If there is a pantheon of black action heroes, John Shaft is a shoo-in. The suave private eye with a heart — and a mission — has endured for almost half a century. Now as Richard Roundtree reprises his iconic role for the film franchise’s fifth installment, Samuel L. Jackson and Jessie T. Usher Jr. join him as family members fighting injustice (and looking cool, all the while).
The early films in the series exemplified the blaxploitation genre, the first generation of action films aimed at urban black audiences. Unbelievably, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer originally envisioned the 1971 film with an all-white cast. Luckily, the studio realized there was an untapped — and potentially lucrative — demographic yearning to see heroes that looked like and lived among them. While critics faulted blaxploitation movies for perpetuating stereotypes and sexism and glorifying violence, others hailed “Shaft” for its social consciousness, as the film helped change how mainstream Hollywood viewed African-Americans and good guys on film
The upcoming movie is a wry, satirical follow up to its earlier and more serious predecessors and invites a look back at the original, which was directed not by a Hollywood stalwart but by one of the greatest photographers of the twentieth century: Gordon Parks. He saw “Shaft” as a “fun” film that could also inspire viewers of color. In the context of a movie industry that largely ignored them or trafficked in stereotypes, the film offered “a hero they hadn’t had before,” as he later observed. A critical and financial success, it led the way for other black directors in Hollywood.
What is less understood, but equally important, is the relationship between “Shaft” and Mr. Parks’s earlier work, particularly his groundbreaking photographs. The film would not be the first time he portrayed the urban underworld through his measured lens. In his first photo essay for Life magazine, “Harlem Gang Leader,” published in 1948, Mr. Parks attempted to challenge how mainstream media portrayed African-Americans and crime. He documented the daily life of 17-year-old Leonard “Red” Jackson, leader of the Midtowners, a Harlem gang. Mr. Parks gained his trust, becoming a “welcome companion in all of [his] activities, including diplomatic sessions with other gangs, fights, quiet moments at home, even a visit to a funeral chapel to examine the wounds of a deceased member of a friendly gang.”
Mr. Parks hoped the story would encourage support for social programs to help at-risk youth. But the range of images he took for the story, in contrast to those that editors selected, suggest that his concept differed considerably from his editors. In its published version — where photos were selected for dramatic effect and some aggressively cropped — the photo-essay failed to portray the teenager’s studiousness and stable family life. Harlem’s vitality and cultural richness were also missing, being represented instead as foreboding and desolate.
In contrast to Life’s brooding edit, Mr. Parks documented Mr. Jackson and his family and friends in a way that underscored their humanity and complexity. In this way, he had hoped to challenge stereotypes and engender understanding, highlighting both similarities and differences between his black urban subjects and Life’s largely white, middle class readership.
Another photo-essay he did for Life, “The Atmosphere of Crime,” was similarly nuanced and multifaceted. For six weeks in 1957, Mr. Parks documented inner-city crime in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. His images offered a glimpse into the largely hidden world of delinquency, policing and incarceration. Finally, after nearly a decade of well-received photo essays, his editors were more comfortable with his singular vision.
Mr. Parks’s photographs departed from popular media’s typically romanticized, melodramatic or judgmental view of crime. Sometimes working closely with police, other times photographing alone with his collaborator, Henry Suydam, a journalist, he treated his controversial subjects of all races with compassion and care. They included a prisoner in Chicago, cigarette in one hand, the other anxiously grasping the jail cell bars, belying his stoicism; police frisking a suspect, his “hands high and trembling in the eerie light;” and young men playing poker on a New York sidewalk, minutes before police break up their game.
With “Shaft,” Mr. Parks translated his humanistic view of urban crime to the screen, inverting racial stereotypes: The film’s hero is black, while some of its villains are white. Ed Guerrero, a film historian, noted that the film’s “thematic emphasis on black confrontation with, or victory over, white oppression,” departed significantly from stereotypes that emphasized white benevolence and black weakness or pathology, if not outright invisibility.
But in contrast to Hollywood’s emerging awareness of African-Americans — and the need to engage them to boost box office sales — “Shaft” was the culmination of Mr. Parks’s longstanding and multidimensional exploration of race, poverty and crime, providing yet another rich and empathetic view of a fraught and complicated nation.