Looking back at the iconic star of Shaft and how the cinematic movement that film helped spawn was (and is) ghettoised by an elitist movie establishment.
Richard Roundtree, who has just died, was one of the iconic figures of what is generally known as ‘blaxploitation’ – the radical and revolutionary black-led (or at least black-fronted) genre cinema of the 1970s, an era of film forever doomed to be dismissed as inherently racist by the mostly white critics that have not actually seen any of the films or talked to the filmmakers (including black actors, writers and directors) or the audiences who lapped these movies up and had little interest in academic theorising – they just wanted to see kick-ass cinema that finally represented them. That many modern critics (still mostly white critics, we might note) seem culturally unaware of these films at all when hailing the latest new release to feature, say, a tough black or female (or both) lead as being somehow new and revolutionary is depressingly telling and insults the icons of the 1970s like Pam Grier, Tamara Dobson and many other pioneers.
If ‘Blaxploitation’ was an actual film movement, then Roundtree was one of the pioneering figures – before it was a movement, in fact, with the 1971 Private Eye movie Shaft he was the star of effectively birthing the whole idea of black-led genre cinema. Yes, there were others – but Shaft was a legitimate mainstream hit, a film that was made by a Hollywood studio – not something from the exploitation or indie world at all, in fact, suggesting that even back then, the studio system was less dedicated to white supremacy as has been suggested and more interested in making money – and if there was a previously untapped market, then they would certainly seek to explore (or exploit) that. Why, then, was black-led action cinema with its proven audience immediately and entirely pushed back into the indie/exploitation ghetto in a way that other action cinema – except, of course, for the martial arts film, another action genre led by non-white actors – wasn’t? That these film movements are still seen by many critics outside genre fandom as mostly worthless, with the odd classic title hailed as the exception to the rule, says a lot.
There is an argument to be made that the critical and academic establishment, as liberal as they have long claimed to be, was almost entirely responsible for black cinema being ‘othered’ and seen as second-class, lumping everything from action to horror to comedy to drama – films as arty and experimental as Ganja and Hess, as genre-driven as Blacula as or as mainstream and respectable as Shaft – all together as something trashy and disposable and, well, exploitative… something inherently not worthy of critical attention and not part of cinema’s great canon. I mean, where did the dismissive idea of ‘blaxploitation’ come from in the first place? To me, it has long felt like a wholesale dismissal of black-led or black-focused commercial cinema from the 1970s as disposable exploitation by the critical establishment who will reluctantly acknowledge Shaft as a ‘proper’ film but then dismiss everything else as exploitative rubbish – with the added condescendingly racist touch that it was black audiences, less discerning that the rest of us, who were being fobbed off with this substandard fodder. Even the Shaft sequels are widely described as second-division action movies despite Shaft’s Big Score being a stone-cold classic.
Within that culture, we should not be surprised that Shaft did not make Roundtree a leading man, even though every aspect of that film and his performance demands that it should have. Not only is it a genuinely great movie – one of the best crime films of the 1970s – but Roundtree is cool as any filmstar you could imagine – a “bad motherfucker” indeed. If anyone should’ve become an instant star after making one movie, it was him. But outside of the Shaft franchise, he would rarely have a leading role again. He bypassed the ‘blaxploitation’ world that quickly exploded after Shaft and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song from 1972 on, either by choice or by accident – while contemporaries like Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Pam Grier and others were regular stars of the scene, Roundtree notably avoided those films, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall and preferring to remain within the mainstream. Unfortunately, it probably cost him the chance for the leading roles he deserved because the Hollywood studio system of the 1970s certainly wasn’t going to give him those roles beyond the one that made him a star. Outside of the three original Shaft films and an interesting TV series adaptation that was unfortunately hamstrung by USTV censorship restrictions, as well as fascinating oddities like the impressive western Charley One-Eye and the Robinson Crusoe revamp Man Friday, Roundtree’s career was more that of the supporting player – a recognisable name but usually three or four credits below the actual star on the cast listing. I can’t argue that he made the wrong choice, career-wise – once the fashion for ‘blaxploitation’ faded, a lot of the stars connected to that scene struggled to find significant work while Roundtree rarely faced that problem. That said, when you look at his filmography, it’s notable just how many of his significant Seventies films were made outside the US – often for British companies making international would-be blockbusters like Embassy, Game for Vultures and Escape to Athena. His biggest American films were Earthquake, as part of an ensemble cast, and the epic TV mini-series Roots.
By the 1980s, Roundtree was working mostly in American action cinema. Exploitation cinema, you might say, but one less narrowly defined (though just as critically dismissed) as ‘blaxploitation’. He’d often be an authority figure – a cop, more often than not – and depending on the film’s budget, he might even be the top-lined star, though that was rare. There are a lot of interesting and entertaining films that he made in this era – Q the Winged Serpent, An Eye for an Eye, Young Warriors, Maniac Cop, Party Line, Angel III – The Final Chapter, Night Visitors… the meat and potatoes of the burgeoning home video world. He became one of those reliable figures who could be called on to add a little gravitas and tough-guy quality to your low-budget movie. Roundtree gave solid performances, never phoning it in even for the cheapest movie, and his presence made these films and other, lesser movies, better than they might have otherwise been.
He continued in this vein throughout the 1990s, making erotic thrillers like Body of Influence and Sins of the Night, Bloodfist III, Steel and Amityville: a New Generation amongst others. He would occasionally make a bigger-budget film like City Heat and Se7en where he was lower down the cast and started a long career as a TV guest star during the 1980s and 1990s, popping up in single episodes of everything from Murder She Wrote to Beauty and the Beast, MacGyver to 21 Jump Street. His most interesting work of the era was 1996’s Original Gangstas, a film that brought the ageing stars of 1970s black action cinema together in what feels like a blaxploitation predecessor of The Expendables films. It was the last film directed by Larry Cohen, who – not coincidentally – got his directorial start in the blaxploitation world back in 1972/3.
Roundtree’s career in low-budget cinema continued throughout the 2000s, albeit with fewer films that stood out. His most notable films of this era are the Shaft reboots in 2000 and 2019, both of which posit themselves as sequels rather than remakes, with Roundtree appearing as the original character. Notably, many critics still referred to the original Shaft films as ‘blaxploitation’ and still seemed to think that this meant that the new films – neither of which is great, it must be said – must somehow be lesser works because of it. In a just world, the latter of the two films would have been Roundtree’s final movie, ending his career as it began. But in fact, he went on to make two more films of no great worth and had ongoing roles on the TV shows Family Reunion and Cherish the Day.
It’s hard to say that Richard Roundtree had a bad career – he worked constantly and if the Hollywood establishment had no room for him, so what? He is hardly the only great actor to have been overlooked by the studios and we can’t necessarily blame it entirely on racism – though the immediate dismissal of action movies with black leads by the critical establishment in the 1970s and beyond probably meant that he was never going to get the leading roles he deserved. Film historians like to blame that on Hollywood racism, quietly overlooking their own industry’s role in pushing Black Cinema out of the mainstream. Perhaps Roundtree had a more interesting career by not being the Hollywood leading man – I mean, look at how many of them come and go over the years – but who knows?
Richard Roundtree died on October 24th, 2023, aged 81.
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