Hollywood Flashback: 'Shaft' Ignited a Blaxploitation Movie Craze in 1971

MGM/Photofest
Richard Roundtree in a scene from 1971’s 'Shaft,' directed by Gordon Parks.

"Shaft didn't take guff from anyone, and that's what made it work," says Richard Roundtree, who played a black P.I. working for a Harlem mobster whose daughter is kidnapped in the original film, which spawned five sequels, including Warner Bros.' June 14 release starring Samuel L. Jackson.

They don't write press kits like they used to. For 1971's Shaft, MGM publicity described the title character as "a hard and handsome breed of black man spawned amongst the violence and danger of the innards of Harlem in which he now moves with self-assured ease. He's also a cat who moves easily in 'Whitey's trough.' " (The plot had Richard Roundtree as a black P.I. working for a Harlem mobster whose daughter was kidnapped.)

The Hollywood Reporter's take was that though "not a good movie," it would "surely do well this summer financially, especially with black audiences." And the latter was true. The $500,000 production ($3 million today) grossed $13 million ($80 million now) and was one of only three profitable films the financially tottering MGM made that year.

Over the next decade, Shaft spawned an estimated 200 similarly themed "blaxploitation" films plus five sequels, including Warner Bros.' June 14 release, Shaft, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Jessie Usher.

"Every time I think it's over, they keep bringing me back," says Roundtree, 76, who plays Jackson's father in the new version. "Timing is everything and at the time, there was a need for a hero with my paint job. Shaft didn't take guff from anyone, and that's what made it work."

Besides shootouts and explosions, what Shaft had going for it was a spectacular soul/funk soundtrack by the late Isaac Hayes. In addition to the less-than-P.C. title song ("Who's the black private dick/That's a sex machine to all the chicks? Shaft!"), it had the hit "Do Your Thing."

The double album was on the Billboard charts for 60 weeks and went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in November 1971. As a best song nominee at the 1972 Oscars, Hayes played keyboards shirtless and covered in chains, with dozens of dancers swirling around him, before he disappeared below stage amid the largest smoke bomb explosion in Oscars history. He won.

Says Roundtree, "You can safely say Isaac was quite the showman."

This story first appeared in the June 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.