feelings would grow even more mixed during the production of the quickly produced sequel, Shaft’s Big Score! Also directed by Parks, it pushes Shaft further from his literary roots over the course of an action-filled entry most notable for an extended chase finale that attempts to outdo The French Connection. By the following year’s Shaft in Africa, an enjoyable, globetrotting film that comes close to finishing Shaft’s conversion into James Bond, Tidyman had left Shaft behind — at least on screen.

For the book market, Tidyman kept writing Shaft, sort of. Between 1972 and 1975, six Shaft sequels with titles like Shaft’s Carnival of Killers and Shaft Among the Jews appeared in bookstores, all credited to Tidyman but some written by other authors and then edited by Tidyman to conform to his style. While Tidyman’s original novel has drifted in and out of print over the years, these sequels have become almost impossible to track down, in part because they met with muted enthusiasm and dwindling sales. With the final entry, the appropriately named The Last Shaft, Tidyman killed Shaft off by making him the victim of a random mugging. Elsewhere, Roundtree’s Shaft met a different sort of demise with the cancelation of a series of Shaft TV movies after one season on CBS, where it alternated time slots the Jimmy Stewart-starring Hawkins. The 70s TV landscape that made stars of Kojak and Columbo didn’t have room for Shaft.

But maybe 21st century movies did. In its best moments, John Singleton’s 2000 film Shaft plays like an attempt to reconcile the larger-than-life icon Shaft had become with the character’s grittier roots. Roundtree returns, this time as the uncle to another John Shaft, a New York cop played by Samuel L. Jackson. (Shaft II was to be the original Shaft’s son but Jackson’s casting necessitated a change due to the mere six-years separating him from Roundtree. 2019’s Shaft undoes this change. Again, it gets confusing). 

Co-scripted by Singleton, Shane Salerno, and Richard Price, it pits Shaft against the spoiled, murderous son of a crime boss (Christian Bale) and a sadistic drug kingpin (Jeffrey Wright). A famously troubled production, it never quite nails down a tone. Still, Jackson makes for a compelling Shaft and it’s the sort of not-quite-there effort that seems like it could have led to a superior sequel that better defined what a 21st-century John Shaft (or John Shaft II) should be. 

What Jackson’s performance in the 2000 film never suggests, however, is that Shaft ought to be an asshole, which makes the new Shaft that much more baffling. Directed by Tim Story (Barbershop, Fantastic Four) from a script credited to Black-ish creator Kenya Barris and sitcom veteran Alex Barnow, it retcons Shaft II into a sleazy grumpus baffled by his estranged FBI agent millennial son whose sexual identity, masculinity, and competence he questions at every opportunity. For Shaft II, all those qualities are entwined and the film mostly has his back. It gets laughs out of his distaste for coconut water and casual homophobia but essentially portrays his disgust in both instances as well placed. Vocal over the years at having his part reduced in Singleton’s Shaft, Roundtree nonetheless shows up again as the original Shaft, now little more than a clichéd funky grandpa.

Funny forgives a lot. Trouble is, the new Shaft is never funny. It exists in some hazy nowhere space between the Shafts that have come before and and an Austin Powers-like send-up. That Jackson stars in it makes it all the more bizarre. Squint and it almost feels like the Shaft series has been producing sequels for the last 19 years and Jackson’s just really tired of playing the part.

That raises another question: Why make another Shaft at all? Story’s film doesn’t have an answer, but the answer might lie elsewhere. 2014 saw the return of John Shaft to the printed page via a comic book miniseries written by David F. Walker and drawn by Bilquis Evely. A lifelong fan of the character, Walker secured the rights by approaching Tidyman’s widow Chris Clark-Tidyman (a singer for Motown during its classic era and an Oscar-nominated screenwriter for her work on Lady Sings the Blues). The resulting six-issue miniseries depicted Shaft’s early days as a detective and it’s the rare prequel that feels vital on its own terms rather than answering questions no one asked in the first place (like how Han Solo got his name). Walker, who’d go on to writer Cyborg, Luke Cage, and co-write the new Naomi, stayed with the character through a second miniseries and a prose novel, Shaft’s Revenge, that returned the character to his roots. All seemed determined to prove that there was still life in Shaft, even if its vitality remained tied to 70s era from which he emerged.

When news broke that Shaft would return to film as a comedy, Walker didn’t mince words. In a 2015 post headlined “An Open Letter to New Line Regarding Shaft,” Walker argues against a comedic Shaft as a betrayal of what the character ought to be:

Police brutality has reached epidemic proportions, and white supremacists seem intent on pushing this nation toward a violent and deadly racial conflict. Last month, an armed white man walked into a church, and massacred nine black people. Not since the 1960s has there been more of a need for a black action hero — one that can provide a cathartic escape from life’s day-to-day horrors, and deliver the sort of wish fulfillment that cinema is intended to do. Not since Ernest Tidyman created John Shaft back in 1970 has there been more of a need for someone just like him.

The new film bears out Walker’s worst fears by making Shaft into a clown, a role that doesn’t fit him well. Because even with his ups and downs over the years, through good movies and lesser entries, ambitious novels and half-hearted sequels, Shaft has always mattered. Created by Tidyman and made iconic by Parks and Roundtree, he arrived at a moment when black heroes — be they troubled crime novel protagonists or take-no-shit movie idols — were sorely underrepresented. Shaft broke down a door for those who followed and though the new Shaft seems determined to make him into a joke, it’s hard to turn an idea that powerful into a punchline. 

Maybe John Shaft himself can’t push that idea any further, but those inspired by what he used to be undoubtedly will. Or maybe he’ll survive this. He wouldn’t be the first character to drift away from his origins while remaining fundamentally intact. James Bond went places his creator never imagined too, and if Bond can survive Moonraker, surely Shaft can survive this. He’s a complicated man, after all.