Today marks the 50th Anniversary of the publication of Ernest Tidyman’s novel Shaft. The book introduces us to black private eye John Shaft as he is hired by Harlem crime lord, Knocks Persons, to locate and rescue his kidnapped daughter who has been grabbed by the Mafia to force Persons to relent in a turf war. Shaft was a brilliant creation – a tough and uncompromising character making his own way in life. The book was very popular and was quickly picked up by MGM for its movie rights – Tidyman having circulated galley copies to studio execs and producers. One such producer, Philip D’Antoni, hired Tidyman to adapt Robin Moore’s book for The French Connection, for which Tidyman ultimately won an Oscar.
Shaft, the movie, was directed by veteran photographer Gordon Parks with Richard Roundtree charismatic in the title role and Isaac Hayes providing a memorably funky score. The rest is history, of course. The movie became a box-office smash and helped to create many new opportunities for black people in the film industry. Two sequels followed (Shaft’s Big Score! in 1972 and Shaft in Africa in 1973) as well as a series of seven TV movies (1973-4).
Tidyman went on to write seven Shaft novels in all but killed his character off in 1975’s The Last Shaft. Despite this, he did try to revive the film series in the late 70s, but could not get the necessary interest in post-Star Wars Hollywood. Of course, two further sequels followed in 2000 and 2019, both titled simply Shaft. Samuel L Jackson played Roundtree’s nephew/son and Jessie T Usher Jackson’s son. Roundtree had cameos in both movies.
Shaft, the novel, had its latest re-publication back in 2016 through Dynamite Entertainment, who also hired David F Walker to write two comic books and a new novel, Shaft’s Revenge. However, Dynamite lost interest due to disappointing sales, despite the critical acclaim this new output garnered. Plans to republish all of Tidyman’s novels seem to have been shelved, so we may have to wait for rights to be freed up again before we see any further reprints.
In the meantime, let’s celebrate and appreciate what Ernest Tidyman brought to the world of crime fiction and cinema on 27 April 1970.
Dynamite Entertainment announced on 13 December the launch of their new imprint, Dynamite Books, focused on publishing prose novels. Alongside prose novels, the publisher will also release audiobook adaptations and it is reported that Ernest Tidyman’s Shaft is already available (narrated by Will Dixon) through Amazon Audible. No news on whether Dynamite will now finally get around to releasing the remainder of the Shaft books.
Four years ago it was announced that New Line had secured the rights from Warner Brothers to make a new Shaft movie. For fans of Ernest Tidyman’s hero and the original 1970s movies this was a welcome surprise. The key question was how would New Line treat the property? Gradually news filtered out that the movie would be a sequel to the Samuel L Jackson 2000 version, itself a sequel to Richard Roundtree’s three 1970s originals. The movie would feature a third generation John Shaft and would concentrate on the relationship between him and his father. It would also have a comedic tone. That’s when my heart, and no doubt those of many other fans of the original, sank. What we got when the film was finally released in June 2019, nearly a full year after completion, was exactly what had been promised. I sat watching the film with an increasingly sinking feeling that the producers had totally messed things up. Jackson’s character has been turned into a caricature of his 2000 version, whilst Roundtree is trotted out for the finale and is given too little screen time, given he gives easily the most considered performance. My wife lasted half-an-hour, my son an hour, I had to see it through of course.
It seems odd that we are to accept in the post-millennial, ultra PC world we currently live in that it is impossible to make a serious crime thriller with a black hero. Why? 1971s Shaft was a hard-hitting crime thriller with a solid plot and a charismatic lead, which also had aspects of social commentary. It resonated with a generation of black Americans and a wider worldwide audience. It was groundbreaking in opening up Hollywood to black filmmakers and actors and as such has massive cultural significance. Yes, the glut of Blaxploitation movies that followed in its wake quickly veered into the territory of the absurd, but there were the occasional gems and, more importantly, it helped give black artists a stronger voice in popular culture.
Ernest Tidyman, Shaft’s creator, was ironically a white man. His goal, on commission from Macmillan’s mystery editor Alan Rinzler, was to create a black hero to give readers of crime fiction something different to the glut of white detectives and Agatha Christie-styled comfy mysteries. Tidyman duly obliged with a private eye in the mould of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe brought up to date and thrown into a decaying New York City with all its financial and social problems and its escalating crime rate. The result was the novel Shaft (1970), a hard-hitting fast read of a thriller that integrates the social issues of life in Harlem into a straight-forward detective story of threatened gang warfare between the Mafia and the Harlem crime lord. Tidyman was a former journalist with the New York Times who had an in-depth knowledge of both the city and its issues.
As written by Tidyman, the character of John Shaft was a product of poverty in the black community. Orphaned at two-years-old, passed around from foster home to foster home, he ran with the street gangs before being enlisted to fight in Vietnam rather than go to jail. A wounded war hero, hardened by his experience he made his own way in the white man’s world. Setting up his own detective agency and operating from Times Square – not the glitzy location of today, but the sleazy run-down place it had become in the 1970s. He lived in a Greenwich Village Apartment, amongst arty types. He had no time for the black militants, led by his former friend Ben Buford, and admonished Knocks Persons, the Godfather of Harlem for soaking the streets with drugs, prostitutes and for preying on the poverty of the population via the numbers racket. Shaft was a loner, out for himself. A man of few close friends. He had been shaped by his upbringing and his experiences into looking after number 1.
Tidyman cleverly weaved all these strands through that first novel and the result was a sensation that was quickly picked up by the big studios. MGM finally acquired the rights and hired Gordon Parks, a photographer and filmmaker with an affinity and feel for Harlem. Parks put his own stamp on the character in the film adaptation taking Tidyman’s template and fashioning a charismatic performance from newcomer Richard Roundtree. Isaac Hayes’ funky score captured both the character of Shaft and the feel of the streets and provided the icing on the cake. The opening sequence is one of the best in motion picture history at establishing a character in three or four minutes.
Like Tidyman’s novels, the film series became gradually more formulaic as bigger budgets put more emphasis on action and less on character, but they remained thoroughly enjoyable. The failure of Shaft in Africa at the box office signalled a move of the franchise to TV for a short-lived series of 7 TV movies. In 1975, Tidyman killed off the character in his seventh novel The Last Shaft (“He was tired and so was I”) and the world moved on.
Twenty-five years later, Paramount and John Singleton attempted to relaunch the franchise. They cast Samuel L Jackson as Shaft’s nephew (later to be determined as his son) – also named John Shaft – and put him in a serviceable crime thriller, which lost the hipness and resonance of those 1970s movies, whilst providing an opportunity for Jackson to showcase his considerable charisma. The movie did well at the box office, but no-one was really happy with it.
Nearly a generation later the world is a different place – even from that seen at the turn of the century, but there are worrying elements of an increasing backlash against attitudes of social tolerance: the election of Trump; Brexit in the UK; the increasing narrow-mindedness toward the migrant situation whether it be between the Middle East and Europe or on the US/Mexican border. Issues that could be addressed rather than ignored.
The laudable focus on diversity and sexual equality has rendered some of the wider attitudes seen in 1970s society as objectionable. Questions are being asked about the popular cultural icons of the time. The sexism perceived in characters such as James Bond and John Shaft is now no longer acceptable. Today’s heroes are driven to be whiter than white or they cannot be held up as role models for society.
This thinking is embodied in the character of JJ (John Shaft III) in Tim Story’s new version of Shaft. The scriptwriters (Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow) decided they would pitch post-Millennial attitudes against those of the pre-Millennial through JJs relationship with his father. But instead of taking a serious approach and making a forceful statement, they go for a comedy of manners. In so doing they both undermine their message and end up creating caricatures for comic effect rather than characters of depth.
And none of this has anything to do with Ernest Tidyman’s original creation.
Tidyman was not going all out to make social and political points in his writing. The issues of the day were presented as a backdrop to the story. Tidyman was creating escapist entertainment and thrills from a plausible detective hero – a character single-mindedly establishing a life for himself despite the things that have conspired against him. That is the essence of the character of John Shaft. Yes, he has his flaws – his disposable attitude to women, a sense of homophobia – but his heroic qualities of loyalty and resilience and his determination to do things his own way sent a message which resonated with the black population. Ernest Tidyman was recognised for his work on Shaft by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 2000, the original 1971 movie was preserved in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
The question posed by the failure of the new movie is: Does John Shaft carry any relevance in today’s world? The box office numbers for Tim Story’s movie would suggest not. But, is that because the movie is a total misfire that adds nothing to the Shaft legacy and indeed mocks its perceived outdated attitudes? Could a viable Shaft production still be made today? I believe the answer to this question is a definitive YES. As long as the subject is taken seriously and abandons the dilution through generational baton-handing.
In my mind there are two potential ways to go with the franchise:
1. Go back to the beginning and set it in the period. In 2014 David F Walker persuaded Dynamite Entertainment to obtain the literary rights to the character for a series of comic books and new prose novels. The result was Shaft: A Complicated Man. Set in 1969 this comic book is an “origins” story that explores how Shaft became a private detective having returned from Vietnam. It is effectively a prequel to Tidyman’s novel. It is a character study that deftly uses the 1969 New York setting and explores Shaft’s inner turmoil against the backdrop of him seeking revenge for the death of his girlfriend at the hands of organised crime. As a character study, a crime thriller and a representation of a period in history it works on multiple levels and has an emotional impact.
2. A reboot for the modern day. Bring the character up to date and set him against a backdrop of the social issues of today, whilst retaining his key core characteristics set down in Tidyman’s template. Craft a story that is exciting and challenging and allows these characteristics to be drawn out. Shaft should remain uncompromising, tough, resilient, single-minded. Some of the excesses of his character could be softened, but not removed altogether. Shaft is a flawed character – as are we all as individuals. These flaws are what make him feel human. The essence of that character should be retained.
I fear after the poor returns for Tim Story’s movie that the franchise is now dead on the big screen. However, there may still be opportunities to explore either of the two options I have outlined above on the small screen. If so, TV will likely be the best medium as it allows space for exposition of plot and exploration of social issues whilst giving the characters room to breathe and grow. A Shaft TV series today would be very different to the watered-down version of 1973/4. Warner Brothers need to stay true to a property in which I believe there is still mileage and not farm it out to hacks who have no feel for it. I am hoping there are sympathetic filmmakers out there who can put John Shaft back on the map and make him as relevant today as he was back in 1971.
SHAFT (USA, 2019) *½ Distributor: New Line Cinema / Warner Bros. (USA), Netflix (UK); Production Company: Davis Entertainment / Khalabo Ink Society / Netflix / New Line Cinema / Warner Bros.; Release Date: 14 June 2019 (USA), 28 June 2019 (UK); Filming Dates: December 2017 – February 2018; Running Time: 111m; Colour: Colour; Sound Mix: Dolby Digital; Film Format: D-Cinema; Film Process: Digital Intermediate (2K) (master format), Hawk Scope (anamorphic) (source format); Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1; BBFC Cert: 15. Director: Tim Story; Writer: Kenya Barris, Alex Barnow (based on the character created by Ernest Tidyman); Executive Producer: Kenya Barris, Richard Brener, Marc S. Fischer, Josh Mack, Ira Napoliello, Tim Story; Producer: John Davis; Director of Photography: Larry Blanford; Music Composer: Christopher Lennertz; Music Supervisor: Trygge Toven; Film Editor: Peter S. Elliot; Casting Director: Tara Feldstein; Art Director: Jeremy Woolsey, Brittany Hites; Set Decorator: Missy Parker; Costumes: Olivia Miles; Make-up: Kimberly Jones; Sound: Sean McCormack; Special Effects: Russell Tyrrell; Visual Effects: Nicole Rowley. Cast: Samuel L. Jackson (John Shaft), Jessie T. Usher (JJ Shaft), Richard Roundtree (John Shaft, Sr), Regina Hall (Maya Babanikos), Alexandra Shipp (Sasha Arias), Matt Lauria (Major Gary Cutworth), Titus Welliver (Special Agent Vietti), Method Man (Freddy P), Isaach De Bankolé (Pierro ‘Gordito’ Carrera), Avan Jogia (Karim Hassan), Luna Lauren Velez (Bennie Rodriguez), Robbie Jones (Sergeant Keith Williams), Aaron Dominguez (Staff Sergeant Eddie Dominguez), Ian Casselberry (Manuel Orozco), Almeera Jiwa (Anam), Amato D’Apolito (Farik Bahar), Leland L. Jones (Ron), Jalyn Hall (Harlem Kid), Sylvia Jefferies (Once Beautiful Woman), Whit Coleman (Butch Lesbian Girl), Chivonne Michelle (Baby), Tashiana Washington (Sugar), Philip Fornah (Jacked Dude), Laticia Rolle (Cocktail Waitress), Ryan King Scales (Male Secretary), Tywayne Wheatt (Portly Doorman), Kenny Barr (Cop), Mike Dunston (News Anchor), Jordan Preston Carter (5-8 Year Old JJ), Nyah Marie Johnson (5-8 Year Old Sasha), Joey Mekyten (5-8 Year Old Karim), Sawyer Schultz (Mike Mitchell), Esmeree Sterling (Cute Bartender), Jose Miguel Vasquez (FBI Employee), Gabriel ‘G-Rod’ Rodriguez (Goon), Keith Brooks (Drunk Disorderly Man), DominiQue MrsGiJane Williams (Beautiful Woman), Michael Shikany (Older Man in Mosque), Lucia Scarano (Lady in Line), Greta Quispe (Employee), Heather Seiffert (Hostess), Charles Green (Hallway Man), Dorothi Fox (Old Lady Neighbor), Shakur Sozahdah (Worshiper). Synopsis: John Shaft Jr., a cybersecurity expert with a degree from MIT, enlists his family’s help to uncover the truth behind his best friend’s untimely death. Comment: Misguided continuation of the Shaft legacy is one misstep after another. Firstly Story re-tools the franchise as an action comedy that attempts to wring laughs from the generation gap separating Jackson’s John Shaft II from his son JJ, played far too broadly by Usher. Jackson’s Shaft also suffers by being made into a caricature of the character he portrayed in the 2000 series continuation. Jackson does what he tends to do best but even he gives a one-note performance that lacks nuance. The plot thread that brings the two Shafts together is given scant focus by an incredibly lazy script by Barris and Barnow. The plot is frequently abandoned to demonstrate time after time the un-PC Jackson vs the PC Usher through a series of increasingly tiresome jokes and one-liners. Roundtree, as the original John Shaft, appears late in the proceedings and delivers the best performance with a dry understated delivery that has more class than is seen in his character namesakes. Lennertz’s score is insipid, lacking the grooves of Isaac Hayes’ 1971 music, and fails to add anything to the franchise whilst it is constantly interspersed with rap numbers that only serve to give you a headache. Even the use of Hayes’ theme is mishandled removing all elements of cool. To say I was disappointed in this destruction of Ernest Tidyman’s legacy is an understatement. My advice to Shaft fans is to stick to the originals, or better still the books. If there is any future for the franchise on screen it would be better served making reference to David F Walker’s recent comic books series prequel and rebooting the series set in period as a serious crime thriller. Notes: Most of the movie was shot in Atlanta, doubling for New York.
Today sees the release of Tim Story’s version of Shaft. The director noted for his Ride Along films has controversially adopted a similar action-comedy-buddy movie tone which is completely out of kilter with Ernest Tidyman’s creation. Reviews of the movie have been mixed and the aggregator sites suggest an average rating of around 5 out of 10. I will have to wait until 28 June, when Netflix distributes the movie on its streaming service in the UK before I am able to make my own judgement.
In the meantime, I continue to feel this has been a wasted opportunity to re-introduce the character to cinema audiences and to formally introduce Shaft to a new generation. I have suggested before that David F. Walker’s comic book prequel Shaft: A Complicated Man would have made for a perfect adaptation. David really got under the skin of Tidyman’s creation in that book and it would have been a great starting point for the movie franchise relaunch. If the producers had chosen to go back to the start, set the movie in period – with all its social attitudes highlighted in a serious manner and Shaft’s character traits properly explained – this could have been a successful and authentic adaptation.
HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (USA, 1973) ***½ Distributor: Universal Pictures (USA), Cinema International Corporation (CIC) (UK); Production Company: The Malpaso Company; Release Date: 6 April 1973 (USA), 31 August 1973 (UK); Filming Dates: July-August 1972; Running Time: 105m; Colour: Technicolor; Sound Mix: Mono (Westrex Recording System); Film Format: 35mm; Film Process: Panavision; Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1; BBFC Cert: 18. Director: Clint Eastwood; Writer: Ernest Tidyman; Executive Producer: Jennings Lang; Producer: Robert Daley; Director of Photography: Bruce Surtees; Music Composer: Dee Barton; Film Editor: Ferris Webster; Casting Director: William Batliner, Robert J. LaSanka (both uncredited); Art Director: Henry Bumstead; Set Decorator: George Milo; Costumes: James Gilmore, Joanne Haas, Glenn Wright (all uncredited); Make-up: Joe McKinney, Gary Morris (both uncredited); Sound: James R. Alexander. Cast: Clint Eastwood (The Stranger), Verna Bloom (Sarah Belding), Marianna Hill (Callie Travers), Mitchell Ryan (Dave Drake), Jack Ging (Morgan Allen), Stefan Gierasch (Mayor Jason Hobart), Ted Hartley (Lewis Belding), Billy Curtis (Mordecai), Geoffrey Lewis (Stacey Bridges), Scott Walker (Bill Borders), Walter Barnes (Sheriff Sam Shaw), Paul Brinegar (Lutie Naylor), Richard Bull (Asa Goodwin), Robert Donner (Preacher), John Hillerman (Bootmaker), Anthony James (Cole Carlin), William O’Connell (Barber), John Quade (Jake Ross), Jane Aull (Townswoman), Dan Vadis (Dan Carlin), Reid Cruickshanks (Gunsmith), Jim Gosa (Tommy Morris), Jack Kosslyn (Saddlemaker), Russ McCubbin (Fred Short), Belle Mitchell (Mrs. Lake), John Mitchum (Warden), Carl Pitti (Teamster), Chuck Waters (Stableman), Buddy Van Horn (Marshall Jim Duncan). Synopsis: A gunfighting stranger comes to the small settlement of Lago and is hired to bring the townsfolk together in an attempt to hold off three outlaws who are on their way. Comment: Eastwood’s second directorial effort is an interesting supernatural Western that trades on the persona he built with Sergio Leone and is filmed with the efficiency he learned from Don Siegel. The black humour was a late addition as Eastwood looked to move the story away from writer Tidyman’s initial revenge theme to something more mysterious. Eastwood assembled a good cast and technical crew. The Mono Lake location presents a remote community and adds to the mystery as does the eerie score by Dee Barton. Eastwood would rework the theme in 1985s PALE RIDER. Notes: Universal Pictures wanted the film to be shot on the studio lot. Instead, Eastwood had a whole town built in the desert near Mono Lake in the California Sierras. Many of the buildings were complete, so that interiors could be shot on location. One of the headstones in the graveyard bears the name Sergio Leone as a tribute. Other headstones bear the names of Don Siegel and Brian G. Hutton. Patrick McGilligan’s 2002 Eastwood biography quotes the star as saying, “I buried my directors.”
Well, here it is at last – the trailer to Tim Story’s 2019 take on Shaft. When New Line announced the movie back in July 2015 it was promoted as an action comedy sending fans, including myself, running for the hills. As a Shaft purist – I mean the Shaft of the novels… Ernest Tidyman’s Shaft – I didn’t want to see John Shaft given the Black Dynamite approach, otherwise why not call it Black Dynamite? Whilst the trailer doesn’t suggest the movie has descended the series into camp, it does confirm that the main selling point will be the comedy rather than the plot. Sometimes trailers can be misleading, selling a film the producers believe people want to see rather than the one that has been made. I fear that will not be the case here, so any lingering hopes I had of this being a serious attempt to relaunch the franchise with any semblance of authenticity have all but vanished. That doesn’t mean to say Shaft won’t be a fun movie, I did laugh a couple of times during the trailer – the contrast between the politically incorrect first two Shaft generations (Roundtree and Jackson) and the latest (Usher) also has some interesting possibilities, more than hinted at here. It just doesn’t look and feel like my Shaft… Ernest Tidyman’s Shaft.
In my book The World of Shaft, I included a chapter on the proposed Shaft comic strip Ernest Tidyman had been developing with respected comic book artist Don Rico. The strip was taken as far as 28 test panels between June and December 1972. Tidyman was unable to sell the strip to the major newspapers and the idea was eventually abandoned. I featured some samples of the strip artwork in my book along with earlier tests by artist David Russell, now a storyboard artist working on major Hollywood movies.
Well, whilst browsing the internet I came across a completed auction on 9 June 2017 through Profiles in History (based in Calabasas, California). In their Animation and Disneyana Auctionwas Lot 398: Don Rico and Ernest Tidyman signed original art for an unpublished comic strip entitled, Shaft. The guide price for the 11 finished and 6 unfinished strip panels was between $1,000 and $1,500. The lot was sold.
As it was preceded by a similar lot for a strip featuring The Six Million Dollar Man – also drawn by Don Rico – so, it is a possibility these signed panels have been listed for auction by the artist’s estate or a collector.
This is interesting because as far as I am aware the panels have not been widely available to view previously. I obtained copies of the full proposed strip from Ernest Tidyman’s papers as part of my research work along with earlier tests by other artists. David Russell also very kindly restored his initial test artwork, which was by far the most impressive, for inclusion in my book.
The Shaft comic strip idea was an interesting one, but the Newspaper Enterprise Association’s response at the time was: “The continuity-type strip has fallen on lean days, and the episodic panel or strip is the “in” thing, comics-page wise.” In fairness the story quality of the proposed Tidyman/Rico strip was relatively weak and did not come close to matching that of stronger episodic strips of the day.
It would be 2015 before John Shaft finally appeared in published comic form, via David F. Walker’s excellent series of comic books. Trade paperbacks of Shaft: A Complication Man and Shaft: Imitation of Lifehave been published by Dynamite Entertainment and are highly recommended.
Gordon Parks’ 1971 adaptation of Ernest Tidyman’s Shaft was released on Blu-Ray in the UK on 2 October via HMV’s “premium Collection”. The release has led to modern viewers and critics re-appraising a film that these days is seemingly better remembered for its theme song.
Casimir Harlow at AVForums had this to say on 19 October: “…a surprisingly low budget, straightforward affair that doesn’t appear anywhere near as flashy and funky as it’s theme song would have you believe, instead riding high not only on Hayes’ lyrics but also on the swagger and sheer screen presence of Richard Roundtree, an underrated star.”
Chris Hick at FilmWerk : “Despite his lack of real acting ability, Roundtree dominates every scene with his sculpted afro, big moustache and cool clothes including raincoat length leather jackets. The action is violent and in your face and shot in a seedy New York virtually unrecognisable today which has an obvious parallel with the superior The French Connection, that was coincidentally made the same year; the pair of films having many similarities with the snowy dirty and cold mean streets of the Big Apple.”
Rob Simpson, writing for TheGeekShow says, “More so than any film, this can be credited for the popularisation of 1970s black cinema with its mix of street culture, social commentary, phenomenal music, action, and crime jam-packed into a massively entertaining and punchy bundle.”
I am hoping Shaft’s Big Score! and Shaft in Africa will follow onto Blu-Ray soon. But the likelihood is if at all the trilogy will be re-released to coincide with New Line’s cinema release of the latest Shaft sequel next year.
Well, after months of silence on this project, director Tim Story has given some clues as to the tone of the upcoming Shaft reboot. Story was interviewed at Showtime’s Television Critics Association party (reported by SlashFilm.com) where he said, “My Shaft movie is going to be definitely not straight action. We’re going action-comedy or comedy-action, I’m not exactly sure which one comes first. We’re going to definitely make sure the stakes in the world are real, and then you’ve got these characters who are dealing with kind of a father/son situation, we’re going to see them put a family back together.”
Story goes on to say, “We’re still paying an homage to the original, so [Shaft] still means what it means. At the end of the day though, it does mean just a strong figure. We also have Shaft’s son’s mom in it as well. She’s a strong figure as well. It’s not even specific to the male. It’s specific to just strong people.”
This news is not what fans of Ernest Tidyman’s creation were wanting to hear. David F Walker showed how the character could be made relevant again to a modern audience with his comic book series, Shaft: A Complicated Man, which in my view would have made for a great movie adaptation to re-introduce a cultural icon. What it seems like we’re going to get instead is something that is perceived to be more acceptable to an undemanding movie-going public, trading off a brand name.
Whatever it turns out to be, I hold no confidence it will be add anything positive to the Shaft legacy.