How important are they to the Black Community?
San Diego’s first Black Detective was a man named Johnny Williams, founder of the San Diego Monitor News, the late Willie Morrow, who would tell stories to his children about the great influence, detective Williams had over his community. Morrow would tell stories of how “Johnny” as he would called him would move in southeast like he owned the place.
Which makes Black Detectives an important citizen in any city, but they go undetected in files of history. The role they play in peace making and law and order.
There’s no real mystery to why there’s a new film around called Shaft. The chance to use Isaac Hayes’s immortal theme tune would be temptation enough.
The whole blaxploitation genre has had a vigorous afterlife: parodied in I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, sampled and referenced in hundreds of hip hop records and videos, and copiously paid tribute to by Quentin Tarantino. And what actor is going to turn down playing a character who we all know is a ‘sex machine with all the chicks’?
But the original Shaft was the product of a very particular moment in American history, and had a social significance that far outweighed its importance in strictly cinematic terms. The new film, starring Samuel L. Jackson, has survived a troubled genesis to rise to the top of the US box-office charts. But the 2000 version of Shaft has a different meaning – and possibly a very different type of audience – from the original.
Shaft came out in 1971, a particularly turbulent time in black American history. The civil rights movement had given black Americans equal legal status at last, which in time would lead to mainstream political representation, a growing middle class and a substantial media presence. However, civil rights had failed to end racism, the Black Panthers were in bloody decline, the decay of the traditional manufacturing base – which hit black Americans hardest – had begun, and there was a heroin crisis in the inner cities.
In that context, films like Shaft meant more than their basic crime narratives would suggest. Blaxploitation movies were born of the same rage that fuelled the civil rights movement, born of a wish to shake things up.
Shaft wasn’t the first film in this upsurge. According to how you define it, that was either Ossie Davis’s Cotton Comes To Harlem or Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song (both 1970). And it’s not the most typical: as blaxploitation films go, it’s on the respectable side. John Shaft is a fairly traditional private detective, unlike the pusher and pimp anti-heroes of Superfly or The Mack. And while many of the later films were made by veteran white exploitation hacks, Shaft was directed by the distinguished photographer/writer/musician Gordon Parks (not to be confused with his son, Superfly ‘s Gordon Parks Jr).
But Shaft was the most successful blaxploitation movie. It had Isaac Hayes’s great soundtrack, which won an Oscar for the theme song. It had a whole array of white bad guys, from mobsters to corrupt cops. And it had Richard Roundtree as Shaft, looking impeccably sharp with his Afro and long, leather coat. In his book Hip Hop America , Nelson George ascribes the enduring appeal of blaxploitation films to their depiction of ‘aggressive black heroism’. That’s all there in the opening sequence to Shaft , as Roundtree strides fearlessly through the Manhattan traffic, raising his middle finger to a cabbie who dares question his right to the roads.
George writes: ‘Never in the history of American cinema had there been so many aggressive, I-don’t-give-a-damn black folks on screen. That is so crucial. Blaxploitation movies reserved little space for the singing of Negro spirituals, turning the other cheek, or chaste kisses. In fact, characters who possessed these qualities were often the brunt of much-appreciated derision. In blax ploitation, black people shoot back with big guns, strut to bold jams, and have sweaty, bed-rocking sex. Whatever story the often loopy plots hold, they are usually secondary to full-bodied action.’
Before then, blacks had a sketchy presence in mainstream movies, making do with whatever roles were on offer to Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr and Sidney Poitier. And although Poitier made some fine films and many courageous stands, his appearance in the absurd Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner in 1967 made him look like a man out of time, cinema’s Uncle Tom. After Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, the mood was ripe for something different.
The blaxploitation tornado had blown itself out by about 1976. There were two lousy Shaft sequels and a TV series. But blaxploitation has never drifted into the cultural wilderness, not least because, however variable the films were, the music – by the likes of James Brown, Curtis Mayfield and Bobby Womack – was usually unbeatable.
Original article written by Mark Morris
The San Diego Monitor-News has been serving Black San Diego since 1986