In 1971, posters began to appear promoting a new film directed by Gordon Parks that promised viewers, particularly African Americans, something – or rather someone – completely different, with the debut of an actor “hotter than Bond” (Sean Connery) and cooler than Bullitt” (Steve McQueen). And Richard Roundtree in his portrayal of the tough, smart and confident private investigator, Shaft, met all of our expectations and more.
As the film “Shaft” opened to the pulsating music of Isaac Hayes and the title song, “Theme From Shaft,” Roundtree appears on the busy streets of New York City, wearing a sleek, brown leather coat, his afro perfectly coiffed with a slight scowl on his face.
When a cab driver almost hits him as he attempts to cross a busy thoroughfare, the cabbie blows his horn, to which Shaft replies, “Up yours!”
Today’s youth may be unable to appreciate the magnitude of seeing such a dominating figure on the big screen but for Black children growing up in the 70s, like this writer, Roundtree was the kind of man we had only been able to dream about prior to his appearance.
And he had that kind of swag – that aura, that special something which the French described as “savoir faire” – that made us proud to be “young, gifted and Black.”
Hayes’s soundtrack saluted John Shaft – adding to the excitement we felt and to the definition of this unique, Black man – a hero to be respected.
In song, Hayes asked who was the cat who wouldn’t cop out/when there’s danger all about, to which the chorus replied: “Shaft. John Shaft.”
Hayes went on in song, saying that Shaft was a bad mother – at which the chorus interrupts with “Shut your mouth!”
Critics within the Black community said films like Shaft glorified drug dealers, violence and sexism. And while such criticism could hardly be refuted, through powerful portrayals of Black action heroes in the years between 1971 and 1976, Roundtree would be joined by such luminaries as Ron O’Neal, Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Bernie Casey, Ken Norton, Raymond St. Jacques, Max Julien, Calvin Lockhart – even William Marshall as the lead in several stories of Dracula revamped with a Black lead.
Roundtree, who began his career in 1963 as a model at the Ebony Fashion Fair after being scouted by none other than Eunice W. Johnson, began modeling in advertisements for items like Johnson Products’ Duke hair grease and Salem cigarettes.
In 1967, Roundtree joined the Negro Ensemble Company, portraying the boxer Jack Johnson in his first theatrical role in the company’s production of “The Great White Hope.”
But after Roundtree got the call from Parks that he had been chosen to play the lead in “Shaft,” his life would change forever.
On social media, messages continue to be shared about Roundtree and the impact he had on members of the Black community.
Stephanie Mills: “My goodness. I am heartbroken and saddened by the loss of another legend. I was so glad to have him watch me perform this summer and to meet him at Indiana Black Expo. RIP Mr.”
Debbie Allen: “Richard, you made our hearts sing and gave us great pride as SHAFT. I will always treasure the fun times on the road. Rest in power. See you on the other side.”
Robert Townsend: “A sad day, I lost one of my first heroes on and off the screen … Richard Roundtree. God bless his soul and condolences to his family.”
Sheryl Lee Ralph: “When I was a teenager, I use to dream about growing up to meet Richard Roundtree. I did and what a wonderful human being.”
TV One: “Richard Roundtree’s contributions to Black entertainment will never be forgotten.”
Roundtree deserves credit for breaking down the doors in Hollywood, paving the way for a cavalcade of African American leading actors due to his successful performances in the 1971 blaxploitation film, “Shaft,” and four of its sequels including “Shaft’s Big Score! (1972) and “Shaft in Africa” (1973).
But for this writer, Roundtree confirmed what our parents and grandparents had been telling little Black boys and little Black girls for dozens – if not hundreds – of years: Black is Beautiful!
As Roundtree said in an interview with journalist Roland Martin, describing how it felt to be introduced to the public for the first time as the character, John Shaft: “It was magic!”