Richard Roundtree in 'Shaft's Big Score!', directed by Gordon Parks, 1972. Courtesy of MGM/Photofest.
Perhaps the quintessential Blaxploitation hero, John Shaft was immortalized in a series of films that began with 1971's Shaft, directed by Gordon Parks, Sr. Based on the novel by Ernest Tidyman and starring actor Richard Roundtree, the first Shaft film traces a few days in the life of the titular private detective. At the movie's outset, Shaft is called upon by a Harlem gangster to locate the criminal's kidnapped daughter. Though unafraid to call on the police when he requires their help, Shaft generally operates above the law and assembles a team of skilled mercenaries to aid him in his business. After a series of run-ins with rival gangs and the Mafia, not to mention a handful of beautiful women, Shaft saves the day in an exciting (and violent) hotel raid.
Shaft was a major commercial successful upon its release in theaters and produced two 1970s sequels, Shaft's Big Score and Shaft in Africa. CBS made a short-lived series of TV movies starring a more straitlaced John Shaft, and Tidyman wrote a number of novels that followed Shaft's continued adventures in Manhattan and around the globe. The first Shaft was also a critical darling, and its iconic soundtrack, composed and performed by Isaac Hayes, won Golden Globe, Grammy, BAFTA, and Academy awards. Shaft was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress in 2000, the same year that saw the release of a third sequel, in which Samuel L. Jackson portrayed John Shaft's nephew. Though Jackson played an NYPD detective in this latest Shaft film, the character's pedigree seemed to strike a chord with audiences, who made the film a box office success.