In a 2020 essay for the New York Times on the on-screen supercops of 1971, Wesley Morris saved the best for last, focusing on the opening sequence in Gordon Parks’s Shaft. As “the cymbal taps of [Isaac] Hayes’s theme song kick in,” wrote Morris, the title “appears in red, and up out of the subway, from underground to the surface, comes twenty-eight-year-old Richard Roundtree, in a leather trench coat, mustache, and little Afro, declaring his stardom and correcting sixty or so years of Black sexual neglect. The buck starts here.”
Roundtree, who passed away on Tuesday at the age of eighty-one, plays John Shaft, a private detective who teams up with a group of militants not at all unlike the Black Panthers to rescue a Black gangster’s daughter who has been kidnapped by a crew of white wiseguys. “If New York is the most important city in the world,” wrote Amy Abugo Ongiri last year in the essay accompanying our release, “then John Shaft is definitely its king, adept at negotiating uptown and downtown and moving amid white society as easily as he does through Harlem.”
With The Learning Tree (1969), Parks, a renowned photographer in the 1940s and ’50s, had become the first Black American director to make a Hollywood studio film. Shaft was “a pure offering of love to Black audiences,” wrote Ongiri. Parks “didn’t just tweak the detective genre with an empowered Black hero; instead, he centered Blackness to reimagine a genre that in the past had associated whiteness with justice, law, and order but that he turned on its head to expose its racial politics—profoundly disrupting the inherent white supremacy that had undergirded it.”
Roundtree was a high school football player in New Rochelle, New York, who later dropped out of college in the early 1960s to launch his acting career. Though he’d later join the prestigious Negro Ensemble Company, he started out as a model, and as Bijan Bayne recalls at RogerEbert.com, “Roundtree’s dashing features became familiar in nearly every Black U.S. household as the model for the Duke line of men’s haircare products. He was known in Black culture as ‘The Duke Man.’ We didn’t know his name, but we knew his face.”
When MGM picked up the rights to Ernest Tidyman’s 1970 novel, Shaft, the studio floated the idea of casting a white lead—Steve McQueen, maybe, or Charlton Heston. Parks insisted on Roundtree. “Manhood personified,” writes Bayne, “with a very Black twist.” Wesley Morris noted that Parks had “discovered what still feels like a vaccine for all that ailed a Black moviegoer for most of the movies’ existence. Shaft was more than a supercop. Rather casually, he had to be super at everything, including being in on the joke, including sex.”
As Anita Gates points out in the NYT, John Shaft was also a “product of his unenlightened pre-feminist era.” Shaft was “living the Playboy magazine reader’s dream, with beautiful women available to him as willing, even downright grateful, sex partners. And he did not always treat them with respect. Some called him, for better or worse, the Black James Bond.” Shaft’s sheen of cool did set him apart, though, from the rawer and rougher Sweetback portrayed by director Melvin Van Peebles in his landmark Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which had been released a few months earlier.
Roundtree, Parks, and Tidyman—who, on the strength of his novel, was hired to write William Friedkin’s The French Connection, which opened a few months after Shaft—reteamed for a sequel, Shaft’s Big Score! (1972), but director John Guillermin took over the second sequel, Shaft in Africa (1973). Roundtree played the slave Sam Bennett in Roots, the miniseries that took the nation by storm in 1977, and appeared in dozens of supporting roles in films such as Blake Edwards’s City Heat (1984) and David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) before showing up at Samuel L. Jackson’s side in John Singleton’s 2000 Shaft reboot.
In 2005, “the legend Richard Roundtree did one day on my first movie, Brick,” wrote Rian Johnson on the platform formerly known as Twitter on Wednesday. “It was a tiny weird movie, we were a set full of kids, and he was so kind and generous and patient, and even hung out with us all that night. Incredible guy, incredible career.”
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