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Based on a novel by white writer Ernest Tidyman, Shaft essentially was a standard white detective tale enlivened by a black sensibility. As Roundtree’s John Shaft – mellow but assertive and unintimidated by whites – bopped through those mean streets dressed in his cool leather, he looked to black audiences like a brother they had seen many times before but never on screen.
What set Shaft apart from the previous and the then prevailing Black-themed movies is that it shattered the old stereotyped portrayal of Blacks as either the classic gangster, the street-wise hustler or informer. In the protagonist, the film audience saw a kind of blankness that is not repulsive or embarrassing. Somehow, it depicted a side of the Black community, that is quite real and one could meet on the streets, but never depicted on screen. The movie portrayed a fetishized the Black tough masculinity, staking its claim on the iconic status sans a past, a childhood, roots or ancestry, which dominated the contemporary Black narratives.
I nearly hadn’t gone to see Shaft. Up to that time I tended to avoid Hollywood movies with black people in them, because – with exceptions, such as In the Heat of the Night – the experience was usually irritating or embarrassing, if not downright offensive. Shaft was different. If my reaction to it had changed a few years on, at the time… Shaft made me feel good. (cited in Bruzzi 1997, p. 99)
What was achieved in the film was that Shaft served as some transitory development in the evolution of the Black cinema from the gangster-dominated themes that relied on personal tales of the ghetto towards the treatment of the Black community as some form of explanatory model resulting to its style articulation. In the case of Shaft, for instance, with his experience and knowledge of the ghetto and the street, he was able to
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“Critical Reaction of Black Cinema : Shaft (1971, Gordon Parks) Essay”, n.d. https://studentshare.org/miscellaneous/1563218-critical-reaction-of-black-cinema-shaft-1971-gordon-parks.
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