A Son Remembers
I can say with some assurance that my father (Ernest Tidyman) had no exploitative intent. He wanted his writing to be successful, sure, but he never intended to cash in on “black,” per se. He just thought that it was time for a black hero, and he knew he could create a good one.
And the NAACP tended to agree. He was (and is, still) one of the few whites to ever be honored with an NAACP Image Award, which he received for Shaft. At the premiere of the film, at the deMille Theatre in New York, several notables from the film were introduced to the almost-entirely black audience, including Richard Roundtree and director Gordon Parks. When my father was introduced, no doubt more than a few eyebrows were raised.
Why a black private eye? This was how my dad told it: Big cities like New York have winners and losers of all shapes, sizes, and colors, and it’s really kind of random who comes out ahead. It was time for a black winner, whether he was a detective or a shoe salesman. So he created this character to be very tough, very cool, very black, a superhero of sorts.
And he touted the idea to his publisher, who was quickly sold on the idea and said “Great….what’s this black private eye’s name?” Oops, the one thing that hadn’t been decided, and now my Dad was on the spot. As he tells it, he glanced out the window, which looked into an aperture of some sort between New York buildings, and a sign outside the window said “fire shaft.” “Shaft,” Dad replied to the publisher, “John Shaft.”
People want to remember things in clusters and genres (and dub them), so I keep reading that Shaft was part of the “blaxploitation” of the 70s. Whatever that may refer to, I think it tends to ignore the fact that at the time Shaft came around, there was nothing else really like it. We’re talking 1970, and people forget what it was like then. This is pre-Richard Pryor, pre-Michael Jordan, pre-Denzel Washington. No one was making money making heroes out of black people, let alone ones that could kick ass. So if Shaft was connected to some “blaxploitation” thing, it must have been the vanguard of it. After Shaft, it certainly wasn’t lost on Hollywood that literally millions of black (and white) Americans felt they HAD to see that movie — much in the way many blacks in 1977 felt compelled to watch Roots — and I think the exploitation started immediately after Shaft. If Shaft had flopped, there arguably would have been no ensuing “blaxploitation.”
It’s safe to say that Hollywood spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to pitch the film version of Shaft to America. It had no clue whether blacks OR whites would like it, and one way of dealing with this uncertainty was to add some extra black dialect (that is, white Hollywood’s concept of black dialect, which is just how it sounded). This is why you see so many people awkwardly calling each other “cats,” saying “right on, brother,” and slapping five left and right. My father was mortified. He hated the idea that people would hear all that phony black dialect and think he had inserted all that crap.
In my dad’s original concept, Shaft was a whole lot badder and blacker than Richard Roundtree. Roundtree was not the original favorite. He was considered just too pretty — his background was modeling, I believe. Even in his trenchcoat, he didn’t look like a private dick; he looked like a private lawyer. Shaft was taller and had darker skin, more prominent cheekbones, a bigger afro, and most importantly, he had that I’m-a-badass scowl. Like on Mod Squad, when Clarence Williams III wasn’t happy and would coldly stare from behind his dark glasses — that kind of scowl. The actor who perhaps resembled Shaft the most was Christopher St. John, who ended up with a bit part. But at the time, he was thought to be too old to be Shaft.
As for the new Shaft, I don’t have a whole lot of opinion about it. In one sense, it strikes me as part of a “retro” mentality that involves combing through the trunks that we put in the attic in 1971 to see if there is anything interesting there. I mean, bellbottom pants and platform shoes are back…why not Shaft? I suspect that the criterion in all events is whether it will make money. But this time around it’s a more sophisticated game. The real money in this remake may not be the box office at all, but the video marketing, or perhaps the merchandising, both of which Hollywood has gotten rather good at since Shaft first came out. I would like for Shaft to be a good role model, but…if they’re true to Shaft’s character, he won’t be. He’s complex, he’s usually surly, he shoots people, and he gets paid by the hour.”
My dad died July 14, 1984. Cause of death was officially kidney failure, but it was a close race to be the first vital organ to give out. He smoked and drank all his life. I’m just glad that he and his creation have not been forgotten.