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NICK RODDICK discovers why Samuel L Jackson and director John Singleton just had to make their new version of Shaft. And how the original Shaft in 1971 marked a real change in the kind of roles being offered to African-American actors.

Samuel L Jackson was still a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, when Gordon Parks’ seminal movie, Shaft, first came out in 1971. "It was pretty awesome stuff for me," he says, stroking the neatly trimmed beard which has replaced the moustache once sported by Richard Roundtree, the original John Shaft.

"He had the power & even the ego we all wanted to have" Samuel L. Jackson

"It was the first time I actually saw someone who looked like me, sounded like me, dressed the way I’d always wanted to dress and played a hero. John Shaft was our first real hero. It was all about Black Pride, and he was very proud: he was strong, he was smart, he was unafraid. He had the power and even the ego that we all wanted to have."

Even now, almost 30 years later, John Shaft is a hero in the neighbourhoods across 110th St. "I’ll be walking down the street in New York City," says Roundtree, "and wherever I’m going, people are screaming out ‘Shaft!’ I get so much love. It’s just incredible!"

Iconic and exciting at the same time, Shaft left behind it an indelible image of Roundtree - an actor whose previous screen roles had been little more than bit parts - striding through New York to the pulse of Isaac Hayes’ equally memorable score, in a perfectly tailored polo-neck and the kind of long black leather coat that the young Jackson could only have dreamed of owning back in the early seventies. The film engendered a couple of sequels and a host of imitators, the best of which were Superfly, starring Ron O’Neal, and Coffy, headlined by Pam Grier, who starred opposite Jackson in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. Most of all, though, Shaft marked a real change in the kind of roles being offered to African-American actors.

"It had an effect which was just wild" director John Singleton

"Things were different then," says director John Singleton, who was only four years old when the film first came out. "Up until that time, we really only had Sidney Poitier. When Richard Roundtree came on the scene in Shaft, it had an effect which was just wild. Everyone wanted to copy it."

Singleton went on to become the youngest individual (and the first African-American) ever to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar when his Boyz N the Hood was released in 1991. Since then, he has also directed Poetic Justice, starring Janet Jackson; college drama Higher Learning; and Rosewood, the story of a small African-American town in the Deep South in the twenties, which was released in 1997. But a remake of Shaft has been a dream of Singelton’s since before Rosewood was even completed: news first broke that he was trying to set it up back in the autumn of 1996.

The problem, however, was finding an actor of sufficient stature to take on such an iconic role - someone who would not only live up to Roundtree’s memory, but would also take the story somewhere new.

"Sam Jackson was absolutely the pinnacle"

"We only have a few actors who can play this type of role today," says the director. "Sam Jackson was absolutely the pinnacle of those guys. Shaft is a cool, contemporary presence - a man who moves easily among many different worlds. He’s as much at home downtown as uptown. That’s the way the character was originally, and that’s what Sam brings to it now."

The title character in the new movie is the nephew of the original John Shaft (Roundtree himself puts in an appearance as ‘Uncle John’, while original director Parks has a cameo in the Lenox Lounge scene). And, like his predecessor, he is a top cop battling the drug lords and corruption within the NYPD.

The story - on which Singleton collaborated with Richard Price (Oscar-nominated for The Color of Money, whose subsequent credits have included Sea of Love and Ransom) and Armageddon co-writer Shane Salerno - begins with Shaft arresting a spoiled young rich kid called Walter Wade (played by American Psycho’s Christian Bale) for the murder of a black student. But Wade flees the country while out on bail, and it is not until two years later that Shaft is able to get him into custody when he tries to slip back into the country.

Thanks to the influence of his wealthy father, however, Wade is soon back out on the street, and launches into a vendetta designed to rid himself forever both of the one witness who can tie him to the murder - Diane Palmieri, played by Australian actress Toni Collette - and of the troublesome Shaft himself. Before long, Shaft is under threat, not just from Wade, but also from a couple of corrupt cops within his own Precinct; and from Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright), a Dominican drug lord whom Shaft has earlier humiliated in front of his entire neighbourhood.

The beleaguered cop’s only real allies are another cop, Carmen (Vanessa Williams), and his street-wise pal, Rasaan, played by Busta Rhymes. Between them, they represent the two levels on which Shaft operates: the rules of police procedure, and the rules of the street.

"She lets him go, but kind of rolls her eyes" Vanessa Williams

"Carmen is not a nagging wife," jokes singer-turned-actress Williams, who won an NAACP Image Award for her performance in Soul Food, "but she does get tired of Shaft trying to do it all by himself. She lets him go, but she kind of rolls her eyes and says, ‘Okay, that’s what I’m dealing with!’"

"And I’m pretty much the guy Shaft can’t be because he’s a cop," says Rhymes, who segued from hip-hop group Leaders of the New School to record-producing and acting in films as varied as Singleton’s Higher Learning and The Rugrats Movie, in which he was the voice of the Reptar Wagon. "Shaft has to go about things in the right way: follow the legal procedure to solve crimes and deal with thugs," continues Rhymes. "Rasaan can assist him in a very unorthodox street way. And that allows Shaft to do his job that much more efficiently."

Singleton’s long battle to set the movie up finally came to an end on September 21, 1999, when Shaft began filming in New York City. The city as a whole - and Harlem in particular - has changed a lot since 1971: Magic Johnson has opened a Starbucks on Lenox Avenue, and a few blocks away is Harlem USA, the community’s first major shopping mall. But the Dominican neighbourhood of Washington Heights - where several scenes were filmed - is still one which will be largely unfamiliar to movie audiences. And the Lenox Lounge - Shaft’s favourite watering hole - finished its refurbishment program just in time to be used in the film (albeit it with a little help from production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein and her department). Other locations included Vinegar Hill, Red Hook, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crowne Heights across the river in Brooklyn.

"John Shaft is The Man"costume designer Ruth Carter

Expert advice came from the opposite direction, meanwhile, with Detective Calvin Hart of the Jersey City Police taking Vanessa Williams and other cast members on a tour of the neighbourhood’s main crime scenes. "I showed her where the drug deals were going on," says Hart, "and taught her how to spot the quick moves that give criminals away." Tagging along with his tape-recorder, Jeffrey Wright worked on his Dominican accent, which was perfect by the time production began.

Isaac Hayes, who won an Oscar for Best Song in 1972 but is nowadays best known as the voice of The Chef in South Park, also does the score for the new film, working in collaboration with producer David Arnold.

Most important of all, though, was the way Shaft himself looked. The flares and sideburns of 1971 were clearly out of the question. But it was important that the charismatic cop should look elegant without turning into a clothes horse.

"John Shaft is The Man," says costume designer Ruth Carter, who worked with Singleton on Rosewood and was Oscar-nominated for both Malcolm X and Amistad. "He’s the guy who women want and bad guys are afraid of. He’s it. I didn’t have to elevate Sam in this respect, because he’s already there as an actor. But I wanted to parallel his talent with a kind of smart, savvy look that was approachable but also menacing."

"I’ll design the clothes, you create the attitude." Giorgio Armani

Not surprisingly, Carter enlisted the help of a designer every bit as iconic in his way as Shaft: Giorgio Armani. And it didn’t take Armani long to get the feel of the film. "I’ll design the clothes," he told Jackson. "You create the attitude."

Which is just what he did.

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