What better way is there to start off the month of February, Black History Month, than with a dedication to the first Black action hero Richard Roundtree aka Detective John Shaft? With all the talk about the Oscars and Black actors deserving recognition, let us remember and embrace one of the greatest to do it in Black acting. From working as a cab driver to making it to the big screen as an action star, Richard Roundtree’s path to becoming John Shaft was not easy by any stretch of the imagination.
Roundtree is still alive and still acting to this day playing in many roles since the movie Shaft, but few remain with us like the character of Detective John Shaft, especially in Hip-Hop.
Brandishing a thick horseshoe mustache, kicking villains left and right, this New Rochelle, New York bred actor is often synonymous with Blacksploitation (or Blaxsploitation) films like the Shaft series.
Roundtree’s protrayal of Detective John Shaft is often regarded as one of the most ground breaking roles for Black actors of all time for many reasons. It’s subsequent ripples through the acting world and Black communities alike are still seen to this day.
According to University of Virginia historian John Mason, Roundtree’s role in Shaft the movie almost single-handedly saved MGM from bankruptcy. At the time MGM was struggling to stay afloat and Shaft saved MGM in the box offices. No one had any idea, not the actor nor the directors that Shaft would be such a hit movie.
Says Roundtree, “This was my first feature film, I had done commercials, documentaries but to be cast in a major picture film, MGM? It was surreal.”
Most importantly, Roundtree introduced a new kind of character to the Black audience. Prior to his role as John Shaft, African-American actors were portrayed or “stereotyped as villains or criminals, as stupid or lazy and were often given roles that could be demeaning” Mason said.
Yea you had the Sidney Poitiers of the Black acting world that were polished and clean, they were held with great honor and adoration, but Richard Roundtree was one of the first real street savvy and cool characters on the big screen. Black audiences could really relate to him because he was smart, he was tough and he was cool all at the same time.
Then you had the soundtrack by Isaac Hayes. There was nothing like it in the streets and Issac Hayes was already legendary for his work on Stax and as a soloist. The combination was perfection and it opened the door for other films like the well known Super Fly which had the Curtis Mayfield scored soundtrack. Where would we be without that one?
While it may be hard for us to imagine now, Roundtree was one of the most stylish guys in Hollywood during the 70’s and had many of your uncles and grandpas trying to take his swag. Lets think about it, how could you play Shaft and NOT be the man? It’s pretty much impossible.
Richard Roundtree is the OG of all OGs in this entertainment game and it’s time we at AllHipHop pay him his respect. Truth be told he deserves more roles than a cameo as being Samuel L’s uncle in the Shaft remake. Take a look at a few clips below, maybe let us know some of your favorite Black actors as we remember the greats of Black History.
(Source: 2014 Virginia Film Festival interview with Richard Roundtree by University of Virginia historian John Mason)