Ossie Davis, the only man to eulogize both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., said of the former at his funeral: “Malcolm was our manhood, our living Black manhood.” The same could be said of Richard Roundtree when he stalked the screen as Private Detective John Shaft. Sadly, Roundtree succumbed to pancreatic cancer on October 24th. He was 81 years young.
From his initial commanding appearance, strutting to Isaac Hayes’ legendary score, Roundtree demanded that Black men walk taller – literally and figuratively. He affixed an iron rod to our spines and admonished us not to take crap from anybody. He was arguably the first Black leading man who stepped out of the mode of the incomparable Sidney Poitier. Whereas Poitier was a no-nonsense “acteur”, Roundtree was the first Black action hero onscreen. He set the stage for the late Chadwick Boseman.
Incidentally, most people aren’t aware that Isaac Hayes actually auditioned for the role of Shaft, losing out to Roundtree. Had Hayes been cast, the film likely would not have had his hypnotic score. Yet, as The Bard wrote, “all’s well that ends well”. Hayes became the first Black composer to earn an Oscar for Best Original Song. (My favorite use of the theme song – outside the movie itself – is when FBI Detective Fox Mulder quotes a couple of its lines in a 1998 episode of The X Files.)
In any case, Richard Roundtree was so cool that he didn’t even have a stage name. Born Richard Arnold Roundtree, he dropped out of Southern Illinois University, which he had entered with a football scholarship, to pursue his calling as a model and actor. In a few short years he went from being an unknown on stage to being a cinematic icon. Even people who have never seen Shaft know who the character is.
Gordon Parks, who had been a photojournalist, directed the first two movies in the series. The studio that produced Shaft, MGM, wanted the characters to be white, even though they are Black in the novel on which the movie is based. Park strongly objected and the studio eventually relented. A year after the film was released, Park said, “We need movies about the history of our people, yes, but we need heroic fantasies about our people, too. We all need a little James Bond now and then.”
Shaft was a serendipitous savior to MGM, which made only three profitable movies in 1971. Time magazine reported that Shaft made an “astonishing” $13 million on a relatively meager budget of $500,000. This was crucial because MGM was near bankruptcy. Further, Shaft was so groundbreaking that it is one of a couple of movies that are credited with creating a new genre of film called “blaxploitation”. Admittedly, that’s considered to be an honor by some, a reason to be derided by others. The plain fact is that many Black actors would not have been able to ply their craft had it not been for such movies in the 1970s.
Two sequels, Shaft’s Big Score! (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973),failed to capture the magic of the original film. In 2000, Samuel L. Jackson starred in a solid remake of Shaft, with Roundtree playing a minor role as his uncle. A 2019 reboot, also starring Jackson, should have been kicked to the curb before it was made.
Of course, Roundtree had many roles other than Shaft. He had roughly 150 movie and television credits to his name. While Roundtree wasn’t the most gifted or versatile actor, he was earnest, believable, and likable. It was nearly impossible to root against him, even when he played a “bad” guy.
Known for doing several of his own stunts, Roundtree had several real-life fights along the way. The first was his battle against being typecast. Ultimately, he made peace with his legacy. In 1993, Roundtree – who was a self-described hypochondriac – felt a lump in his chest. It turned out to be breast cancer. He endured chemotherapy and a double mastectomy. The fact that a “man’s man” like Roundtree had breast cancer probably did more for bringing awareness of the danger to men than any ad campaign could.
As a child of the 70s, I remember watching reruns of Shaft (at too young an age). I’m glad that I did. While he was far from perfect, Shaft gave me an image of a Black man to whom I could relate. He was an underdog who overcame. He was tough but not vicious or sadistic. He was a sex symbol. And, in the words of Isaac Hayes, he was a man who “would risk his neck for his brother man.”
I can dig it.