Today, July 9th, is Richard Roundtree’s birthday. That he and I graduated from the same high school is an oft-cited point of pride for me, though he and I have never met. I only know him through his film work, which is somehow plentiful and not enough at the same time. Despite having leading-man looks and movie-star charisma, Richard Roundtree’s filmography is overstuffed with supporting roles. He’s consistently generous as an ensemble player and always a welcome sight when he appears, but there are many of us who would be giving him way more screen time if we were running things. I’m one of those. Richard Roundtree is more than just one role, having memorably appeared in interesting films by younger filmmakers such as SEVEN and BRICK, but who are we kidding, the one that made his name and mattered most. John Shaft is the Superman of blaxploitation heroes. Others may be as popular, but he was the first most popular. In a historical context, that means everything.
The following is what I wrote for this site recently when SHAFT played the midnight circuit here in New York City. If the writing style comes off kinda silly, that’s because I was giddy when I wrote it. That’s how you get sometimes when you’re talking about your favorites.
John Shaft is returning to his hometown this weekend! If you’re able, you should go. Why wouldn’t you? Are you kidding me? What else could you possibly be doing around midnight that could be in any way better? Having sex, maybe you say. Well hold on a minute – sex is enjoyable, it relieves stress, it’s good for a healthy heart – watching SHAFT does at least a couple of those things. Watch SHAFT instead! Or you could watch SHAFT and then go have sex. Definitely make time for both. The order is up to you. I’m not gonna tell you how to run your own life.
I’m filibustering here because I actually don’t know how to write about this movie. It’s one of my all-time favorites. Top-ten status without a shadow of a doubt. With your favorite movies, you could either write an entire book, or nothing at all. To keep it to a couple paragraphs is madness. You’d be leaving so much out. It’s also like talking about a girl (or guy) you love. Where do you start? If you go with looks, brains, attitude, wardrobe, or sense of humor, they’d wonder why you didn’t start with brains, looks, sense of humor, wardrobe, or attitude. (I messed with the order, see.)
SHAFT is a movie that’s been picked over for material so many times in the forty years since its release. It’s been a ready punchline to a lot of jokes. That’s sort of unfair. It’s not a joke movie. The cultural importance of SHAFT is impossible to overstate. It’s not the most polished movie, but neither is MEAN STREETS. I can easily argue that it’s one of the most legit New York movies of all time. Ernest Tidyman wrote SHAFT. He also wrote THE FRENCH CONNECTION (and HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER!) The director was Gordon Parks. Gordon Parks was a phenomenal photographer before he turned to movies. The grit and the bustle of the New York streets in SHAFT is as important a document of its era as anything.
The cast is for real. Broadway actor Moses Gunn gives an odd, melancholy, ominous, funny performance as the impeccably-named mob boss Bumpy Jonas. Charles Cioffi brings authentic New York sourness as Shaft’s beloved nemesis Vic Androzzi. Muhammad Ali’s cornerman Bundini Brown shows up for a few scenes. So does the great Antonio Fargas. But above all, Richard Roundtree is a megaton charisma warhead in his first lead role. I went to the same high school as Richard Roundtree. That’s fucking cool, but even if that wasn’t the case, I’d think he was great regardless. The promotional materials at the time announced that John Shaft would be“Hotter Than Bond” and “Cooler Than Bullitt.” They’re promising you that this guy is as charming as 1960s Sean Connery and as suave as Steve McQueen. That’s a tall goddamn order, yet Richard Roundtree managed to fill it the fuck out.
You watch SHAFT and you simultaneously want to hang with that guy while knowing for damn sure that you wouldn’t want to mess with him. He’s actually pretty abrasive and occasionally mean, as written on the page – it’s what Richard Roundtree brings to the role that makes you love John Shaft. He needed to be all of those things. And he was. Right role, right actor, exact right time. But I don’t feel like I’m the writer to put John Shaft in cultural context. What I will say is that Shaft is one of my very favorite franchise characters. I’d rather see any of the three SHAFTs over any of the forty-something BONDs, and I don’t care who is bothered by that. When it comes to cinematic shitkickers, I’ll take the aggro New York crankiness over the calmer British polish. It’s in my bloodstream. Shaft just serves it up better. He’s funny and he’s quick. He’s in a rush. He’s the best New York superhero outside of Spider-Man. But he gets to say dirtier words, so he wins that little match-up too.
You’ve also got to give it to the soundtrack by Isaac Hayes. This music so ingrained in the very cartilage of our ears at this point that there’s no way to evaluate how unusual it was and still is, both on its own and for the score of a feature film. It’s been so overly imitated and lampooned that it’s very hard to get one’s mind back to the purity and the ingenuity of that score. But it’s worth the effort. Listen to it today. It’s epic and it’s intimate. It’s pristine and it’s funky. It’s chilled-out and it’s got momentum. It’s a lot of things simultaneously. That’s modern-day myth-making bursting forward in four-minute increments. Imagine hearing that theme song coming out of big screen speakers tonight. And then going home to have sex.
Boom! There’s your motherfucking evening planned.
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