How Richard Roundtree, Star Of ‘Shaft,’ Inspired A Generation Of Black Superheroes In Life And Film

Richard Roundtree, the legendary actor known as the film industry’s first Black superhero, has passed at 81. Roundtree’s transition came after he briefly battled pancreatic cancer. 

Born in New Rochelle, New York, Roundtree was a standout football player in high school and earned a scholarship to Southern Illinois University. While in college, he was signed by Johnson Publications where he became a model for Ebony Fashion Fair. 

He took acting classes in New York and joined the Negro Ensemble Company. After gaining roles in Off-Broadway productions, he landed the role that changed his life forever, “Shaft,” in 1971.  

The history of superheroes in American films can be divided into two segments, “Before Shaft” and “After Shaft.” Prior to the 1970s, there was a lack of Black superheroes in action films. Superheroes are defined as individuals who possess superhuman abilities and are dedicated to protecting the public.

Sidney Poitier starred in more dramatic roles in the 1960s. And Jim Brown appeared in a supporting role in the 1967 film, “The Dirty Dozen.”

However, the Gordon Parks-directed “Shaft” allowed Roundtree to be the leading man in an action film that serves as an inspiration to the Black community.  

As John Shaft, Roundtree represented the power and prestige of leaders such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Unafraid to challenge the social constructs in America, John Shaft became a figurative representation of Black progress. 

Indeed, during the 1970s there were real-life Black superheroes that led in the efforts of change in Black communities nationwide. Leaders such as Mayor Maynard Jackson in Atlanta; Huey P. Newton of the Black Panthers; author James Baldwin; activist Angela Davis; and poet Nikki Giovanni. 

These figures represented to the world what Roundtree portrayed on the big screen.

In terms of film, more Black superheroes would follow in films such as “Black Caesar,” “The Last Dragon,” “Action Jackson,” “Meteor Man,” and “Blade.” The release of “Black Panther,” which starred the late Chadwick Bozeman in 2018, would break box office records. 

Roundtree would also reprise the role of John Shaft in the franchise’s subsequent sequels and TV show. Roundtree played John Shaft in both the 2000 and 2019 reboots, which starred Samuel L. Jackson.

Overall, Roundtree will always be remembered for how he changed the landscape of film and heroism in the Black community. 

 

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