by ZJ Czupor

He’s a Complicated Man — No One Understands Him But his Woman — Shaft

Fifty years ago, on June 23, 1971, a New York City private eye debuted on the big screen at the Palms Theatre in Detroit. His name was “John Shaft,” a tough and cool Black detective. The film starred Richard Roundtree in his first movie role and gave Gordon Parks (1912-2006) his directorial debut.

Shaft (MGM, 1971) was an American crime action film about a Black private detective who is hired by a Harlem mobster to rescue his daughter from the Italian mobsters who kidnapped her. The film also explored themes like the Black Power Movement, race, masculinity, and sexuality.

Due to Shaft’s popularity, new opportunities were created for black filmmakers, actors, and technicians. The movie set off a movement known as “Blaxploitation” which dominated cinema for the next several years.

The term, “Blaxploitation” was coined by Junius Griffin, then president of the Beverly Hills-Hollywood branch of NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Griffin and others thought the rash of Blaxploitation films exploited the entire Black community and culture of America.

This new genre of films, however, moved away from portraying Blacks as sidekicks, villains, or victims of violence. Hollywood, which is always interested in making profit, recognized the new genre’s potential. The industry began making more films in which Black characters became the heroes and subjects of film and television story lines. As such, Black protagonists overcame “The Man” or other hallmarks of a white majority seen as oppressing the Black community.

The Black James Bond

When Shaft opened to round-the-block audiences in New York City, Parks told film critic Roger Ebert (1942-2013), “Ghetto kids were coming downtown to see their hero, Shaft, and here was a Black man on the screen they didn’t have to be ashamed of. Here they had a chance to spend their $3 on something they wanted to see. 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.”

While the film earned mixed reviews, it was deemed culturally relevant by the Library of Congress (2000) and led to two sequels Shaft’s Big Score (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973), plus a short-lived TV series (CBS, 1973-74) also starring Roundtree as Shaft. In 2000, a new sequel was produced starring Samuel L. Jackson as the nephew of John Shaft and, again, in 2019 also titled Shaft.

The original movie was produced on a budget of $500,000 and earned $12 million at the box office. It saved MGM from financial ruin. Composer Isaac Hayes wrote the music and earned an Academy Award for “Best Original Score.”

And now for the Back Story

Some of the best films are adaptations of successful novels. Shaft, the movie, is based on Ernest Tidyman’s paperback novel, of the same name, published in 1971. Tidyman (1928-1984) was a white writer from Cleveland who created the super-cool, leather-clad Black detective.

Ernest R. Tidyman was born in 1928, the son of a police reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. At 14, he dropped out of school, lied about his age, and got a reporting assignment with the rival Cleveland News. After two years in the Army, Tidyman returned to Cleveland and became editor for The Plain Dealer before moving on to The New York Post and The New York Times.

Unsatisfied with reporting and editing, he wrote his first novel Flower Power (Paperback Library, Inc., 1968) about a teenage girl in Arkansas who travels to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district during the height of the “hippie” era.

He then wrote true crime books Dummy (Little Brown & Co.,1974) about a young Black mute, accused of murdering two prostitutes, who is defended by a deaf lawyer; and Big Bucks (W.W. Norton & Company, 1982), about the 1962 Plymouth, MA mail truck robbery and how criminals escaped with more than $1.5 million. At the time, this was the largest cash heist of all time. The case was never solved.

However, it was his novel Shaft (Bantam Books, 1971) that brought Tidyman recognition and changed his career. In 1968, Tidyman was 40 years old and nearly broke when Macmillan’s mystery editor, Alan Rinzler, encouraged him to create a Black detective hero. As a newspaperman, Tidyman had written articles about the plight of Black freelance journalists and was aware of racial tensions during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Before hardcover versions of the book reached bookstores, Tidyman started showing galley proofs to Hollywood studios. MGM bought the film rights and hired Parks to direct. Parks then hired Tidyman to write the screenplay along with John D. F. Black (1932-2018), who wrote TV scripts for The Untouchables, Star Trek, The Fugitive, Mission: Impossible, Mannix, Hawaii Five-O and many others.

Editor and critic Otto Penzler in his 1977 book, The Private Lives of Private Eyes said, “He (Shaft) isn’t super-smart, for one thing, ultimately cracking his cases with brute force and wanton violence. Where there is room during an investigation for strategy, wit and outthinking the bad guys, he doesn’t use it. His gun serves as a substitute for his brains, and people invariably get killed in his adventures.”

Longtime journalist, blogger, and columnist for Down & Out: The Magazine, J. Kingston Pierce, reviewed Steve Aldous’s The World of Shaft: A Complete Guide to the Novels, Comic Strip, Films and Television Series (McFarland & Company, 2015). Pierce said, “Shaft’s DNA courses through the veins of characters such as Jack Reacher…and has had a lasting impact on thriller films.”

Aldous called Tidyman’s writing style “witty, uncompromising, engaging, and sometimes off-the-wall.”

Woody Haut, a London journalist and author of Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood (Serpent’s Tail, 2002) said, “Tidyman’s protagonists on the page and screen retain a sense of ethics and some vestige of a political consciousness, while maintaining ties with the criminal world, often blurring the distinction between the two.”

A Cautionary Tale

Tidyman’s novel and screenplay catapulted his career opening new opportunities for him in Hollywood. As a result, he wrote the screenplay for The French Connection, (20th Century Fox, 1971) based on Robin Moore’s 1969 non-fiction book of the same name.

Coincidentally, Tidyman’s novel Shaft and the movie both appeared in 1971, as did The French Connection, which won Tidyman the Oscar for “Best Adapted Screenplay.” He also received a Golden Globes Award nomination, a Writers Guild of America Award, and an Edgar Award for his screenplay. According to the American Film Institute, The French Connection is one of the “greatest films ever made.” It won an Academy Award for “Best Picture” (1971).

Tidyman was soon in high demand and entertaining major movie projects with large sums attached. To meet the demand, he began hiring other writers to draft his scripts and manuscripts. Unfortunately, his hired writers produced inferior work and damaged Tidyman’s reputation.  

Tidyman also began to stretch himself thin. He was pitching ideas to studios for projects he wanted to write, or produce, and did the same in Europe. In addition, he tried launching a syndicated comic strip featuring Shaft, but it was never picked up.

Meanwhile, he wrote the outlines for four more Shaft novels and negotiated with MGM to produce the last three of his books. Tidyman hired ghostwriters to write the drafts. He then shaped and edited the manuscripts to his style. But the later Shaft stories suffered from implausible plots, inconsistencies, smaller page counts, and a protagonist who became more violent. In the interim, he produced a couple of pet film projects Dummy, based on his nonfiction book of the same name,and a documentary, Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones, but his zenith had passed him by after he wrote Shaft and The French Connection.

He didn’t care for the way Shaft, the character, was portrayed on screen or TV and wanted to move in a different direction. So, he killed Shaft in his last and seventh novel in the series. In The Last Shaft, (Corgi, 1977), on the novels’ last page, the super cool detective is killed by a random mugger in the dark alleys of Manhattan.

Tidyman’s fourth wife and widow, Chris Clark, said, “Ernest prided himself as a craftsman who had a great ear for dialogue. He was juggling a lot of projects and characters and he felt the quality of the Shaft books was slipping. That’s why he decided to kill off the character.”

While Tidyman insisted his books were foremost detective fiction and not intended to be political statements, it was the film that pushed the political agenda due primarily to Parks’ vision.

Clark added, “It was the other reporters who shaped him as a writer and a reader. He was able to bring both street experience and literary knowledge to his material.”

There are Winners and Losers

When Tidyman wrote the first Shaft novel, he said, “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.”

Tidyman’s Shaft, as he appears in the novel, is a more complex character and meaner and Tidyman describes John Shaft’s background as an orphan and Vietnam vet, neither of which is mentioned in the film.

Los Angeles mystery writer Gary Phillips, who created Black private eye Ivan Monk, said he felt the spirit of Shaft hovering over his shoulder while writing his own series, beginning with Violent Spring (1994). “Certainly, I wanted some of Tidyman’s toughness in my guy. Though I was, hopefully, careful not to take it to the extremes of where Tidyman could take his action and violence.”

In 1984, Tidyman died at the age of 56 in Westminster Hospital in London from a perforated ulcer. Penzler said, “You have to realize, those Shaft novels never had such a big print-run in the first place. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t even know Ernest Tidyman’s name.”

# # #

Editor’s Note: Ernest Tidyman’s papers (140 boxes of material including letters, documents, contracts, screenplays, manuscripts, character outlines, newspaper clippings, etc.) are held at the University of Wyoming.

Tidyman’s fourth wife and widow, Chris Clark, shared the Academy Award nomination for “Best Original Screenplay,” with Suzanne de Passe and Terence McCloy for Lady Sings the Blues (Paramount, 1972). She was also the first white artist signed to sing for Motown Records in 1966.

Shaft isn’t the first Black private investigator to appear in American fiction.

  • In 1932, Rudolph Fisher wrote the first known mystery novel by an African American, The Conjure Man Dies.
  • John E. Bruce’s The Black Sleuth was originally serialized in McGirt’s Magazine between 1907-1909 and is one of the earliest African American fictional works to depict a Black detective.
  • Octavus Roy Cohen’s comical Black detective Florian Slappey appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in the late 1919s and early 1920s.
  • Ed Lacy, who was white, created the first “credible African-American private eye” in Toussaint Moore (Room to Swing, 1957).
  • Chester Himes is best known for his Harlem Detective series of novels featuring Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones, A Rage in Harlem (1957).
  • John Ball’s Black detective, Virgil Tibbs, first appeared in the novel In the Heat of the Night (1965). His novel won the Edgar for “Best First Novel.” The film version (United Artists, 1967) won five Academy Awards including “Best Picture.”

John D. F. Black, who co-authored the Shaft screenplay with Tidyman, received the Edgar Award for his made-for-TV movie Thief (1972) in the “Best Television Feature or Miniseries Teleplay” category.

In 2014, writer David Walker created a comic-book series based on Shaft along with two graphic novels Shaft: A Complicated Man and Shaft: Imitation of Life, as well as a novel, Shaft’s Revenge (Dynamite Entertainment, 2016).

Here’s a fun version of the Shaft theme by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain performed at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 2007.