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This year we lost a legend of cinema, Richard Roundtree, best known for playing the lead character in the Shaft series. In honor of his legacy, the Frida Cinema is showing a Shaft and Superfly double feature tonight as part of our New York November series.
With that sixteenth-note hi-hat opening, Shaft tells you everything you need to know about the film. “Who’s the black private dick who’s a sex machine with all the chicks?” Director Gordon Parks crafts a love letter to New York City, perfect for this month’s theme. The city isn’t just a backdrop; it comes alive under his lens. Shaft has always been a movie I could share with my dad, who introduced me to blaxploitation. When I was preparing for this article, I asked myself what it must have been like to see this film when it came out, when there was truly nothing else like it. But then I found myself pondering a new question, because even though I consider myself pretty versed in films, I couldn’t really understand what blaxploitation was about. Shaft and Superfly force us to ask if they are positive or negative representations of Black culture and to reckon with our social consciousness.
Blaxploitation rose to prominence with the film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, followed by the MGM-backed Shaft. These two films have come to represent a dichotomous relationship in blaxploitation. Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweetback was made by independent Black artists and aimed at a Black audience, while the Hollywood-financed Shaft targeted a more mainstream white audience. It’s almost laughably predictable: as soon as a marginalized group is seen as profitable, studios take advantage of that. Before it was broadened, blaxploitation almost functioned like a response to the race films of the ’40s and ’50s and civil rights pictures of the ’60s, where the Black characters were expected to sing kumbaya with the white characters. Instead, early blaxploitation asked, “Why should Black people be forced to fit into white society when they already have a rich culture and community?” And while the expansion of the genre brought Black culture to the public, it is important to ask ourselves if that was a good thing and who it was good for. Blaxploitation has been used for shock value, playing on white expectations by using stereotypes about violence in Black urban environments. Films offer a reflection of our society, and we can witness a transition in American culture through blaxploitation. With Shaft and Superfly, we went from stereotypes like the Uncle Tom and the Mammy to the pimp, the slick ghetto P.I, or the Coffy, the loose woman.
For all its controversy, however, it would be wrong to minimize the importance of blaxploitation. In a time when Black actors were only on the screen as sidekicks, blaxploitation gave them an opportunity to be heroes. They defied the white savior narrative and promoted Black resistance. Huey Newton of the Black Panthers famously reported that Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was not only a profound but necessary film. Roundtree once said of his character in Shaft, “A black man […] is for once the winner,” something that was almost unheard of at the time. The genre redefined Black masculinity and gave us what I would say are some of the earliest action movie stars. Shaft was even known as the Black James Bond, for better or for worse. Black men were being shown as desirable, unlike the sanitized and almost asexual characters actors such as Sidney Poitier were confined to in the decade before. Blaxploitation came to represent the counterculture movement of the ’70s, and as stated by Maurice Peterson in Essence, showed that Black characters could live a life free from racial torment. In a way, blaxploitation films remind me of The Conjure Tales by Charles Chestnutt, stories that follow Black characters as they outwit white characters to impart lessons. They are picaresque; Shaft and Superfly’s Priest are our roguish Don Quixotes, tilting at the windmills of oppression.
In my research, I have come to believe that blaxploitation is both liberating and restrictive. Over time, it has become not just a genre but a template for filmmakers to employ to respond to stereotypes rather than conform to them, and we can witness this through films such as They Cloned Tyrone, Black Dynamite, and its successor, Outlaw Johnny Black. Because of this, we are able to have a dialogue with our past in order to understand our future. This wouldn’t be possible without pioneers like Richard Roundtree, Gordon Parks, and Melvin Van Peebles, and therefore I am forever grateful to them.
Shaft + Superfly double feature screens Wednesday, November 29th.