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Shaft: The First Black Action Hero

How Shaft became the first black action superhero before Blade and T’Challa.

By Gladys W. MuturiPublished 8 months ago 4 min read
Richard Roundtree as Detective John Shaft

Before the late Chadwick Boseman portrayed T’Challa in Marvel’s Black Panther before his 2020 passing and Wesley Snipes portrayed Eric Brooks aka "Blade" in Marvel's Blade, there was badass Detective John Shaft who was the first black superhero during the 1970s who made huge accolades, sequels and a short-lived television series. Recently, Richard Roundtree who portrayed Shaft passed away this year so in honor of his memory, let's look back at how Shaft was made.

In case you didn't know even if you were born in the 70's, Shaft was based on a novel written by a Caucasian author.

Before it was a film...

Ernest Ralph Tidyman was enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1946 serving in public relations. He worked as a journalist and crime reporter for the next two decades in a number of cities, including a stint as editor of Diners Club magazine, and writing for The New York Times from 1960 to 1966, The New York Post (1957–60), male magazines and black newspapers.

Ernest Tidyman

After writing as a journalist, he debuted his first novel Flower Power in 1968. The novel flopped after it was released. After his first novel was released, Tidyman thought about writing a mystery crime novel until he had the idea of creating a black detective hero. He started writing Shaft, a story about a private black detective named John Shaft living in New York City.

"Reading black fiction, you see that the central figure is either superhero or super victim, as in [William] Styron's book. The blacks I knew were smart and sophisticated, and I thought, what about a black hero who thinks of himself as a human being, but who uses his black rage as one of his resources, along with intelligence and courage."

Tidyman, Los Angeles Times, 1972

Shaft novel cover

The novel was published in April 1970 and was a huge success.


After the success of Shaft, MGM showed interest in adapting Tidyman's novel into a film. Tidyman originally wrote the screenplay Shaft as a white character but instead kept the source from his novel. Director Gordon Parks chose to direct Shaft. Parks cast African-American actor then thirty-year-old Richard Roundtree as the eponymous hero Shaft. Musicians Isacc Hayes and Johnny Allen were selected for the music score of the film. The film was on a $500,000 budget. After production, in an effort to entice a largely black audience to see the film, MGM hired Uniworld, a black advertising firm targeting a large African-American community.

Roundtree as Shaft

The film premiered on June 25, 1971 in Los Angeles, California.

The Success of Shaft

The Shaft film was a hit becoming the first African American action flick of the 1970s. Roundtree was credited with having an impact on the rise of African-American leading actors in Hollywood projects, thanks to his successful performances in Shaft. His portrayal of Shaft as a bold, confident, and charismatic figure also influenced cinematic depictions of Black men and Black masculinity, a contrast to Black men in films prior to Shaft having often been portrayed as mild-mannered or servile. He was nominated for a Golden Globe in 1972. The theme music of Shaft won two Grammys and an Oscar for Best Original Song making Hayes the first Black man to win the award for that category.

Roundtree would appear as Shaft in the Shaft sequel: Shaft's Big Score!(1972), Shaft in Africa (1973), and a short-lived television series.

After Shaft

While the Shaft film franchise continued and Tidyman wrote the sequel, he continued writing the Shaft novel series until 1975. Tidyman was hired by Philip d'Antoni to adapt The French Connection which was also a hit as well.

Tidyman won an Oscar at the 44th Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for the 1971 The French Connection.

The film also won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Film Editing. Tidyman would continue to write for films and television shows and produce many projects. Tidyman would start his own production company. In 1984, Tidyman was in London for a production meeting about a film to be made in Europe. According to the New York Times, Sue Hyman, his agent, said he was admitted to the hospital Thursday. Tidyman passed away in the intensive care unit. His cause of death was alcoholism. In 2000, sixteen years after Tidyman's death, Shaft this time actor Samuel L. Jackson portrayed John Shaft while Richard Roundtree the original Shaft returned as John Shaft.

Shaft (2000)

The film was number one on the box office hit praising Jackson's performance as Shaft.

Jackson and Roundtree in Shaft (2000)

In 2019, after nineteen years since the 2000 film, Samuel Jackson and Roundtree would reunite and be cast in Shaft's reboot film along with Regina Hall, Avan Jogia, Alexandra Shipp, and Jessie T. Usher.

However, the 2019 film would be Roundtree's final film role as Shaft. Roundtree died of pancreatic cancer at his Los Angeles home on October 24, 2023. Samuel L. Jackson paid tribute to Roundtree on Instagram.

"Richard Roundtree, The Prototype, The Best To Ever Do It!! SHAFT, as we know it is & will always be His Creation!! His passing leaves a deep hole not only in my heart, but I’m sure a lotta y’all’s, too. Love you, Brother, I see you walking down the Middle of Main Street in Heaven & Issac’s Conducting your song."

Samuel L. Jackson Instagram (@samuelljackson)

Roundtree, One of a Kind Hero!!!!!!

In Loving Memory of Richard Roundtree

Richard Roundtree


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About the Creator

Gladys W. Muturi

Hello, My name is Gladys W. Muturi. I am an Actress, Writer, Filmmaker, Producer, and Mother of 1.

Instagram: @gladys_muturi95

Twitter: @gladys_muturi


YouTube: @gladys_muturi

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