John Shaft was born in the most unlikely of places. The "private dick who gets all the chicks" was created by novelist and screenwriter Ernest Tidyman, a school drop-out from Ohio who became a copy boy for the Cleveland News by lying about his age. Tidyman was a seasoned police reporter at 42 when he began thinking about writing Shaft, the private detective who became an avatar for Black Cool. “The idea came out of my awareness of both social and literary situations in a changing city,” Tidyman told a writer in 1973. “There are winners, survivors and losers in the New York scheme of things. It was time for a Black winner, whether he was a private detective or an obstetrician.” The first novel featuring the private dick was published in 1970 and was almost immediately adapted for screen.
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The first Shaft was directed by celebrated photographer Gordon Parks and starred Richard Roundtree in his first feature film. When he was cast, Roundtree was driving a cab to pay for acting lessons, shuttling back and forth between New York and Philadelphia performing The Great White Hype on stage.
“I was a kid and Gordon Parks cast me in this film for MGM!” Roundtree said in an interview at the Virginia Film Festival in 2014. “It was monumental. I was in a daze from day one until we finished filming. Here was a guy driving a cab to pay for acting lessons. I’m dropping people off at these [fancy] restaurants and said, ‘one day.’”
Gordon Parks had just come off of filming The Learning Tree based on his own semi-autobiographical novel. In the documentary Half Passed Autumn, Parks spoke about his motivations for filming Shaft.
“I didn’t shoot Shaft with the same serious eye that I shot The Learning Tree. The Shaft thing I did to establish myself as a director who could do different kinds of films and to make money… I thought it gave Black youth a hero they didn’t have before.”
Two more Shaft movies were filmed -- Shaft’s Big Score (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973) and a seven-episode TV series aired on CBS between 1973 and 1974. Shaft returned to the big screen in 2000 starring Samuel L. Jackson as Shaft and Richard Roundtree as his uncle. That film was directed by John Singleton on a budget of $46 million.
Almost 20 years later, Shaft is back, as are Jackson and Roundtree. This time director Tim Story (Think Like a Man, Barbershop) is behind the camera with Jessie T. Usher, Regina Hall and Alexandra Shipp rounding out the cast.
“I knew John a year before the first Shaft… and the story that we talked about on Warner Brothers lot was 360 degrees different than the one we had the table read,” Roundtree tells BET.com.
“When we started shooting the film, Christian Bale was the primary antagonist and all this was going on and I just said, ‘Why don’t I just drive over to New Jersey and shoot his ass?,’” Jackson says of the 2000 Shaft. “This guy here is way more dangerous and he’s uptown and he’s got all this networking, so Jeffrey [Wright] — Peoples — became the guy. And John was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that would be dope.’ So, Peoples became the major antagonist and let him manipulate Christian Bale and all that other stuff. So that’s how it worked.”
In this new Shaft, Jessie T. Usher is a young digital analyst for the FBI whose very close friend dies under suspicious circumstances. He tries to investigate the death on his own but runs into some problems he can't handle on his own. While he has a degree from MIT, JJ is low on street smarts and seeks out his estranged father, Shaft II, for help. Jr. is a millennial with an awkward but earnest personality that immediately clashes with his father’s less than politically correct aesthetic, and it makes for some comedic moments.
“It was as far from the John Shaft that we know as possible,” says Usher. “And fortunately, I had these two gentlemen beside me to show me the way. So, it was a discovery process for me.”
So why not call this one Son of Shaft or Shaft the Next Generation?
“Anytime we tried to put something else on it, it never felt right as Shaft,” says Tim Story. "Sometimes that word in itself just speaks for itself, so we felt we should just stick with what works.”
Regardless of what it was called, the key point for the cast was making sure that the Shaft legacy was maintained, even in this updated version.
“I was just about to do a film with John in the fall,” Jackson says of the Oscar-nominated director who passed away in April at the age of 51. “He was anxious to see what we had done to make an action comedy out of Shaft. He trusted the fact that I knew what I was doing and Tim knew what he was doing and that it was going to be something that wasn’t going to be an embarrassment to the mythology of John Shaft, which was very important to me when I started talking to them about doing what they call a comedy. An action-comedy, but the level of danger has to be as real as any other Shaft movie.”
Working with a script by Kenya Barris, Tim Story cut in scenes from the previous Shaft and addressed some plot points (like Richard Roundtree being Jackson’s uncle instead of his father) but maintained the history.
“There was a moment where John and I got to talk before I did the movie, and he basically said, ‘Look, Tim, make it your own. Go and do your thing.’ And that was something cool, a blessing that you kind of got from him that made it great to go out there and do it.”
Shaft is in theaters now!