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It might seem counterintuitive that the shared icon of masculine aspiration for a group of Southern, white, middle-class, suburban kids growing up in the late 80s and early 90s in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was “the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks,” Shaft.  

You’re damn right.

And yet my friends and I must have watched the VHS copy that we initially rented, and soon purchased, dozens of times.  From the moment Richard Roundtree walks up the subway steps in his brown leather trenchcoat to the funky hi-hat and wah-wah guitar that leads off Isaac Hayes's theme for the movie, we were intrigued.  A moment later, when he flips off a cab driver while yelling “Up yours” as he crosses a street, confident in the knowledge that whatever it is that is driving him to wherever he is going precludes the flow of traffic, we were hooked.

I remember exactly how it happened.  It started, as did many of the things I discovered in adolescence and retained in adulthood, with my dad.  One hot summer day, he mentioned that while he was stationed at Cam Ranh Airforce Base during the Vietnam War, there were only two air-conditioned buildings offering respite from the heat and humidity.  The first, he said, was the library.  The second was the theater, where he remembered watching Shaft during his deployment.  That name, Shaft, resonated, as did the rhetorical question my father asked us that day:

“Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?”

A trip to the local video rental placeno, not the Blockbuster, which was further from home, past the mall and next to the TCBY place—revealed that our go-to rental for that period, The Last Waltz, was unavailable.  A decision needed to be made, and I suggested Shaft.  

“Shaft?” someone asked.

You’re damn right.

I can't now recall our assumptions about what the movie's plot would be.  I certainly don't remember thinking that this film would leave a profound mark on our personal aesthetics and sensibilities.  The foundations were laid during the course of that first viewing. During the brief period when I was in college but had not yet moved out of my parent’s house, the two posters that adorned the walls of my bedroom were a picture of Dexter Gordon at the Royal Roost and the original theatrical one-sheet for Shaft.  "Shaft's his name," it said. "Shaft's his game."

It didn’t occur to me until much later that the world I lived in was, in many ways, a world shaped by the movie I had just 'discovered.' The character of John Shaft, as portrayed by Richard Roundtree, broke new ground when the film was released in 1971, with its portrayal of a Black leading man who was not just central to the narrative but commanded it with a blend of charisma, confidence, and self-assurance rarely afforded to Black characters in mainstream media up until then. Historically, Black actors were often relegated to roles that were subservient or comical—sidekicks or stereotypes that reinforced the racial hierarchies of the time. Shaft, however, was the antithesis of these constraints. He was a protagonist who was not only formidable and fearless but also possessed a magnetic appeal and moral complexity that challenged viewers to rethink the archetype of the American hero.

This representation had been revolutionary during an era when the civil rights movement had only recently achieved significant legislative victories, and America was grappling with deep-seated racial divisions. In portraying Shaft as a stylish, savvy, and sexually powerful detective who navigated the urban landscape with authority and autonomy, the film not only offered a new kind of cinematic hero but also projected a vision of Black empowerment that resonated beyond the silver screen. This shift heralded a wave of 'blaxploitation' films that, despite their critiques, expanded roles for Black actors and brought to the forefront narratives centered on the experiences and struggles of Black Americans.

It was a movie that was more than mere entertainment. Shaft challenged the status quo and initiated a dialogue about race, representation, and resistance that has left an indelible mark on the landscape of cinema, continuing to influence filmmakers and audiences alike. Without Richard Roundtree as Shaft, there is no Chadwick Boseman as the Black Panther. The core of their appeal is similar—they embody empowerment, dignity, and resilience in the face of adversity. Shaft was not only the pioneer but remains a seminal figure in cinematic history, setting a standard for character depth and cultural significance that is challenging for any role or character to surpass. The character remains so strong that it has engendered two sequels starring one of my favorite actors, Chattanooga's favorite son, Samuel L. Jackson.

That’s what it did for cinema and for popular culture. Here’s what it did for us: we saw Roundtree's Shaft as the epitome of cool. Because John Shaft is disillusioned with the man, with the culture, with the system, and with the police detectives he works closely with, he resonated with our terminally disaffected generation. But beyond that, he resonated because he was a man of substance that we all aspired to. He was strong, but he was also smart. He was fierce, but he was also funny. And he carried himself with an assured confidence that seemed always natural. This wasn't swagger or machismo; this was not just what a man looked like; this was what THE man looked like.

For a group of suburban, middle-class white kids growing up in the deep South, Shaft’s defiance and self-sufficiency struck a particular chord. Our daily lives were worlds away from the gritty streets of Harlem depicted in the film, but the notion of carving out one's identity on one's own terms had universal appeal. Shaft's independence and his unapologetic way of navigating a world that often seemed rigged against him provided a form of escapism and inspiration. It was not just his style or his cool demeanor that captivated us, but his ability to command respect in a society fraught with tensions and divisions.  We didn’t face the challenges that John Shaft did, but whatever challenges we did face, we wanted to face them like we imagined Shaft would.

This character, who stood up against corruption and injustice, who was both a lover and a fighter, presented a new kind of role model. Unlike the cowboys and the traditional heroes in earlier movies, who often embodied a type of rugged individualism still aligned with mainstream values, Shaft was a true rebel with a cause. It wasn't just his actions that challenged the system, but his very existence. How he faced these challenges in this system, sprinkled with wit and a sharp sense of justice, taught us about resilience and integrity in the face of adversity.

Moreover, Shaft's influence extended into how we viewed the fabric of our own communities. While we could never fully grasp the racial dynamics Shaft navigated, his interactions with both allies and antagonists showcased the complexities of trust, loyalty, and personal alliances. These dynamics transcended the immediate conflicts he faced, highlighting a broader, more intimate struggle with relationships and personal integrity in a divided world. These were lessons that transcended the boundaries of race and class, urging us to look beyond our insulated suburban experiences to the wider world around us, with all its conflicts and possibilities.

In essence, Shaft helped shape our perceptions of what it meant to be cool, to be just, and to be fiercely independent. He was more than just a character on screen; he was a symbol of the kind of men we aspired to become—men of principle, courage, and unwavering self-assurance.

In October of 2023, Richard Roundtree died from pancreatic cancer.  He was an actor, a trailblazer, and an icon. His family organized an estate auction this April, and among the items auctioned were several of Roundtree’s hats, including some worn on screen throughout his storied career.

Last year, when I received the Western Heritage Award for Best Magazine Article from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum for a piece on Texas Jack Omohundro, I found myself reflecting on my own authenticity. "I always question if I can pull off a cowboy hat," I admitted openly, "I'm no cowboy, and I worry about being seen as a poser, an outsider, a pretender." My roots aren’t Western, but Southern, and despite my frequent travels through the American West—from the rugged terrains of Montana to New Mexico—I've always felt like an outsider to the cowboy culture I admire and write about.

When last year’s Western Heritage Awards ceremony ended, I tucked my Stetson back into its box, contemplating the nature of authenticity. "Maybe when you win a Western Heritage Award, you can wear whatever hat you want," I mused, thinking back on the old adage that the clothes don't make the man. Shaft was cool in his leather coat, but not because of his leather coat.

That reflection on identity and authenticity took a fascinating turn this year when I won an auction for a cowboy hat owned and worn by Richard Roundtree during the filming of the 1986 television show Outlaws. In the show, Roundtree played Isaiah "Ice" McAdams, an escaped slave turned clever outlaw and now a private detective, much like a Wild West John Shaft.

The cast of Outlaws. Top row, left to right: Rod Taylor, Christine Belford, Charles Napier. Bottom row, left to right: Patrick Houser, Richard Roundtree, William Lucking.

This hat, crafted by Rand’s Custom Hats in Billings, Montana, and kept in Roundtree’s personal collection until his passing, carries with it a little bit of his legacy of defiance and cool. I wore it to this year’s Western Heritage Awards.

Does wearing Richard Roundtree’s cowboy hat impart any of his legendary mojo on me? Logically, the answer is no. A hat is just a piece of apparel, and this one is just an amalgamation of beaver fur felt, leather sweatband, and horsehair hatband. It’s just an object. But do I feel just a little bit cooler, stand just a little taller, walk with just a little more swagger, and feel just a little more confident knowing that this isn’t just a cowboy hat, but the cowboy hat that belonged to Richard Roundtree—to Shaft?

You’re damn right.

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