For many years there has been a myth surrounding the origins of the classic blaxploitation film Shaft. A long-running story has laid claim to the fact that Shaft had been in development at MGM with a white actor in the lead role, and that Richard Roundtree wasn’t cast until after the success of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. This story is part of the larger legend of Melvin Van Peebles, the maverick filmmaker responsible for Sweetback, and certainly has a nice ring to it. Unfortunately, it is not true.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the third film from Van Peebles, was independently financed (partially by Bill Cosby), and released in April 1971. The film was embraced by the black community, especially by the Black Panther Party, and eventually went on to become a huge box office success, earning over $15 million (on a budget of about $150,000), and becoming one of the most successful indie films of all time. Shaft was released in July of 1971 (and earned over $20 million on a budget of just over $1 million).
If the story of John Shaft initially being a white character, and then changed to black after the success of Sweetback is to be believed, it means that among other things the movie was cast, produced, filmed, edited, scored and released in about two months (and not even Larry Cohen, director of Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem, can pull that off). The truth is that Shaft was filmed in New York City in early 1971 (between January and March), and that Roundtree had been cast after a very long and very public casting process. Many other actors had been considered for the role of Shaft, including James Earl Jones and Ron O’Neal, as well as singer Isaac Hayes (who would compose the Oscar-winning score), before Roundtree, a model with limited acting experience was cast.
It’s important to keep in mind that the character of John Shaft in Ernest Tidyman’s original novel was always black, just as it’s important to note that MGM had already had a huge hit in 1970 with Cotton Comes to Harlem, which was directed by Ossie Davis (who was offered the chance to direct Shaft). MGM had an earlier hit with 1968’s The Split starring Jim Brown, and along with United Artist (which produced many of Sidney Poitier’s films) had already begun to recognize the potential in catering to a black audience, which was how the blaxploitation movement took off. All of these factors make it necessary to call bullshit on the assertion that John Shaft was cast as a black man only after the success of Sweetback. It sounds cool, and it makes the impact of Sweetback seem that much more resonant, but it is simply not true.