It is inevitable that your childhood heroes die. However inevitable it may be, there is still a profound sadness. Richard Roundtree, best known for his iconic and influential role John Shaft in the Gordon Parks directed and Oscar winning hit movie Shaft has passed on.
And while the obits and righteous memorials pour in, there is something that many will overlook. And that is how this movie Shaft, with all its sexism, misogyny, dated tropes and questionable casting choices, not only changed Hollywood, influenced several generations of Black filmmakers, inspired countless Hip Hop artists but predictably was culturally appropriated by many (looking at you Quentin Taratino).
And even with these flaws or maybe because of them, Shaft was a hero to me. You have to remember that in 1971, positive depictions of Black people on the big screen were few and far between. And a Black character on the screen that openly despised law enforcement was unheard of. Imagine the delight that I as a young Black child experienced when I saw someone who looked like me, standing tall, unbowed and defiant, giving a white police officer the middle finger while dressed in a leather jacket. At a time when Black defiance to white law enforcement was almost always followed by a beatdown and arrest at a minimum.
For me Shaft is the big screen equivalent of blowing up stereotypes and owning your own narrative. No longer would Black peoples be defined as white Hollywood dictated. On the day that movie premiered, everything changed.
Today I pay respects to the person who brought that character to life for me and countless others who look like me. For without the amazing directing by Gordon Parks, the Oscar winning soundtrack by Isaac Hayes and the acting by Richard Roundtree there would be no Shaft.