Shaft: The Genre-Hopping Franchise

A new film entitled Shaft is being released this month, and thus the Shaft series joins the rare and dubious club of movie franchises that contain multiple entries with the same title. If audiences aren’t confused by that, they may be by the marketing, as the trailers make Shaft 2019 appear to be a comedy. It’s no wonder some people are thrown by the ads — the other record holder for most franchise entries with the same title, Halloween (1978, 2007, and 2018), at least has a setup, characters, and genre in common. Shaft seems like a departure by comparison.

And yet, allowing that the finished film may be more nuanced than its marketing, there is precedence for such tonal and structural whiplash in the series. The Shaft franchise has been around for 48 years and consists of four prior theatrical features as well as a recurring TV movie-of-the-week series, with each of those entries having its own tone and approach. In this way, the franchise may be the most stylistically diverse series still running, one that manages to insert the iconic character at its center into a variety of genres.

Shaft’s mercurial approach to its tone and style began right at its inception. The character first appeared in a 1970 novel by Ernest Tidyman, a former journalist who used his knowledge of street crime to create a private eye in the vein of Mike Hammer or Sam Spade, with the additional notable element of John Shaft being black. When Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer optioned the novel to be made into a feature film, they hired African-American director Gordon Parks, who in turn hired the then-unknown actor Richard Roundtree to play the title role. Parks, who was a musician in addition to numerous other talents, knew Issac Hayes, whom he got to compose the score and signature theme tune.

In making the film, Parks, screenwriters Tidyman and John D.F. Black, and star Roundtree were aiming for a movie in the style of the rogue cop thrillers of the period, films like Bullitt (1968), which Shaft’s marketing compared it to, and The French Connection and Dirty Harry (both 1971). But the combination of Parks’ camera capturing the gritty realism of the NYC streets, Roundtree’s swaggering performance, and Hayes’ boisterous score gave birth to the Blaxploitation genre, and as a result Shaft’s legacy was secured. All the major stylistic tropes of Blaxploitation can be found in the film — black heroes, a dismissive (or even hostile) attitude toward the white establishment, quotable dialogue, frank sexuality (and, unfortunately, sexism) — and as producers attempted to replicate Shaft’s success, the movie’s status as a godfather of the genre grew, eclipsing its original intent as another gritty urban crime thriller.

After Shaft hit big in the summer of 1971, MGM saw the potential for a new franchise, and the two sequels made over the next two years attempted to reckon with what kind of franchise it would be. What’s interesting is that neither Shaft’s Big Score! (1972) or Shaft In Africa (1973) leans into the series’ newfound Blaxploitation status. Perhaps the genre was just too new and not as defined when the films went into production, or perhaps bigger budgets meant the filmmakers had more creative freedom to experiment with the character and see where he could go.

That certainly seems to be the case with Big Score, as Parks and Tidyman return with a film that’s bigger in scope yet is still just as gritty as their previous installment. For the bulk of its runtime, Big Score is a methodically paced crime drama, pausing only at a few moments to indulge in some lascivious fun. There’s a scene in the middle of the film that even seems to critique violence, making a beating that Shaft is on the receiving end of anything but glamorous. However, the third act switches gears into non-stop action, culminating in a ground-to-air helicopter shootout that’s likely the budget of the entire first film all by itself. Big Score proved that Shaft could compete with other big action movies and wasn’t just a niche property.

When Parks and Tidyman didn’t return for part three, MGM hired writer Sterling Silliphant (of 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure) and director John Guillermin (who would go on to make The Towering Inferno in 1974) for Shaft In Africa. It attempts to emulate what was at the time the most successful action franchise running, James Bond. So, In Africa is unabashedly an adventure film — it’s spread over several international locations, contains several action set pieces, and even gives Shaft a few spycraft gadgets (to which Shaft, upon being handed them, protests that he’s not James Bond). In the interest of competing with Bond, the film presents itself as an alternative to Bond, not only retaining Shaft’s hard-boiled demeanor and the previous films’ social commentary, but showing an approach to sex that’s openly kinky and surprisingly sex positive (as opposed to the Bond series’ winking innuendos).

But when Shaft In Africa only made back half of its budget, MGM cancelled any further big-screen installments and sold the franchise to CBS television. The series was reinvented yet again, this time as part of The New CBS Tuesday Night Movies, a sort of midpoint between a weekly series and a continuing feature franchise. Putting Shaft on network television meant that a lot of the grittier elements of the films wouldn’t be a part of it, so the character was nudged toward being a private investigator who just happened to gladly work with the NYC police on solving crimes-of-the-week. Happily, some of the signature elements of the character remain in the series: Shaft is still a swinging bachelor (even if his conquests are mostly offscreen), he has a little more leeway than the police do in terms of achieving justice, and his cases tend to deal with moral or racial issues. Due to a falling out that Gordon Parks had with Issac Hayes on Big Score, the Shaft TV series was the first time Hayes’ theme song was used since the original film. The series presented Shaft as a sanitized character in a more mainstream crime procedural, and while it was cancelled after seven episodes, the fact that it was attempted speaks to the franchise’s versatility.

After lying dormant for two and a half decades, Shaft returned in 2000 with a new studio in Paramount Pictures, a new director in John Singleton, and a new star in Samuel L. Jackson. The film was generally considered by the media to be a remake, but given the presence of Richard Roundtree as “Uncle” John Shaft (as well as the movie’s completely different plot from Shaft ‘71), it’s actually a reboot — what the modern franchise world might call a “legacy sequel.” Because of that, as well as the Shaft franchise jumping between different styles and subgenres, the film had creative issues during production. A lot of these problems came from a struggle to understand and define Shaft’s place in pop culture, resulting in arguments between Singleton and Jackson about Shaft’s misogyny and producer Scott Rudin demanding that Roundtree not appear in the film at all. Over all of this hung the pop culture reputation of the character (and his famous title song), which had become an icon of Blaxploitation.

The resulting film is, like every other Shaft entry, unique unto itself, an emotional indie drama wrapped inside a slick, big-budget action film, with a style that edges toward the comic book movies Hollywood was about to start pumping out regularly. Even through the tonal whiplash of the film, Jackson’s Shaft shines through as an effortlessly cool, morally malleable, lascivious man with a core of justice and decency, carrying the character forward for a new generation (and with Roundtree right behind him to help).

Perhaps the reason there haven’t been as many Shaft films as Bonds is due to the relative inconsistency of the franchise. But on the flip side, perhaps the reason he keeps returning to the screen is due to the consistency of his character. If he’s lasted for this long, then what harm could a few jokes at his expense do? No matter what, people will still be talkin’ ‘bout Shaft.

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Bill Bria is a writer, actor, songwriter, and comedian. "Sam & Bill Are Huge," his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill's acting credits include an episode of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and a featured part in Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” He lives in New York City, which hopefully will be the setting for a major motion picture someday.

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