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David Parks looks back on the legacy of 'Shaft'

The funk of "Shaft" came less from the plot, than from cool and commanding presence of its star, Richard Roundtree, who started his career as a model.
Silver Screen Collection
Getty Images
The funk of "Shaft" came less from the plot, than from cool and commanding presence of its star, Richard Roundtree, who started his career as a model.

"Shaft" turns 50 this year. The detective drama was directed by Gordon Parks, a Kansas native and an internationally known photographer.

"Shaft" centers around a cool Black private eye hired by a crime Lord to retrieve his daughter who was kidnapped. Gordon Park's son, David Parks, fondly remembers working with his dad on the film.

Carla Eckels
David Parks

Parks on filming "Shaft" in New York

Well, they'd been in, pre-production, and he was called. Producers wanted to change the location from New York to LA. And so, my father refused to do that because it would not have been the same, number one. And number two, it's not an LA film. It's a New York film, it had that kind of texture to it.

Parks on meeting Richard Roundtree and the audition process

Dad calls me over to the desk and whispers quietly, "take him home and put some clothes on him and bring him back." So that's what we did. We got in the cab, went up to his apartment and I say, "Richard, go ahead and put some clothes, some serious clothes on."

He had some boots, some black boots shoes, and black pants and a blue turtleneck and a leather jacket. And, I said, "yeah, that'll work. Let's go back to the old man." The minute we walked through the door, the old man looked up and he says, "That's 'Shaft!' That's 'Shaft!'" It just clicked.

Parks on working with a Black crew

There were a lot of Black actors, a lot of Black crew that were brought in on the set to be able to get them qualified as production people for the unions. Black electricians and, production assistants and stuff. He got a lot of people in there and as well as my brother [Gordon Parks, Jr]. He brought in some younger people and got them into the industry.

Parks on Issac Hayes's "The Theme from Shaft"

The opening night, when that thing came on and Richard walks up the steps from the subway and all of a sudden, you know, it went crazy. I mean, everybody got up and started dancing in the aisles. I mean, it was fantastic.

Information provided by: Wichita State University Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives.

Gordon Parks at work on Shaft (film and musical score) from the publication https://cdm15942.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15942coll8/id/484/rec/28

Shaft casting letter (suggestion of actors to play lead role)

David Parks 1971 interview - pg. 27

Carla Eckels is Director of Organizational Culture at KMUW. She produces and hosts the R&B and gospel show Soulsations and brings stories of race and culture to The Range with the monthly segment In the Mix. Carla was inducted into The Kansas African American Museum's Trailblazers Hall of Fame in 2020 for her work in broadcast/journalism.