Book review: The World of Shaft

The World of Shaft

You might remember the news last year that New Line pictures had acquired the rights to do yet another film remake featuring the iconic character of John Shaft. If so, you may also remember the ensuring controversy that erupted over plans to make said film a comedy, including an open letter protesting the move by  award winning journalist, David F Walker.

I am not sure at what stage the proposal Shaft remake is at, but I totally agree with Walker in his introduction to Steve Aldous’s recently released guide to the character, ‘When author Ernest Tidyman’s book Shaft was first published in 1971, and director Gordon Parks’ cinematic adaption followed a year later, a new era of representation began in American pop culture.’

The World of Shaft attempts to chronicle the cultural phenomena that is the ex-juvenile delinquent, Vietnam Vet, New York private eye known as Shaft. From the character’s origins via the pen of white ex-newspaperman Tidyman to the, in my opinion, rather average 2000 cinematic remake, this is an exhaustive examination of every aspect of the character and his various manifestations.

Shaft emerged from a combination of Tidyman’s desperation to make it as a writer and, as he put it in an interview, his “awareness of both social and literary situations in a changing city. There are winners, survivors and losers in the New York scheme of things. It was time for a black winner, whether he was a private detective or an obstetrician.”

Aldous starts with a brief overview of the turbulent race politics of US in the 1960s, before going on to Tidyman’s career as a newspaper reporter, culminating in a stint at the prestigious New York Times. After quitting over a disagreement with management, he became a freelancer, trying his hand at writing stories for the men’s magazine market and penning his first novel, a hippie influenced pulp, Flower Power, which appeared in 1968. That book hardly set the world on fire, but his next effort, Shaft, did. Sensing he had a hit on his hands, Tidyman circulated the book to various film studios and it was optioned while still in galley form.

Aldous provides a detailed examination of each of the seven Shaft novels, including the final one, The Last Shaft, only published in the UK in 1977, in which the lead character is killed by a mugger in the final scene. He overviews the films starring Richard Roundtree, Shaft (1971), Shaft’s Big Score (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973), the 2000, remake, as well as the short lived TV show, also starring Roundtree, which ran from 1973-74. He also looks at the Shaft newspaper comic and Tidyman’s post Shaft Hollywood career, the highlight of which was his Oscar for the script of The French Connection (1971).

Lest this not be enough detail for you, there are also sections the supporting characters of Shaft’s world and a fascinating section on Shaft’s New York, the various locations that Tidyman set his stories in.

Aldous’s writing style is workman like – much like Tidyman – and the focus of the book is squarely on detail rather than flair. That said, he covers every aspect of the character and the people who brought him to life on the page and screen. In the process, he delivers some great nuggets of information(for example, Yaphet Kotto was originally envisaged for the part of John Shaft).

This book is a must read for any fan of the Shaft books or movies, and scholars of seventies pulp fiction and cinema.

You can buy The World of Shaft, by Steve Aldous, at McFarland Books here or on Amazon here.

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