Tuesday, 28 September 2010
SHAFT with RICHARD ROUNDTREE IN CONVERSATION AT THE NFT
“Where you going Shaft?” asks honky cop to the private investigator out on the freezing New York sidewalk. “To get laid. Where you going?” And with an exaggerated laugh he saunters off leaving said cop looking useless and impotent.
It’s a great exchange and one of many in a film I’ve not seen for so long I’d forgotten how good it is. So it was doubly cool not only to see it at the NFT on Sunday, but for John Shaft, actor Richard Roundtree, to be there too.
Can you dig it?
Gone is the immaculate fro, gone is the bushy moustache, gone is the leather trench coat, and most definitely gone are the ball breaking black leather strides, but Richard Roundtree is still the man. Albeit a 68 year old man in a conservative blue blazer over a canary yellow v-neck sweater. But there’s enough in his chat with DJ and presenter Iyare Igiehorn to let you know he still ain’t a dude to be messed with. For well over an hour he’s happy to yak about the Shaft films but when the topics stray into more personal or touchy areas he stays resolutely tight lipped.
He starts by explaining how he came to play the role: he had done a little theatre acting he was mainly employed as a model but put in for the role anyway. During an interview with photographer/writer turned producer Gordon Parks, Parks puffed on his cigar and pointed to an advert in a magazine on his desk. “We want somebody who looks like that”. That somebody was Roundtree himself. Parks gave him his break and throughout the interview Roundtree heaps mountains of praise on a man that clearly had a huge influence on not just his work but his life as well. One audience member later rates Parks up there with Duke Ellington and Paul Robeson in the pantheons of great 20th Century black cultural figures.
Igiehorn, who refreshingly for this type of event, gallantly tries to stick to fan type questions – rather than technical filmmaking questions – asks how he dealt with suddenly being an unexpected star after the huge success of Shaft in 1971. Roundtree thinks carefully. “I didn’t have to use toilet paper. You know what I’m saying?”. I’m thinking he was such a big cheese he had bitches wipe his hairless butt (more of that later) but he was trying to politely say he believed the hype and thought his shit didn’t stink.
Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?
Without using the words Igiehorn tries to ask about the superstar lifestyle: the parties, the women, the drugs. Roundtree is having none of it. “The 70s were great” he says. That’s it. “Come on man, you can’t leave it at that?” But he does. “Lean on him” shouts someone. “You want me to lean on Shaft?” Still no dice. Attempts to extract juicy gossip about likes of Pam Grier are met with an impenetrable silence and a steely look.
They say this cat Shaft is bad mother –
We do though get a glimmer into one party though, held by Miles Davis. “Good job”, says Miles, “but you gotta learn to say motherfucker”.
Shut your mouth.
A fight scene from Shaft’s Big Score (1972) is shown, as is a bonkers scene from Shaft In Africa (1973) where a naked Shaft waking up next to a horse and then – still naked – engages in a spot of stick fighting before burying himself in sand. “What did you think when you read that in the script?” he’s asked. Roundtree doesn’t really answer but does say that Shaft In Africa is his favourite Shaft film as it was only then he felt comfortable with the role. And by the look of it comfortable prancing around waving his big stick in the air; although he had no idea his daughter’s classmates would discover the film years later.
The thorny issue of the blaxploitation genre – its portrayal of pimps, junkies and whores received negative vibes from within the black community - is touched upon and Roundtree how he’s met people in Mississippi and beyond who’ve told him how empowering the films have been to them and how he gets angry when people talk about exploitation. Watching Shaft again and seeing such a strong, cool, no nonsense, intelligent black man in a leading role you can see his point. And as Igiehorn remarks “it’s a movie where the black guy lives to the end!”
An audience question about the short lived TV series of Shaft is met with an obvious understatement of “I was not overly enamoured with it” and the Samuel L. Jackson remake received equally short thrift “needless to say I was underwhelmed”. Although he didn’t quite say it, it was apparent he was upset Jackson got the gig instead of him, which contrasted with Isaac Hayes’s reaction when he thought he’d get the original Shaft role but was still the “consummate gentleman” and such a “mellow human being”.
After a career that includes eight pages of an acting CV, Roundtree is forever going to be known as Shaft and expresses some regret almost all his subsequent roles have been as authority figures (not hard to see why), and leaves with the line “sometimes you just got to ride the horse in the direction it’s going”.