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Friday, November 9, 2007

The Return of John Shaft (originally published 7/00)

It's just three quick triplets and a downbeat, laced with funky syncopation, but it's one of the most recognizable snippets of movie music ever written. Play it, or even hum it, and the room is transformed by the awareness of an energy and an attitude that has become, after some thirty years, part of the brick and mortar of popular culture. The appearance of a new "Shaft" for our new century will undoubtedly prompt many of us to go back and rediscover the original film.

My suggestion would be to go a step further. If you really want to obtain a sense of perspective on director John Singleton's new "Shaft," you need to reacquaint yourself even more fully with the roots of the Seventies genre that came to be known as "blaxploitation." "Shaft" (1971) was undoubtedly a seminal influence in that genre, but it wasn't the only one.

Although the blaxploitation genre produced plenty of mediocre films, some of which served only to reinforce certain unfortunate racial stereotypes, we shouldn't forget that the genre began with some genuinely innovative work. In particular, there were three African-American filmmakers who had both the creative fire with which to speak to African-American audiences and the fire in the belly with which to overcome industry obstacles to African-Americans in positions of authority. For a quick primer in the real roots of blaxploitation, you can't do better than these three films, each of which is available on home video.

"Cotton Comes to Harlem" (1970). Ossie Davis and his wife Ruby Dee are among the most respected artists in American theater, and have been for more than forty years. It was fitting, then, that Davis was hired to direct this breakthrough film, one of the very first major studio releases to feature African-American leading characters in a story told from an African-American cultural perspective.

The film is an adaptation of a novel by Chester Himes, one of a series of novels built around two characters named Gravedigger Jones (played by Godfrey Cambridge) and Coffin Ed Johnson (played by Raymond St. Jacques). Jones and Johnson are New York City police detectives whose exploits evoke both suspense and humor. Most importantly, they are not portrayed as subordinate to some whitebread hero type who has to rush in and save their bacon when they foul things up.

"Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" (1971). The story of how Melvin Van Peebles broke into filmmaking is a model of persistence triumphing over adversity. Finding movie studio doors closed to him in the United States, he decided to become an expatriate. Because French authors were guaranteed the right to direct film adaptations of their work, he moved to France and began publishing novels in French. The few films he was able to make there gave him the credentials he needed to return to America with bargaining chips.

After directing a studio production called "Watermelon Man" (1970), about a white bigot who wakes up one day to discover that he has turned black, Van Peebles abandoned the studio system entirely to write, produce, direct, and star in "Sweet Sweetback." The story is a simple one. The title character, a pimp who has always just done whatever it took to get along, suddenly becomes radicalized by witnessing some white cops beating an African-American man to death. He kills the cops, then makes a run for the border. This film is strong medicine, dropping all masks of conciliation to portray African-American rage undiluted and without apology.

And then came "Shaft" (1971). Like Ossie Davis, director Gordon Parks came to filmmaking with an already impressive resume in a related field, having spent 20 years as a still photographer for "Life" magazine. His characterization of John Shaft as a movie hero in the traditional mold who happens to be African-American combined with Van Peebles's appropriation of film as a legitimate medium for the articulation of African-American anger to pave the way for the many imitators, good and bad, who would follow over the next few years.

And, of course, taking the longer view, their careers as a whole blazed the trail that would be followed by John Singleton and his peers. In that context, there is real poetic justice in the fact that it was Singleton who brought John Shaft into the new century.

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