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
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
"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
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
"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
Which is just what he did.