By 1971, the Civil Rights and Black Power movements had already seen to it that black was considered beautiful. It didn’t take six feet and two inches of a former black fashion model strutting his way onto the movie screen to teach anyone that. Nor was it news that brothers and sisters absolutely slayed in head-to-toe black leather—the Black Panthers had already proven that. But when Shaft opened in theaters on July 2, 1971, it gave Black America its first male action hero who was so confident, so on top of his game, he was simply too busy being cool to be a victim, and that was a guy worth emulating.
There are plenty of well-dressed black men in Shaft, the story (and we’re using the term “story” loosely here) of John Shaft, a New York City detective hired by the Harlem mob boss to get his kidnapped daughter back from the Italian mafia. The mobsters predictably wear tailored suits and fedoras with cigars permanently affixed between their fingers; the street-smart members of “the movement” whom Shaft recruits to help him are stylish in a working class, beatnik sort of way. No one, but no one, however, rocks it like Richard Roundtree as the title character, with his tight turtleneck sweaters, three-quarter-length leather jacket and the flat-fronted straight-leg pants bestowed with the special job of giving his athletic ass a big ‘ol bear hug. (This was apparently his officewear. For serious ass-kicking, he changed into leather pants. Dig?)
Most importantly, unlike most black male movie characters before him, John Shaft wasn’t a slave or a criminal. “I know Shaft’s a fantasy person, a fictional person,” Roundtree told The New York Times in 1972, “but the image kids see of him on the screen is of a black man who is for once a winner.” Shaft gave young black men a way to dress that filled the empty place between the stereotypes: The style was smart but not white; hip but not militant. Shaft didn’t live on the right side or the wrong side of the law. He transcended it.
“There are very few black people to my knowledge who have been idolized the way John Shaft has,” Roundtree said. “Kids are running around in black leather jackets and are swaggering—that whole Shaft number, man.”
The movie didn’t have to be good for it to be effective. Directed by photographer Gordon Parks, it was roundly criticized for being thin on plot and about as deep as a rain puddle. Still, it was entertaining enough to justify blowing a few bucks on a Saturday night. “Everybody knows you can’t make a private-eye movie anymore,” ho-hummed a New York Times reviewer upon the movie’s release. “But if you could make a private-eye movie, making it black might be a good idea.”
True, if they hadn’t “made it black,” it probably wouldn’t have awesome dialogue like this:
Dorky white cop: “Hey, where the hell are you going, Shaft?”
Shaft: “To get laid, where the hell are you going?”
And then you’d be miffed you just spent your manicure money on a total snoozer, if your boyfriend hadn’t paid. But now we’re heading into the whole blaxploitation issue, and as tempting as Foxy Brown’s smokin’ leathersploitation is to discuss, today’s not the day.
By August 1972, enough films borrowing from the empowered John Shaft image had cropped up that Ebony magazine published an extensive exploration of the trend “The Black Man as Movie Hero: New films offer a different male image,” flanked by ads for Afro-Gro and Wate-On, just in case your hair wasn’t nappy enough or your ass wasn’t as big and black as it ought to be. Black pride wasn’t just political, it was becoming fashionable to be black—really black. “I’m a militant Uncle Tom black Negro super nigger,” Roundtree exclaimed to the NYT. The 1970s marked a turning point for black style, and Shaft helped announce it.
Photos courtesy of MGM Studios.
Cinemode is OTDIF’s ongoing compilation of the world’s most stylish films, a must-see list for fans of fashion. From Klute to Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Shaft, some of the greatest style inspiration comes from the characters and costumes in film. Bookmark Cinemode and check back often to read the growing list. The reviews, written with an eye specifically toward fashion, are added to On This Day In Fashion on the anniversary of the film’s release date.