Among his many accomplishments, Gordon Parks had a groundbreaking career in film—as director, screenwriter, producer, and composer. In 1969 he became the first African American to write and direct a major Hollywood studio feature film, The Learning Tree, based on his bestselling semiautobiographical novel. His next directorial endeavor, Shaft (1971), however, was a groundbreaking blockbuster that helped launch what was then known as the Blaxploitation genre and brought audiences one of the first Black action heroes, portrayed with extraordinary style and spirit by Richard Roundtree (1942–2023).
At a crucial time for the civil rights and Black Power movements, Shaft introduced a new kind of action hero aimed at Black audiences that transformed the film industry: John Shaft, a streetwise New York City private detective who is “as tough with criminals as he is tender with his lovers.” The character was based on a 1970 detective novel by Ernest Tidyman. In the film, Shaft is recruited to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a Harlem mob boss from Italian gangsters, and finds himself in the middle of a rapidly escalating turf war between uptown vs. downtown Manhattan. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer originally envisioned the film with white lead actor, but quickly realized that Black audiences yearned to see heroes that looked like them. The film’s iconic 1970s visuals and sound—from Roundtree’s leather fashions to the funk and soul score by Isaac Hayes (which won him an Academy Award, two Grammy Award, and a Golden Globe Award)—have remained influential to this day.
Roundtree’s style and swagger made John Shaft a visual icon and symbol. His portrayal of the action hero was a product of his close collaboration and friendship with Parks, which extended to Parks introducing the actor to his tailor, Morty Sills, and the decision to have the character sport a mustache in spite of the studio’s resistance. As Roundtree reflected in a 2019 interview, “Gordon…he played by his rules. As did Shaft.”
Shaft was followed by Shaft’s Big Score (1972), also directed and scored by Gordon Parks and starring Roundtree. This time, Shaft goes looking for the killer(s) of his good friend, but lands in the middle of a mob war. The film had a significantly larger budget than the original, which translated to higher production values and more impressive action-packed scenes than the original. Isaac Hayes, who scored the original film, did not return to work on Shaft’s Big Score!, but did contribute the song “Type Thang.” Parks, who by then was a composer in his own right, scored the film instead and wrote several original songs (including the theme song, “Blowin’ Your Mind”). While the sequel didn’t match the success of the original, it was still praised, as critic Roger Ebert wrote: “The quality shows. This time director Gordon Parks uses Panavision, surrounds his hero with a talented cast, and pours on the special effects." A third film in the series, Shaft in Africa—which Parks was not involved in—followed in 1973. Remakes of Shaft were released in 2000 and 2019, starring Samuel L. Jackson in the title role with Roundtree making cameo appearances as the character’s father, who was described in one review as having a spirit that was “spry and tougher than leather.”
Although Shaft and the films that followed in its footsteps were faulted for perpetuating stereotypes, others hailed them for changing how Hollywood viewed African Americans in the industry. As Maurice Berger explained in 2019, Parks “saw Shaft as a ‘fun’ film that could also inspire viewers of color. In the context of a movie industry that largely ignored them or trafficked in stereotypes, the film offered ‘a hero they hadn’t had before,’ as he later observed…. But in contrast to Hollywood’s emerging awareness of African-Americans—and the need to engage them to boost box office sales—Shaft was the culmination of Mr. Parks’s longstanding and multidimensional exploration of race, poverty and crime, providing yet another rich and empathetic view of a fraught and complicated nation.”