Refusing the Underdog: Blackness as Wayward Belonging in Shaft

What I admire about Shaft, the man himself, or the man who he was created to be, is his infectious confidence and wayward attitude—beholden to no one or any one thing, only to himself, but never to the unjust detriment of others. While many scholars have attributed his image to the various stereotypes that cast black men as hypermasculine, aggressive “sex machines,” and while these critiques are certainly not unfounded, they do tend to take up more space around the discourse surrounding the film itself. Labelled and celebrated as a blaxploitation film, however, limits the film to the same discourses of black representation and stereotypes that ye ol’ faithful Hollywood films continually exploit and reinforce.

Gordon Parks’ film Shaft (1971) follows the wayward movements of private detective John Shaft—an underdog, symptomatic of being born “black and poor,” though his imposing swagger and his unconcerned disposition would have you guessing otherwise. As a private detective, caught between working with and around corrupt police enforcement and the underground communities that rely on his “in-between-ness,” or rather his ambivalence, allows for, what Saidiya Hartman terms waywardness. In her text Wayward: A Short Entry on the Possible, Hartman provides fluid, unwavering definitions of waywardness, attached to (the near-universal) black experience, that has historically been an existence of struggle and resistance.

As the film is situated within the 1970s, a time of violence, unrest, and turmoil surrounding “race relations” in the United States and the rise of several black civil rights movements, including the infamous Black Panther Party, orbit in and around the central plot of the film. Through this foregrounding of the black experience as survival in the bustling streets of New York City, in relation to the surrounding urbanity, crime, and poverty, focalizes the perspective of those affected by such systems of difference and are translated on screen as familiar experiences of encounters. And Gordon Parks’ cinematography encapsulates this particular black experience through the opening shots of the film that presents the city through the perspective of living in and through such a place being black. However, Parks does not just focus on the urban decay or the casual violence and inconveniences of anti-black racism, but the very real and deep roots of the community within these structures that foster belonging; though in turn these structures also manifest a great alienation not completely faulted by the community, but by external forces which throughout history have continually afflicted them.

In the beginning shots of the film, a crane shot slowly moves across the cityscape to the grimy streets below where featured Hollywood movies debut alongside adult porn theatres conveniently located beside a hat shop and the underground subway. The camera finds John Shaft, exiting the underground station and aggressively making his way strolling through car traffic at his own pace and promptly telling off anyone who gets in his way. As he continues his journey through the populated streets of New York, dodging traffic at every street, walking through protests, and scaring off-street peddlers, the theme song plays and describes the kind of man John Shaft is: someone who “would risk his neck for his brother,” and wouldn’t “cop out when there’s danger all about” a “real bad mother” fucker. Ya, I said it. And it’s not just Shaft’s swagger or badge that makes him a bad motherfucker, it’s his frankness and “take no shit from nobody” attitude that lets him play by his own rules and doesn’t let any threat or babe pass him by.

When lieutenant Vic threatens to lock Shaft up after being followed, cornered, and ultimately throwing one of Bumpy’s, a well-known gang leader in the community, henchmen through a window into traffic, Shaft never compromises his values nor does he falter in the midst of conflict. Even as the lieutenant attempts to blackmail Shaft into gathering information on the underground community in Harlem, where talk of something big going down is circulating in the streets, Shaft negotiates with the chief on his terms. Taking heat from every side, from the police enforcement to gang bosses, black revolutionaries, to old comrades with past histories turned drug pushers, the mafia, to his romantic flings, Shaft does things his way giving equal footing to anyone who crosses his path—and if you fuck it up then that’s on you baby. Though he may be a tough motherfucker, he doesn’t sacrifice the community for his own desires and, in his own way, gets what he wants in the end even if some may perceive his motivations to be selfish and self-centred. While Shaft is undeniably depicted as a hypermasculine “sex machine,” Parks’ vision of the city centres blackness in all its beautiful multiplicity through Shaft’s waywardness in all his glory.

Saidiya Hartman’s short text Wayward: a Short Entry on the Possible, describes the black experience in the wake of slavery as an existence that survives against all odds that creates kinship relations and community possible within the anti-black climate in which it is situated. Waywardness defies any path laid out that directs or compels one toward a specific place or destination—that its improvised movements will lead to something just over the next horizon and after the next. To belong and belong in that place unquestionably, without a goddamned doubt—and this is the space Shaft creates for himself and others around him in the process as well.

Seeing Shaft wandering the city pursuing two different lines of investigation that lead to the same area in the city, one instigated by the lieutenant and the other Bumpy, the Harlem gang boss who sees Shaft about his daughters’ supposed kidnapping, we see him interact with all walks of life that drift through the streets. In his interactions on the street, Shaft is generally an even-tempered, kind person who relies on the members of the community to do his detective work. At the beginning of the film after the theme song, Shaft asks a presumably blind newspaper stand vendor, Marty, about any cats who have been looking for him and Marty responds with, “How the hell should I know? Everyone looks the same to me.” From this brief and laid back interaction, crossing paths often and the same can be said of the shoeshine shop Shaft stops by to get his shoes buffed and his information.

In both cases, Shaft’s wayward mobility is dependent upon the spaces in which he is familiar with the community and the people who inhabit the streets, halfway houses, and the underground. And though the people he relies on may perhaps be perceived as undesirable or unwanted to the otherwise casual passerby, they are part of networked communities where they are at the very least respected and not taken advantage of. This can be seen again when Shaft takes over as a bartender at a bar in his neighbourhood across from his apartment and his interaction with the, presumably gay, bartender on shift that night. Their exchange is light and playful with the other man even as he reaches to examine Shaft’s clothes and later, gives Shaft a quick tap on the rear end as he goes to wait tables while Shaft takes over service at the bar. The relationships Shaft fosters are ones founded on a straightforward sincerity that not only aids in Shaft’s line of work as a detective, but also forms bonds within and around the communities he works in—those wayward kindred souls that cross paths creating networks of belonging.

Hartman relates the following definitions, actions, and motivations of waywardness:

Waywardness is a practice of possibility at a time when all roads, except the ones created by smashing out, are foreclosed. It obeys no rules and abides no authorities. It is unrepentant. It traffics in occult visions of other worlds and dreams of a different kind of life. Waywardness is an ongoing exploration of what might be; it is an improvisation with the terms of social existence, when the terms have already been dictated, when there is little room to breathe, when you have been sentenced to a life of servitude, when the house of bondage looms ·in whatever direction you move. It is the untiring practice of trying to live when you were never meant to survive.

Hartman’s fluid definitions, while pointing to the black experience of survival within the vast expanse of colonial anti-blackness that continues to permeate in alternate ways in the present, gestures toward the underdog figure. The underdog, as a present absence always located in the periphery or background of ongoing action and events, someone who is expected to fail or lose, sums up the black experience in this era. Amidst the struggle and resistance in confronting the white settler colonial systems that reinforce and depend upon racism to sustain itself, the community fought together to claim their right to equality. That despite all odds, they survived and continue to survive. And Shaft’s unapologetic and sincere attitude holds radical potential for being and existing in a place that forces him to make sense of a world founded on black death and suffering. By rejecting those attitudes and prejudices forced on him, not as a denial of reality, but as the complete and utter refusal of those limiting narratives projected onto him, Shaft’s waywardness challenges those racialized stereotypes (albeit while relying on others). Though Shaft is characterized as an underdog, it is certainly not through his own perception but through how others perceive him as just a stereotypical black man, a part of the oppressed masses wandering the urban streets of New York.

While you can’t control how people perceive you in your daily, everyday life, John Shaft faces these minute acts of violence head-on with a smile and style that screams “up yours, baby,” if you can’t dig him for the confident, beautiful black man he is. I think we could all learn to be a little bit more like Shaft—embracing our blackness wholeheartedly and unapologetically despite what others may perceive us to be or represent us as—creating our own paths toward belonging.

Works cited

Hartman, Saidiya V. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. , 2019. Internet resource.