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Encore: Looking back on the legacy of 'Shaft,' 50 years later

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

1971 introduced moviegoers to an iconic character, John Shaft.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEME FROM SHAFT")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing) Shaft.

ISAAC HAYES: Can you dig it?

SHAPIRO: The film was a hit for then-floundering MGM Studios. "Shaft" inspired a number of other films that are referred to as Blaxploitation cinema. We're taking a moment to revisit the complicated legacy of an American classic first explored by NPR's Marc Rivers earlier this year.

MARC RIVERS, BYLINE: Fifty years ago, cultural critic Nelson George was 13 years old, sitting in a darkened theater in Times Square. And then came the electric opening credits of "Shaft."

NELSON GEORGE: The minute he comes off the subway and we hear that wah-wah pedal kick in, we're like, whoa, yes. We're in this world.

RIVERS: On screen, a handsome Black man wearing a long leather jacket over a turtleneck sweater knifes his way through New York traffic, glides through picket lines, shoots the breeze with a newspaper vendor. And just who is this man? A sultry voice breaks it down.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEME FROM SHAFT")

HAYES: Who's the Black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks?

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing) Shaft.

HAYES: You're damn right.

GEORGE: You could've left the movie after that and been feeling really great about yourself.

RIVERS: In 1971, "Shaft" was a revelation and a rupture from the past.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HEAVEN CAN WAIT")

CLARENCE MUSE: (As Jasper) Boss, boss, got good news for you.

RIVERS: In the cinema of the 1930s and '40s, Black men were often portrayed as servile or slow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I ain't bothering nobody, just doing nothing.

RIVERS: They were caricatures.

GEORGE: Black men were neutered in films for decades.

RIVERS: They were also desexualized, says critic Nelson George. With the arrival of the graceful Sidney Poitier as a leading man in the 1950s, there was progress, but it was quaint.

GEORGE: Then you had Sidney, who's sort of, like, attractive, handsome but not overtly sexual.

RIVERS: George says that following the '60s civil rights era, things changed. Audiences changed.

GEORGE: By '70, '71, the world is shifting. Instead of we shall overcome, people are saying Black power. And so there was a desire in the culture for not a suit-and-tie hero but someone who reflected the funky, freaky things that were going on.

RIVERS: That funk of "Shaft" came less from the plot than from the cool and commanding presence of its star Richard Roundtree, who started his career as a model...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHAFT")

RICHARD ROUNDTREE: (As John Shaft) I didn't even introduce myself to you gentlemen. My name is John Shaft. Freeze.

RIVERS: ...And, of course, from Isaac Hayes' electrifying score.

(SOUNDBITE OF ISAAC HAYES SONG, "THEME FROM SHAFT")

RIVERS: The success of "Shaft" opened the door for films like "Trouble Man" and "Super Fly" - stories of Black characters facing urban decay, crime and fighting the man.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: He's got a plan to stick it to the man. He's super-hood, super-high - Super Fly.

RIVERS: Critics called them Blaxploitation, a term inspired by exploitation films, late-night cinema defined by sex and violence, films that, if you were young enough when you saw one, made you feel like you got away with something. And much of the thrill came from the fact that the protagonists in these movies did get away. They won. And Black characters didn't often get to win on screen. The movie came out on the eve of a recession, and studios were looking to make fast and cheap hits, says film professor Racquel Gates.

RACQUEL GATES: And one of the things that they do is they sort of - and I say this jokingly and in full sarcasm - is they remember that Black people exist.

RIVERS: "Shaft" was a huge hit. With a budget of half a million dollars, it grossed $12 million. So studios cranked these films out one after the other during the 1970s. But these films always had their critics. Some Black organizations campaigned against them, saying they glorified drug dealers and violence and profited from unflattering portraits of Blackness. Here's critic Nelson George again.

GEORGE: Black people didn't feel like it should've been popularized. We feel like that was pulling the race down. And to some degree, we're making ourselves look bad in front of white people.

RIVERS: Then there were the women in these films. Many were little more than eye candy. But there was also Pam Grier.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FOXY BROWN")

PAM GRIER: (As Foxy Brown) I'm not going to stand here and argue with you. Now, you better tell me who you talked to because it's either them or you.

RIVERS: Grier became a feminist icon for her larger-than-life action roles in films like "Coffy" and "Foxy Brown." She told NPR in 2010 that she knew these women.

GRIER: My mom was Coffy, and my aunt was Foxy Brown.

RIVERS: Film scholar Racquel Gates says Grier could find a depth that wasn't always on the page.

GATES: Pam Grier brings such an authentic vulnerability and fragility to her portrayal, which I think is in spite of whatever was in the script.

RIVERS: By the 1980s, blaxploitation films largely went out of style. But if there's one aspect of their legacy that never went away, it's the music. In a conversation with Fresh Air's Terry Gross, Isaac Hayes described how he found the sound for Shaft's theme.

HAYES: You know, they explained the character to me, you know, a relentless character always on the move, always on the prowl. And you've got to get something to denote that for the main theme. I said, what can I do? And I told Willie, the drummer - I said, give me that hi-hat, man, some 16 notes - you know, (vocalizing). And he did that, and it worked.

RIVERS: Isaac Hayes became the first African American to win an Oscar for music. It was also a hit and paved the way for other artists to create rich soundscapes of the films that followed, like Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man" score...

(SOUNDBITE OF MARVIN GAYE'S "MAIN THEME FROM TROUBLE MAN (2)")

RIVERS: ...Or Curtis Mayfield's "Super Fly."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPER FLY")

CURTIS MAYFIELD: (Singing) Oh, Super Fly, you're going to make your fortune by and by.

RIVERS: Again, critic Nelson George.

GEORGE: So the early '70s is, for me, one of the peak moments of Black musical expression. I mean, basically, the entire hip-hop generation of the '80s and '90s - its foundational music is this music from the early '70s.

ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD: I think that's true.

RIVERS: Ali Shaheed Muhammad is a member of the group A Tribe Called Quest. He remembers how the "Shaft" soundtrack first hit him.

MUHAMMAD: It was an album that represented a character that was a superhero for the Black community. And it showed the level of genius that we're able to compose on.

RIVERS: For years, there have been attempts to reboot films from the Blaxploitation era, from a new "Super Fly" to new "Shaft" movies. They weren't always critical or box office success stories. Racquel Gates thinks a worthy reboot would need to do more than just feed nostalgia.

GATES: What questions is it asking about power? What questions are these films asking about the sort of, you know, identity of individual Black people and their relationship or their responsibilities to a larger Black community?

RIVERS: 1971's "Shaft" may or may not have answered these questions. But for a generation of Black audiences who saw it on the big screen when it first came out, the movie was and remains a cultural touchstone. Again, Nelson George.

GEORGE: I mean, to this day, I will tell you that I've got a whole bunch of turtlenecks and leather jackets that I've worn. You know, certain days, I put that thing on, and I'm Shaft.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEME FROM SHAFT")

HAYES: (Singing) Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother man?

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing) Shaft.

HAYES: Can you dig it?

RIVERS: I can dig it.

Marc Rivers, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ISAAC HAYES SONG, "THEME FROM SHAFT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.