`Shaft's' Big Lure He May Not Be A Sex Machine Anymore, But We Can Still Dig Him. As "Shaft\\" Goes The Major-motion-picture Route, Black Artists Reflect On His '70s \"blaxploitation" Roots.

Posted: June 18, 2000

"Who's the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks?"

Not Shaft.

Never mind that the Oscar-winning "Theme From Shaft" - once again performed by singer-composer Isaac Hayes - affirms detective John Shaft's amorous prowess in the opening credits of John Singleton's just-released update of the 1971 blaxploitation classic.

This time, Shaft, played by a cool, cagey Samuel L. Jackson, goes no further than a flirtatious front-stoop exchange with a single mom.

"Where's the sex?" wonders Richard Roundtree, who made his screen debut as the leather-clad ladies' man in the original film, and appears in the remake as Shaft's Uncle John. "Especially when you think of the lyrics of Isaac Hayes' song . . . in terms of sex, and the lack of it, someone dropped the ball."

It wasn't supposed to be this way. When Singleton - who was nominated for an Oscar for his 1991 urban drama, Boyz N the Hood - first got the notion to redo Shaft, he intended to feast on blaxploitation's three essential food groups: violence, lots of gratuitous sex, and throbbing music.

"My original conception was to make a lower-budget kind of film, like one of those Samuel Arkoff down-home kind of action films," says the 32-year-old director, referring to the B-movie producer whose titles included Blacula and Terror From the Year 5000. But along the way, producer Scott Rudin (The Truman Show) and Paramount Pictures got involved. Things changed.

"This is a major motion picture," Singleton explains. "And no one wants to offend the female audience. If I'd gotten [the sex] in there people would be saying, 'Oh, yeah, you're misogynist.' "

Which - along with its $50 million-plus budget and a top-flight cast that also includes Jeffrey Wright, Toni Collette and Christian Bale - is why the new Shaft is less a "revival of" than an "homage to" the blaxploitation genre.

Like a raft of recent films, rap videos, hip-hop discs, TV ads, and even couture collections, Shaft salutes the early '70s action films that thrilled African American audiences with images of empowered black heroes wearing killer clothes, wooing killer women, and sticking it to the man, be it white cops, the white court system, or the white mob.

"There's no doubt that the blaxploitation boom of the '70s highly influenced today's black filmmakers, actors, musicians, and culture in general," notes Mark Weddington, who runs Solid!, an online blaxploitation journal (http://www.cathouse2000.com) and is compiling a guide to blaxploitation films.

Chitlin' Circuit comic Rudy Ray Moore, producer and star of 1979's Disco Godfather, is sampled in tracks by Ol' Dirty Bastard and Big Daddy Kane. Blaxploitation goddess Pam Grier - who starred in Quentin Tarantino's savvy salute to the genre, Jackie Brown - played Dr. Dre's girlfriend in Snoop Doggy Dogg's "It's a Doggy Dogg World" video. Street slang first celebrated in '70s movies such as Superfly and Hell Up in Harlem - solid, mack, game, ho - remains part of the fabric of hip-hop culture.

And as Allen and Albert Hughes' documentary, American Pimp (due here this summer) attests, the whole '70s blaxploitation thang has been heartily embraced by 21st-century sex procurers. The brothers' film depicts dudes decked out in wild furs and animal skins cruising big-city streets in customized Cadillacs, acknowledging the influence of '70s ghetto capers The Mack and Willie Dynamite while they lord over their harem of hookers.

"In certain circles - fans of the Tarantino movies, the hip-hop crowd - they really like a lot of those films and those exaggerated, super-bad black heroes," says Singleton, who, like many African American filmmakers, is uncomfortable with the term blaxploitation. "[But] there were only a few of them that were any good at all."

So what exactly is a blaxploitation picture?

According to Ira Konigsberg's The Complete Dictionary of Film, examples exist in virtually every movie genre of the '70s. What they have in common is that they were "made with black performers and aimed at a black audience, though generally made by white producers."

By which definition, Martin Lawrence's current comedy hit, Big Momma's House - with its cartoonish character types, cross-dressing black detective, and echoes of '70s Afro-farces like Uptown Saturday Night - qualifies. Or does it?

"I don't see it that way at all," says David T. Friendly, who is white, and is producer of the Lawrence comedy as well as of Eddie Murphy's smash Doctor Dolittle. "We never really set out to make a black film per se. . . . Stars like Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence and a handful of others are way beyond any particular quadrant. These are crossover stars who attract huge audiences in every ethnic group. When you talk about the movies in the '70s, those movies were much more urban and were specifically targeted to the black audience."

Actors like Roundtree, and Melvin Van Peebles - the African American director whose '71 success, Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song, is credited with Shaft for ushering in the era of blaxploitation - have trouble with those who focus on race when discussing movies of the period.

"I call them good or bad films, and that's where it ends for me," says the original Shaft star, who is currently shooting the Soul Food series for Showtime. "I never hear people say 'white exploitation film.' "

Van Peebles, reached in Paris, where he is promoting his French comedy-drama, Bellyful, says, "I never understood the term, exactly." Nonetheless, he declares with no false modesty, "Sweet Sweetback actually started the whole thing, because even though I personally don't see it as a blaxploitation film, the money that it made gave birth to the genre. . . . It also ushered in the whole era of the independent film, so I'm pretty much the godfather, in the same way, of The Blair Witch Project as I am of Shaft."

Darnell Hunt, director of African American studies and a professor of cultural sociology at the University of Southern California, confesses to mixed feelings about blaxploitation and whom it benefited.

"Hollywood was going through a slump, and those movies really did kick the motor and get it going there - a lot of money was made off of those films. At the same time, they were tapping into a real need among African American audiences, in particular, to have African American characters as heroes. . . .

"They were kind of serving two purposes," continues Hunt, who just completed a Screen Actors Guild-commissioned study on the portrayal of African Americans on TV. "They were exploiting black images, but at the same time they were feeding images to black communities that they were hungry for."

In an interview in January, when Next Friday, his follow to the inner-city comedy Friday, was released, rapper-actor Ice Cube recalled the feeling of empowerment the black-themed films gave him as a child. "Look at Stepin Fetchit and those dudes," he said. "That's blaxploitation. At least in the '70s, up until now, we get to . . . be the hero in the movie. . . . I've never thought the movies of the '70s, like Shaft, were blaxploitation movies. I thought these are movies where I can see myself on the screen and feel good about it. Friday's the same way."

Comic and actor Shawn Wayans - who made his screen debut in his brother Keenen Ivory Wayans' 1988 blaxploitation parody, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka - also recognizes the lineage between the '70s pictures and today's crack-dealing, crime-fighting, babe-heavy urban flicks. "Whatever you want to call them," he said of the low-budget, youth-oriented films, "not much has changed. The tradition lives."

Indeed, whether you think the term blaxploitation epitomizes pop-cult cool or is condescending to African Americans, films such as those in the crass, sexed-up cinematic oeuvre of rapper-producer Master P (whose 1998 topless-babe comedy, I Got the Hook-Up, featured "Theme From Shaft") are carrying the torch. Where once they were shown in movie houses and drive-ins, nowadays - like sex and action pics of all stripes - they're more likely to be found in the straight-to-video market. Even those with a theatrical release make most of their money in video. That's where Master P's Foolish and Hot Boyz took off.

"The films that Master P makes, those are like the old blaxploitation films, and everybody loves them," says Shaft helmer Singleton. "I like some of those films. . . . I think it's pretty much the same thing as the films from the '70s, the same quality, the same exaggerated stereotypes. And, you know, a lot of that gratuitous sex."

Steven Rea's e-mail address is srea@phillynews.com

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