Forty years ago, America got Shafted. No, this isn’t going to be some wild-eyed rant about Big Business corruption or political malfeasance. It’s about Shaft, John Shaft. Can you dig it? It was in 1971 that the U.S. paperback edition of Ernest Tidyman’s Shaft and the big-screen adaptation of that novel both debuted, firmly establishing a cool, black, kickass private eye in literary territory dominated by cynical white gumshoes.
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Most people forget that Shaft was a character on the printed page before he burst, guns blazing, onto theater screens. They forget, too, that it was a white writer from Cleveland who created this most notable African-American P.I. since Ed Lacy’s Touissant Moore (Room to Swing, 1957).
Ernest Ralph Tidyman took his opening breath on Jan. 1, 1928, the son of a veteran police reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. At age 14, he dropped out of school and, concealing his youth, won his own police-reporting gig with the rival Cleveland News. Following a two-year stint in the U.S. Army, Tidyman returned to Cleveland and worked as an editor for The Plain Dealer before moving to such dailies as the New York Post and The New York Times.
But Tidyman wasn’t satisfied with newspaper work. In 1968 he welcomed his first novel into the world, the mediocre Flower Power, which told of a teenage girl from Arkansas who makes a break for San Francisco only to fall in with the drugs-and-sex-happy hippies of Haight-Ashbury. Tidyman later produced true-crime books such as Dummy (1974) and Big Bucks (1982), along with several nonseries novels, one of them—Line of Duty (1974)—set in an environment he’d come to know well—the Cleveland Police Department.
It was Shaft, though, that first brought Ernest Tidyman widespread acclaim—and changed the course of his career.
The novel introduced John Shaft, a 28-year-old, Harlem-born product of foster homes, juvenile-delinquency arrests, boxing matches and a stretch with the Marines in the Vietnam War. After being shipped back to the States, Shaft enrolled at the City College of New York with some thought of becoming a lawyer, but never earned a degree.
Instead, he signed on with a well-known private investigations firm in Manhattan, and spent a couple of years learning the snooping ropes before launching out on his own, opening an office in then-seedy Times Square. At 6-feet tall, 190 pounds, with a “French-roast coffee” complexion, the sharp-dressing Shaft was as lethal to the murderers, kidnappers and mobsters who dared to cross him as he was irresistible to women (notwithstanding his singular interest in them as sex objects). More than a few lithesome lovelies became intimately acquainted with the bedroom of his untidy Greenwich Village apartment.
“Shaft isn’t exactly the type of detective who makes a good hero,” editor and critic Otto Penzler argued in his 1977 book, The Private Lives of Private Eyes. “He 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 out-thinking 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.”
Yet author Tidyman thought America in the early ’70s—an era of societal, sexual and political upheaval—was ripe to accept a tough, angry and street-savvy detective of Shaft’s caliber. “The idea came out of my awareness of both social and literary situations in a changing city,” he told a writer back 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.”
Hollywood agreed. Even before the hardcover edition of Shaft reached bookstores in the summer of 1970, Tidyman had begun showing galley proofs around the studios, and MGM jumped on the film rights. It hired photographer, poet and director Gordon Parks Sr. to transform Tidyman’s tale into a big-screen hit. He, in turn, asked Tidyman to co-author the screenplay with John D.F. Black, a longtime writer for such TV series as The Untouchables, Star Trek and Hawaii Five-O. Richard Roundtree, a college football player and fashion model turned actor, was tapped to star.
The film and Bantam Books’ first paperback edition of Shaft were both released in July 1971. They quickly became hits, despite their incidents of cruelty (right off the bat, Shaft throws a black hoodlum out of his office window; later, he breaks a whiskey bottle in the face of a Mafia man). Shaft was marketed as a “black Sam Spade” and “the baddest mother ever made of muscle and ice,” a guy who—to quote the cover blurb on the Bantam paperback—“has no prejudices. He’ll kill anyone—black or white.” In the movie, as in Tidyman’s novel, Shaft is hired to locate the errant daughter of an African-American crime boss. It’s not a fabulous flick; the pacing and direction can be erratic, and several of the performances are creaky. But Roundtree came off as credible and, in his own way, admirable. (It helped that producers expunged the homophobia and anti-Semitism Shaft displayed in Tidyman’s book.) The movie benefited as well from significant white crossover appeal and composer Isaac Hayes’ soulful, energetic theme—which went on to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song and is featured in the video above. “The picture cost $1,543,000 to make,” critic Jon Tuska recalled in his 1978 book, The Detective in Hollywood, “and grossed $7,080,000 on release.”
On the strength of his work with Shaft, Tidyman was picked to pen the screenplays for The French Connection (1971), High Plains Drifter (1973) and several TV movies. He was also encouraged to keep John Shaft alive. “The black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks,” to quote from Hayes’ memorable lyrics, eventually starred in half a dozen more books: Shaft Among the Jews (1972), Shaft’s Big Score (1972), Shaft Has a Ball (1973), Goodbye, Mr. Shaft (1973), Shaft’s Carnival of Killers (1974) and The Last Shaft (1975). Of the novels, the first three are the best—and much better written than you might expect. Shaft’s Big Score was turned into a film in 1972 (with Tidyman once more behind the screenplay), and a third picture, Shaft in Africa, was released in 1973, but wasn’t based on any of the novels. A fourth series installment, Shaft in China, was discussed but never made. Hoping to capitalize on the movies’ popularity, in 1973 CBS-TV premiered its own version of Shaft, also starring Roundtree. Unfortunately, the network watered down the character, replaced his leather get-ups with plaid suits and sweater vests (!), and sent him out to solve crimes that had nothing to do with the black community from which he’d originally derived his power and purpose. The show alternated with Hawkins, starring James Stewart as a deceptively brilliant West Virginia criminal attorney, and lasted only seven 90-minute episodes.
Over the last four decades, Ernest Tidyman has died (1984); the original Shaft picture was entered into the United States National Film Registry as a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” work; and director John Singleton’s effort to reinvigorate Tidyman’s black hero for a new generation resulted in the 2000 film Shaft, starring Samuel L. Jackson. (The less said about that the better.) 1971 seems like a world away. Yet it only takes watching the opening segment of the original movie Shaft, or reading the early chapters of Tidyman’s first John Shaft novel to understand why the character was so influential and distinctive in his time, and is so worth remembering still.
Who is the man?