By Leila Estes
Aldous, Steve. The World of Shaft. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2015.
“Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother man? Shaft! Can you dig it?”
The aforementioned quote is a lyric from Isaac Hayes’s legendary theme song for the 1971 film Shaft, which garnered an Oscar award for “Best Original Song.” Whether through the film or the catchy song, John Shaft has cemented his place as an American pop culture icon. Although Shaft began as a novel adapted into a film, it later became a multi-media sensation. Shaft has gone on to become a (short-lived) television show and a comic series, and six additional novels (beyond the original) were written about the eponymous star. For many, John Shaft was an African-American character unlike any other before: he was unapologetically black, walking around New York City with style and swag, and was a self-employed professional running a detective business. As he roamed the streets of Manhattan to get down to the bottom of crimes, Shaft commanded himself like a street-smart version of James Bond, and much like James Bond, Shaft was the ultimate ladies’ man. For audiences to view a black man on screen having black and white female lovers was both astonishing and empowering. The most famous image of John Shaft is of Richard Roundtree, a veteran actor who has now become the literal embodiment of this role. Roundtree brought the novel to life and was catapulted into (inter)national fame as the film’s hyper-masculine star.
Shaft has now become one of the canons of Blaxploitation, a very brief yet politically potent period of literary, film, and artistic production in the 1970s. Blaxploitation films were specifically made for black audiences, but some works had more crossover appeal than others. Films of the Blaxploitation era like Blacula (1972), Superfly (1972), and Foxy Brown (1974) are famous, but none have had the same longevity or mainstream success as Shaft, as its popularity within varying demographics has extended decades. As Steve Aldous states in his latest work The World of Shaft, “…he [Shaft] was tough, sexy and stood up to authority. In short, he was everything that appealed not only to young blacks, but also to liberal whites, being as much as an anti-establishment symbol as a metaphor for racial equality” (13). The World of Shaft acts as a John Shaft encyclopedia in which we learn why the character has become “a role model to black Americans fighting oppression and looking for…social reform” (5). And yet, there is so much more to discover about detective John Shaft, a man who may possess the most phallic name of all time. John Shaft may be the “black private dick” who “gets all the chicks” but what else can we learn about this symbol of black power? Interestingly, Aldous does not comment on Shaft as a Blaxploitation icon, but rather as a figure that stems from the Civil Rights movement, which Aldous refers to as Shaft’s “genesis.” Rather than engage in critical work on the character, Aldous’s intention in The World of Shaft is to provide a vast amount of factual information about John Shaft as a springboard for others to engage in critical analysis about this trailblazing multi-media African-American icon.
The World of Shaft‘s foreword, written by award-winning comic book writer David F. Walker, begins with a powerful line – “Most people don’t understand the importance of John Shaft” (1). In retrospect, this succinct sentence sets the tone for the entire book. As a Film and Media Studies student who has studied the Blaxploitation era, I felt that I was well-versed on the canons of Blaxploitation and, in particular, knowledge about the legendary John Shaft. Aldous’s synopses of all the different works that John Shaft inhabits makes readers ponder—Did I ever really know John Shaft before today?
Aldous’s latest work on Shaft is not only meticulously researched but also comes at a very opportune time: 2016 is the 45th anniversary of the film’s release, which debuted in the United States in July of 1971. Aldous, a banker by trade, may not be the first person you would think of as a Shaft connoisseur. The fact that a white British man is such a die-hard fan of Shaft demonstrates the worldwide appeal that this African-American detective created. Aldous separates his book into three main sections: “The Genesis of Shaft,” “Shaft in Print,” and “Shaft on Screen.” The first section, “The Genesis of Shaft,” is quite brief, but provides information about the man who created the character, Ernest Tidyman. In “Shaft in Print” Aldous provides a breakdown of the seven Shaft novels and the Shaft comic strip. In “Shaft on Screen” Aldous provides plot summaries of the Shaft films and the short-lived television series, which, he argues, did not translate well to the smaller screen. By separating his book into three sections, Aldous is able to successfully compartmentalize Shaft’s different media so that the reader can easily process and synthesize the provided information. This is crucial because as one learns from reading World of Shaft there is more than meets the eye when it comes to this multi-layered character.
John Shaft was a Vietnam veteran who was able to persevere after the war by becoming a cutthroat detective in New York City. The theme song accurately describes him as a “complicated man.” Shaft is alluring as a black maverick, but he also has tendencies that are homophobic and misogynist. From his treatment of women as sexual objects, which Aldous describes as a “disposable attitude to women believing their main use to be recreational” to “Shaft’s intolerance to homosexuals” (102, 68) it can be difficult to reconcile Shaft as a hero due to some of his disturbing perspectives on people he deemed inferior or abnormal. Although Aldous is clearly entranced by Shaft as a powerhouse, he also does not let this character off the hook for unsavory aspects of his personality. While Shaft is a hero and an icon, he is still deeply flawed. Nevertheless, Aldous notes how this larger than life figure still resonates with audiences today, as seen by the Shaft reboot in 2000 with Samuel L. Jackson, another noteworthy Hollywood “bad ass.”
To learn more about what motivates Shaft also means learning about the man behind John Shaft’s creation, Ernest Tidyman. The glaring irony of John Shaft is that he is a potent symbol of black power who was created by a white man. Aldous reinforces this irony by going into great detail about Tidyman’s biography, although sometimes Aldous becomes mired in superfluous factoids. Biographical information is necessary to understand how Tidyman operated, but some tangents about his personal life went off the grid. For example, it is unnecessary to know all about the different relationships Tidyman had in his personal life because these facts did not connect back to how readers could further understand John Shaft. Therefore, an emphasis on Tidyman’s professional life as a police reporter in different cities around the United States and as someone who served in the military are more relevant to John Shaft than Tidyman’s family life. Just as exposing Shaft as flawed is vital, having the reader be cognizant of Ernest Tidyman’s contribution to pop culture is also crucial. Shaft may be a potent black figure but ignoring Tidyman would have dismissed the character’s veritable origin.
Overall, Aldous’s The World of Shaft provides a wealth of information about John Shaft and inspires readers to think about black power and black visibility in an age where African-Americans are still clamoring for representation in various media. Even though Hollywood has many high profile black action heroes like Jamie Foxx, Idris Elba, and Will Smith, Aldous demonstrates why we should not take our black icons for granted. As we continue to look forward to creating more diversity throughout different forms of media, we must still learn from those who blazed trails before us. Although Steve Aldous is a white man from Britain, something about John Shaft resonated with him and continues to do so forty-five years after the film’s cinematic debut. By dibbling and dabbling in different media, Aldous provides a look into different aspects of Shaft as a multi-media icon. There is such a wealth of information in the text and due to this overwhelming amount, Aldous doesn’t have time to scrutinize it all. However, by creating this informative homage, Aldous inspires others to delve deeper into Shaft, “the cat that won’t cop out when there is danger all about.”