Black film viewers long had issues with the way in which the black audience had to view Hollywood films. Cultural theorist Manthia Diawara once wrote about this and referred to these film viewers as “black spectators,” or "resisting spectators," as they were unable to identify with Hollywood's images of black characters in narrative cinema. The emergence of the Blaxploitation film genre in the early 1970s sought to rectify this problem.
For the first time in cinema, white filmgoers were now being asked to put critical judgment aside and identify with the black heroes on screen, much in the same way as Hollywood films had been demanding black spectators to do for years. Blaxploitation, or black exploitation, films stood as a “racial other” to the classic Hollywood narrative. Traditionally, in other films the black spectator was deprived of being able to identify with any black characters as being believable. Hollywood filmmakers were portraying black characters as less threatening to white characters, as well as to white audiences. Black customs and culture were racially stripped and isolated or otherwise placed into narratives where they challenged white society and came up short. This narrative pattern had longed denied black spectators the satisfaction met by "spectatorial identification," and left the conclusion of a film as an unclear experience. That is, these film conclusions resulted in a philosophical “disidentification” for some black audiences, or identification by some with many questions left unanswered.
Blaxploitation burst onto the scene in 1971, partly in reaction to Hollywood's inability to adequately represent the black spectator in an approach that did not emphasize white superiority. Some accused the genre of the perpetuation of white stereotypes about black people but the films were at their core about urban black experiences, black empowerment, and identification for black audiences. Blaxploitation films leveled the playing field for black spectators and gave a voice to the black experience in 1971's Shaft, arguably the first film of the new genre.
For example, near the beginning of the film there is a sequence where John Shaft (Richard Roundtree), a private investigator, aligned with his black neighborhood, has refused to give up any information to the white police detectives; detectives who fail to understand the nature of the streets. The sequence opens with a close-up shot of police detective Byron Leibowitz (Joseph Leon) criticizing the legitimacy of Shaft's story as to what was going on in a previous scene where a hired thug for Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) somehow managed to fall to his death from a window of Shaft's detective agency. As Leibowitz continues, the camera pulls back revealing Shaft sitting in profile at lower frame left, his left leg crossed over his right. He looks disinterested. Across from Shaft is Lt. Vic Androzzi (Charles Cioffi), sitting behind his desk which separates him from Shaft. Androzzi's right hand is rubbing his temple; he's been through this before and remains silent. Shaft isn't going to give up the information that Leibowitz demands. After a subtle request to Leibowitz to allow him to talk to him alone, Androzzi closes the door leaving him in the office with Shaft. Shaft is still sitting in profile in a chair in front of Androzzi's desk. Androzzi, standing over Shaft, places his hands in his pants pockets and settles down on the desk corner immediately adjacent to Shaft. Androzzi lowers his head as Shaft looks up at him derisively. Androzzi makes clear the serious nature of the situation; a man fell, or was thrown, to his death from Shaft's office, in his presence. Shaft expresses his confidence in Androzzi's ability to keep the police off his back. Androzzi explains that he can do that for Shaft but it is going to require some cooperation in return. Shaft remarks, "All the static and hassle in the world wouldn't make me sing a song for the police, Vic. No way, baby." The sequence continues with Androzzi almost pleading with Shaft to let him know what's going on and that he feels something big is brewing involving Harlem gangster, Bumpy Jonas. In a close-up, Shaft says, "Warms by black heart to see you so concerned about us minority folks." Cut to a medium shot of Androzzi, a look of frustration on his face as he lowers his head slightly and begins to roll his eyes, before answering, "Oh, come on Shaft! What is it with this black shit?", as the camera quick cuts back to Shaft turning away from Androzzi and looking down almost smiling. Reverse shot back to a close-up of Androzzi as he leans over his desk and retrieves something unseen, "Huh?", with a reverse shot back to a close-up of Shaft as Androzzi holds a black pen up to Shaft's face, "You ain't so black." Shaft turns his head slightly towards the camera, noticing the pen dangling in front of his face momentarily before looking up towards Androzzi responding, "And you ain't so white, baby," while holding up a white coffee cup to Androzzi's face. The sound of Shaft's laughter is heard as Androzzi backs away. Androzzi finally understands that he isn't going to get anywhere with Shaft. The scene continues with Androzzi attempting to strong arm Shaft before relegating himself to settle for a possible compromise as Shaft remarks, "I'll think about it," which will get Androzzi off his back for another forty-eight hours.
This sequence reinforces Shaft's ability to dominate the white detectives, all from the comfort of his seat. The detectives stand as they attempt to cajole information out of Shaft, but he remains seated comfortably. Normally, in a traditional Hollywood narrative film, whoever is standing displays dominance in the conversation, however, in this film the seated individual, our black hero, maintains control. As this verbal battle for dominance unfolds, the mise-en-scene of the sequence helps us understand the struggle that the main black character, Shaft, has to endure to work on a level playing field with his white counterparts. Androzzi places his hands in his pockets initially, already a signal that his position isn't as strong as he would suggest as this gesture gives off a feeling of a loss of confidence. The costuming further reinforces Shaft's position. Shaft is wearing a brown tweed suit with a tan turtleneck. Leibowitz is dressed in a navy blue suit with a light blue dress shirt and blue tie with white dots. Androzzi wears his grey suit, white shirt, and red tie. Shaft's suit and shirt are earth tones reminiscent of nature. This denotes a feeling of naturalness, unassuming; he tells you the way it is and that's the way it's going to be. Leibowitz attempts to control the conversation wearing his blue suit, long a symbol of power and authority, along with his blue tie, a so-called "power" tie. Androzzi's suit refers to his true nature as someone who can work with Shaft. The grey suit represents his neutrality; he is the buffer between the hard-lined Leibowitz and Shaft. Androzzi also wears a red tie, another "power" color and reaffirmation of strength, but it could also be a symbol of peace and cooperation, again showing his true colors, if you will, as someone who is not inflexible in his willingness to work with Shaft.
In this sequence, Leibowitz represents white dominance that opposes Shaft, the black protagonist. Androzzi straddles the line between the races, working for the police but also able to work within the confines of Shaft's boundaries. Shaft points out that Androzzi isn't so white so he might be able to deal with him. In fact, it appears that besides the current situation the two have a good relationship otherwise. This time Androzzi needs information but Shaft's good relations with the black community prevents him from total disclosure, which is how he is able to keep getting this information. Shaft is able to work with Androzzi, not so much that he is going to tell him everything, but just enough. Shaft feeds him just what he believes Androzzi needs to know, but not necessarily what Androzzi wants to know. Leibowitz was never going to get anywhere with Shaft because of his approach; he doesn't know how the game was played. Androzzi knows strong-armed tactics won't work. He even inquires from Shaft, "I'm not asking you to sell out, just tell me the name of the game so I know the rules."
This conversation between Shaft and Androzzi works to realize three objectives. Primarily the exchange recognizes the fact that neither of the men follows the conformist, or stereotypical, patterns of black & white, or even black vs. white. There is a working respect, even a friendship, between the two of them. Secondly, Shaft is pointing out the meaninglessness of the labels that we as a people put on one another; using the black color of the pen as a guide he's not that black, but looking at the white mug, Androzzi is not that white either. Both items are used to contrast skin color as a joke. Thirdly, it is revealed that in a narrow-minded and race-based society, the two men can maintain an apparent closeness, respect for one another, and ability to work together.
Even with this socio-political underlying layer, for black spectators the film can be seen as pure catharsis. For probably the first time, a black hero is seen in a major Hollywood picture, solving the crisis, saving the girl, killing the bad guys, all while keeping the police at bay so that they don't get in his way. As mentioned earlier, Shaft also spins the tables on the labels society puts on one another. Film scholar Richard Dyer once pointed out the inevitable associations that were always been made of white with light and safety, and black with dark and danger. With Shaft, we see this long-held view flipped as Shaft is black and dangerous, but he is also seen as a point of safety for the neighborhood. The police are white, but they are seen as dangerous and untrustworthy in the black community.
Shaft's last name, "Shaft" is phallic in nature and denotes power. Androzzi dangles the pen over his face, almost as if he was dangling his manhood in front of him. The pen itself casts a slight shadow as if also calling his manhood into question, by casting a shadow of doubt on it. Don’t get me started on the lieutenant’s name, Androzzi, the root of which is andros meaning male. When Shaft holds the cup up to Androzzi he is in effect countering his challenge to Shaft's manhood by likening Androzzi to the cup; a vessel, a metaphor for womanhood, an expression of femininity. Also, this time there is no shadow cast across Androzzi's face; as if there is no question in the validity of Shaft's challenge. This simple oral bartering was a battle for male dominance played out on a small scale and the significance was most likely not lost on black, or white, audiences.
As a white spectator, I couldn't fail to recognize the strength in Shaft's character and understood immediately that he was fighting for dominance in a society where he was born already at a disadvantage; a point he mentions in the film. I knew I was being asked to suspend any disbelief and buy into the strong black character of Shaft and I found nothing wrong with that. To all audiences, regardless of race, Shaft was defiant and in-your-face. To black spectators specifically, he represented potency and a determination to never back down; possibly the first true hero to black filmgoers. But that's on the surface. If we dig deeper we see Shaft was always his own man, distrustful of the white man, but also owing nothing to the black radical movement. He represented to the black community a hope for independence from stereotypes and a chance for a black man to be enfranchised into the Hollywood film narrative as something other than the thug, the drug dealer, or the pimp. Shaft might have precariously balanced the line between right and wrong but he definitely didn't fit into the stereotypical roles of good and evil. As Isaac Hayes pointed out in the theme song, Shaft is a "complicated man." A man that Diawara would say gave many black spectators the pleasure of spectatorial identification. The success of Shaft led to the expansion of Blaxploitation films where a reflection of a truer black experience was given, so much so as could be done through the confines of traditional Hollywood film structure. Many say that Blaxploitation was still full of stereotypes, violence and misogynistic themes. This might be true, however, these films, as outdated as they might seem today, undoubtedly paved the way for modern, acclaimed urban filmmakers such as Spike Lee, John Singleton, and Antoine Fuqua, to name but a few. In this filmgoer's mind, Hollywood is the better for it.
For more information on black film and black spectatorship, be sure to read Manthia Diawara’s essay,“Black Spectatorship: Problems of Identification and Resistance,” or bell hooks’ essay, “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators” (and, yes, she does not capitalize her name…). They’re both good reading. Enjoy!