Three generations of Shaft converge in this year’s Shaft, the fifth entry and second revival of the classic Blaxploitation series that started in 1973. Starring Richard Roundtree (the original John Shaft), Samuel L. Jackson (the son of Shaft), and Jessie Usher (the youngest Shaft), Shaft (2019) has the three private detectives unearth the mystery behind the suspicious death of an army veteran.
Despite the titular character’s continued popularity and the longevity of his unforgettable theme song, there are some things about John Shaft that were never mentioned in the movies. So before or after watching the newest Shaft movie, here are 10 facts about the man himself that you may not have even heard of before.
10 Shaft Sr. Worked With A Real Mobster
In the first two Shaft movies, Shaft finds himself begrudgingly working with the powerful Harlem mobster Bumpy Jonas to get the job done. Bumpy may seem like any other criminal in the series, but he’s actually based on a real-life gangster.
The real Bumpy was Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, who ruled Harlem from the ‘30s to the ‘60s. Most people know him from the crime-biopic American Gangster, where Bumpy (portrayed by Clarence Williams) mentored the up-and-coming crimelord Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), who took over Johnson’s drug scene in the ‘70s.
9 Shaft Sr. Stopped A Slave Ring In Africa
The Shaft series is a collection of politically and racially-charged neo-noir films based in New York, and yet the third installment broke the mold so hard that it felt like another movie altogether.
Mimicking the eccentric mold of the James Bond franchise (i.e. fancy gadgets, globe-trotting, and ladies), Shaft In Africa has the private eye stop a modern-day slave ring by flirting his way into an African tribe. The entertainingly silly sequel was a far cry from the previous movies’ grit and nuance and is rightfully never mentioned ever again.
8 Shaft Sr. Went To TV
Following his cinematic success, Shaft moved to episodic storytelling when the series was licensed into a TV show in 1973. Roundtree reprised his role, with Shaft now working alongside the police force instead of against them – a change that many consider being detrimental to Shaft’s entire being.
The series only aired seven episodes before it was canceled. Some guessed that this was because Shaft was overshadowed by Hawkins – another police procedural show that was indistinguishable from the television-friendly Shaft. Roundtree has since distanced himself from the series, expressing nothing but disdain for it.
7 Shaft II Was Supposed To Have A Franchise
When the Shaft franchise was revived in the new Millennium, Paramount had big plans for the private eye and was planning to expand the reboot into a series. Director John Singleton wanted to send Shaft to Jamaica, where he would battle drug lords in a sequel not too different from Shaft In Africa.
Due to the revival’s underwhelming box office returns and Samuel L. Jackson’s disappointment in the movie, the planned follow-up was scrapped. The franchise would lay dormant for another protracted period of time before the release of this year’s revival.
6 Isaac Hayes Wanted To Be Shaft
Richard Roundtree, a former model, may have been an unconventional choice for a hardboiled private detective but to producers, he was more plausible than Isaac Hayes himself: the man and voice behind Shaft’s immortal theme song.
Hayes revealed that he only agreed to compose the Shaft score after producer Joel Freeman promised him an audition for the titular role. The audition never manifested, but Hayes kept his end of the deal regardless. Things turned in his favor, with the song becoming an instant hit and Hayes being the first African American to win the Oscar for Best Original Song.
5 The Django Unchained Bloodline
Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s homage to Blaxploitation cinema and Spaghetti Westerns, focuses on Django’s quest to rescue his beloved wife Broomhilda von Shaft. Her last name may sound like a cute tribute to the private eye but if Tarantino had it his way, she would be the matriarch of Shaft’s family.
In interviews, the filmmaker said that he considers Broomhilda to be the first Shaft and that her bloodline eventually sired John Shaft. The Shaft movies don’t acknowledge the Shaft name’s pre-Civil War heritage, making Django Unchained its unofficial prequel.
4 Shaft II Was Shaft Sr.’s Nephew
When Shaft was revived in 2000 not as a reboot but as a continuation, Jackson portrayed the detective’s nephew. But in the 2019 sequel, Jackson’s character outright says that he’s the son Richard Roundtree’s iconic role.
This retcon is more of a correction than a sudden change because Jackson was meant to be Shaft’s son since 2000, but producers demanded that Singleton reduce Roundtree’s role and relegate him to being Jackson’s uncle. The new movie ignores this confusing family tree, which is probably for the best.
3 Shaft Sr. Died In 1975
Even if he had only three movies to his name, John Shaft quickly became an immortal cinematic hero in the eyes of audiences. This happened despite the fact that he actually died in the books that inspired his cinematic debut.
After seven Shaft books, Ernest Tidyman killed the titular detective in The Last Shaft, where he fights the Mafia one last time on his home turf. The book was well-received and regarded as a fitting farewell for the character, though Shaft lived on beyond the bounds of Tidyman’s printed words.
2 A White Man Created John Shaft
John Shaft is a proudly African American legend in pop culture but ironically, he was born from a white journalist’s mind. The original Shaft was based on a novel written by Ernest Tidyman, who wrote for The New York Post and Times before working full-time as an author and screenwriter.
Tidyman also wrote the screenplay for the first movie and its sequel Shaft’s Big Score. He also wrote the screenplays High Plains Drifter and The French Connection, which won him the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
1 The Legend Of White Shaft
One of the strangest urban legends surrounding the Shaft series is the belief that he was meant to be a white man. According to filmmaker Melvin Van Peebeles, MGM planned to cast a white actor as Shaft but changed its mind after seeing the success of his movie Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song – the very first Blaxploitation film.
This myth was debunked, with critics saying Peebeles exaggerated the significance of his otherwise landmark film. The claim even got so out of hand that some thought that the original novel starred a white detective – which is obviously not the case.