Wait, Shaft Was Supposed To Be White?
This summer, moviedom celebrates the 50th anniversary of its superflyest film. One that popularized the detective genre with Black audiences launched the careers of several important Black artists and gave us one of the most legendary movie badasses of all time. Say it with me now: Who's the private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks? Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother man? You know I'm talking about …
Don't let the suave '70s turtleneck distract you; the above picture definitely isn't of John Shaft as portrayed by iconic African American actor Richard Roundtree or Samuel L. Jackson or Jessie Whosits from the 2019 sequel nobody watched. Instead, it's a picture of the original silver screen Shaft: Frank Shaft, a very white "San Francisco super cop," played by Michael Murphy in the MGM comedy Brewster McCloud.
While this White Shaft has nothing to do with the Black Shaft (he was a parody of Steve McQueen's hardboiled detective Frank Bullitt), sharing a surname was apparently plenty for MGM to decide that Murphy "was supposed to play Shaft" in their upcoming adaptation of the Shaft novel. According to Murphy, not only did the studio consider a white actor for the role first, but they were "aggressively pursuing him," preferring to turn Shaft from a story about a badass Black New York detective into a spin-off for a character from a second rate Robert Altman comedy who winds up committing suicide after being outwitted by a teenage birdshit-themed serial killer.
You might be wondering: Why on earth would you cast a milquetoast Bay Aryan to portray a character known for being A) an African American icon and B) smooth as shit? That's because neither of those things was true until the movie was well into production. Before that, the only thing Black about John Shaft was the color of his skin. Shaft's creator, pulp fiction author/"very WASPY person from Ohio" Ernest Tidyman, had no interest in or experience of inner-city African American life, only wanting to pen "a detective story, not a Black power tome." The singular reason he described John Shaft as "a big, black man in a grey lightweight wool suit moving quickly through the morning" on page two was that Tidyman's (also white) editor wanted to tap into the rising market of African Americans buying cheap crime thrillers.
So, originally, John Shaft was a character commissioned, written, and played by a white man. Luckily, MGM eventually decided to give this newfangled 'Blaxploitation' genre a try and gave up trying to whitewash Shaft even more. They then hired literally the only Black director in Hollywood, Gordon Parks, who still had to fight tooth and nail to actually be allowed to make a Shaft movie. Without Parks, the studio would've shot Shaft in Los Angeles instead of grimy New York, they also never would've hired Isaac Hayes to compose the score and, worst of all, they would've forced Roundtree to shave off his iconic mustache in order not to upset "white audiences."
So while the original John Shaft was Black as a couple of white dudes' afterthoughts, it was Parks who managed to severely alter the story and turn the character into the "African American superhero" we all dig today. He achieved this by handing off every part of the filmmaking process that wasn't the script, from the photography to the acting to the music to even the marketing, to African American creatives, resulting in a movie that maybe doesn't tell, but sure as hell shows a quintessentially Black story.
For more (Very White) tangents, do follow Cedric on Twitter.
Top Image: MGM