(October 25, 2023). When news broke Tuesday (Oct. 24) of legendary actor Richard Roundtree’s passing on October 23 at age 81, the tributes naturally began pouring in on social and traditional news media, with all of them, rightfully, recalling the groundbreaking role he played in the 1971 film Shaft.

That film, with Roundtree as the lead character, was created on a shoestring budget of between $500,000 and $1M–hardly enough to bankroll an indie film in today’s dollars–but was a box-office smash, earning more than $15 million and reportedly saving its major production studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, from bankruptcy that year.

Coming on the heels of the 1960s civil rights movement, Shaft was a cultural touchstone. In the vein of the subgenre it helped to popularize–the Blaxploitation film–Roundtree’s first major starring vehicle has been both praised and derided for what it did for (and arguably, to) Black people in America.

On the one hand, it cast a Black man in a strong, self-reliant lead role. Private detective John Shaft was tall, dark, handsome, smart, and badass…and unapologetic about being all of the above.

By any measure in 1971–particularly in the pre-hip-hop era–that potent combination of attributes was viewed as either unattainable for the Black man or intimidating to the white establishment if he possessed it. Either way, it was a combo not often depicted in mainstream American cinema, if it ever had been.

On the other hand, to the dismay of Black activists, you had John Shaft as seen through the eyes of the white men who created him–both in the book where he was first introduced (Shaft by Ernest Tidyman) and in the MGM film that made the character (and Roundtree) famous.

John Shaft was the womanizing, turtleneck wearing, yet slightly above thug-level detective…a charismatic charmer who had made it out of the Harlem ghetto and retreated to the more upscale Greenwich Village (both located in Manhattan). His Black woman was unreasonably loyal, even while he laid his hat in the homes of other women (including white ones).

Just two years removed from the turbulent 1960s, there was no indication that Shaft or his hired group of Black militants had any interest in furthering Black causes beyond their mere presence in the film and their street victories. Furthermore, with Roundtree’s character no longer even living in the ‘hood where he carried out his battles, Shaft was seen as an example of “Black flight,” another elitist who’d “made it” and forgotten where he’d come from.

While no Black action film should be expected to bear the weight of all of society’s ills–or its expectations of prominent Black figures–on its shoulders, especially a film whose main plot (Shaft fighting off bad guys while saving a kingpin’s kidnapped daughter) was so parochially laid out, pundits criticized the movie for playing up racial stereotypes and for not focusing more attention on Black issues while it had America’s attention.

But its cultural significance should–and, in this writer’s view, does–prevail, despite its social shortcomings or, maybe more accurately, even because of them.

As a highly successful motion picture, Shaft–directed by Gordon Parks, written by John Black, and produced by Joel Freeman, all white men–was a reminder of the evolving perspectives on race, sexuality, identity and representation for Blacks in film and in American society, both for its creators and the audiences they were targeting.

Shaft, the womanizer, was a chance for these men to parlay their fantasies about Black sexuality on film. Whereas 1967’s To Sir With Love (albeit a British film, four years before Shaft) saw Sidney Poitier’s Mark Thackeray as the Black man in a position of authority (one initially rejected by his mostly white class of students), Poitier’s teacher character wasn’t allowed to be sexual–for good reason–even as one of his students developed a serious crush on him.

By 1975, four years after Shaft, professional boxer and actor Ken Norton’s Mandingo slave character had been fully sexualized in a memorable bedroom scene with his owner’s scorned wife, played by Susan George.

From this standpoint, Roundtree’s Shaft was in many ways the segue between both those films, a midpoint in the continuum of how increasingly comfortable society was in its depiction of Black sexual characters and their interracial relationships. As a former model and one who was clearly easy on the eyes, Roundtree embodied the role perfectly.

Meanwhile, Black people saw John Shaft as their first big screen superhero. He made it possible for us to see what it was like for our people to win, following a tumultuous decade in which so many of our social and political victories were overshadowed by murderous tragedy. And Roundtree, a dark, uncompromising, and undeniably Black man, was the perfect embodiment of the hero he was portraying.

If that first-of-a-kind big-screen representation came with a dose of the stereotypical characterizations that Whites had of Blacks at the time, it was a hard pill, perhaps, but one that we were willing to swallow.

After all, it got our proverbial foot in the door and made it possible for Black actors like Roundtree (and later producers, directors and studio owners) to make the kinds of films that did all the things Shaft didn’t, even if it took a few years of getting past blaxploitation hell for that to be manifested.

Equally as important as the film, and maybe even more so, was the soundtrack.

Created by the masterful Isaac Hayes, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who preceded Roundtree in death in 2008, the Shaft soundtrack, which featured Roundtree in character on the album’s cover, was a slickly produced, Memphis soul tour-de-force that became the first dramatically acted motion picture soundtrack to reach No. 1 during the 1970s (Woodstock, the music festival documentary soundtrack, and Jesus Christ Superstar, from the stage production, had topped the charts before Shaft).

Much like the film had been for MGM studios, Hayes’ soundtrack was the proverbial shot in the arm needed for his label Stax Records (via its Enterprise imprint). With Hayes writing and producing the score, which mostly consisted of instrumental tunes save for three tracks including the title number, the fledgling Stax Records achieved its biggest-selling album ever (Shaft helped keep the label afloat for a few more years before it eventually shutdown due to mismanagement and a dubious distribution deal with CBS Records).

Most importantly, Shaft became the first movie soundtrack curated or composed by a Black person to reach No. 1 and the first to garner an Oscar nomination (it received three, winning two of them, including Best Original Song for Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft”). Hayes thus became the first Black man (or woman) to win an Oscar in a non-acting category.

“Theme from Shaft,” with its most famous line, “that Shaft is a bad mutha–shut yo mouth!,” was also a No. 1 pop and No. 2 soul hit in Billboard, topping the charts in November 1971 and winning Hayes a Grammy award for Best Instrumental Arrangement. (The album also won a Grammy for Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or a TV Special.)

Never before and, arguably, not since Shaft has a film’s main (Black) character and its title theme been so permanently intertwined. Fifty-two years on, one still cannot utter the word “Shaft” or mention the film’s title character without invoking the iconic music or that most famous line from its theme song. Even in Roundtree’s passing, many online tributes have been tagged with the “bad mutha…shut yo mouth” catchphrase.

Needless to say, the album and the film were milestone moments in many ways. The film not only resonated with Black audiences but also crossed racial boundaries, introducing a broader group of people to certain aspects of Black urban life (real or imagined) and its culture.

The film contributed to a wider cinematic shift towards more diverse representation in the movie industry, influencing the creation of other Black action heroes and more complex characters–Blaxploitation or otherwise–in the years and decades that followed.

The soundtrack likewise catapulted Black movie scores to even higher commercial heights. Over the next four years, Black movie soundtracks by Curtis Mayfield (Super Fly), Diana Ross (Lady Sings the Blues), and Earth, Wind & Fire (That’s the Way of the World) all topped the Billboard 200. Later albums by Prince (Purple Rain) and Whitney Houston (The Bodyguard) are ranked among the biggest selling movie soundtracks (and albums in general) of all time.

Roundtree would go on to continue the Shaft franchise, starring in two immediate sequels in the 1970s and then reprising his role in 21st century follow-ups starring Samuel L. Jackson and Jessie T. Usher as John Shaft II and III, respectively.

Despite starring in more than 75 films and making appearances in more than 75 television shows over a more than 50-year career, John Shaft I will understandably be the role for which Roundtree is remembered the most.

In large part due to his portrayal, Shaft broke barriers, reshaped narratives, and added a rich layer to the history of American cinema by portraying a dynamic Black hero, one that Roundtree played so well, and one for which he will be immortalized.

Richard Roundtree (July 9, 1942 – October 23, 2023) died in his home at Los Angeles after a bout with pancreatic cancer. May he rest in power and peace.


DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop, rock and (sometimes) country genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @djrobblog and on Meta’s Threads.

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2 thoughts on “Richard Roundtree’s Death Recasts Spotlight on ‘Shaft’ and its Iconic Soundtrack: A Winning Combo”
  1. Wow, this one hits deep. What an iconic and legendary actor. He began his career as a model at North Carolina Central College (University). The first Black action hero has his own soundtrack and theme music. I always wanted to be John Shaft! To this day
    When I put on a leather jacket, I feel the empowerment of Shaft. In closing here, my theme song (in my head) is Cafe Regio by the late music legend Issac Hayes…so much more to say, not enough space. Right On!

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