After ‘Shaft,’ 8 Movies to Watch Featuring Black Action Heroes

As unthinkable as it now seems, the role of John Shaft, paragon of movie star Black masculinity, was very nearly cast as a white character. Executives at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer wanted to flip the source material — a 1970 novel about a Black private detective — for white audiences. But the director Gordon Parks’s vision for the treatment convinced the studio to cast in the role the model and actor Richard Roundtree, who died Tuesday at 81.

In Roundtree’s hands, “Shaft” (1971) established what is acknowledged as the first Black action hero, a suave afro-sporting, leather-clad storm of cool replete with his own Isaac Hayes theme music. He upended decades of frequent depictions of Black male characters as docile, downtrodden, and effectively neutered.

The success of “Shaft,” which earned Hayes an Academy Award for original song and spawned four sequels, proved the commercial viability of a Black action protagonist. It announced that Black people could be heroes of their own stories, and later of those meant for mass audiences, establishing a Hollywood template that Black action roles have either been referencing or pushing back against since.

The Blaxploitation era of the 1970s was followed by genre films helmed by white directors and writers who sought to replicate the hyper-stylized and often violent and misogynist characterizations in “Shaft.” But the film’s impact can also be seen in a lineage of Black action roles with similar themes — self-agency, ideals of American heroism, the performance of heteronormative masculinity — although each deals with these ideas differently.

‘In the Heat of the Night’ (1967)

Stream it on Tubi.

Sidney Poitier’s portrayal of Virgil Tibbs, a Black detective from Philadelphia who gets picked up as a suspect for a murder on a trip to the South, laid track for the success of “Shaft.”

In one of the earliest depictions of Black revolt in a studio movie, Tibbs returns a slap when a Mississippi plantation owner is galled by having to answer questions posed by a Black man. It’s a scene that got the film banned in parts of the South.

It’s also notable for being the first big-budget color movie to properly light a dark-skinned actor, with the cinematographer Haskell Wexler opting for low lighting to emphasize the subtleties of Poitier’s reactions.

‘The Dirty Dozen’ (1967)

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Jim Brown was the most dominant N.F.L. star of his time, but retired from football in a news conference held on set to finish this film. He called his character, Robert T. Jefferson, “any man fighting for recognition against the odds.” But that character, a soldier in a segregated Army unit, is threatened with castration at the hands of white peers, whom he kills, which is how he ends up part of the misfit unit for which the film is named. Brown’s character ultimately sacrifices himself for his country, a kind of America-first heroism that was a hallmark of Brown’s movie career (and replicated by Will Smith in “Independence Day”) and a departure from the self-oriented bravery of Roundtree’s Shaft.

Paul Robeson was among the first professional Black athletes to make the transition to film, but Brown’s success helped open the door for peers like Fred Williamson, Bernie Casey and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to delve into film.

‘Black Caesar’ (1973)

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Fred Williamson delivers a brusque performance as the title character who, after being assaulted by a cop, rises within the mafia to form his own Black crime syndicate. An odd bit of movie trivia: Black Caesar dies in a version of the movie (which was first released only to European audiences) and shows up in the sequel, “Hell Up in Harlem.” But that’s not why you’re watching. The real fuel here is James Brown’s soundtrack, which outshines rather than balances the film. It features “The Boss,” a record that has been sampled endlessly in hip-hop by artists from Ice-T to Nas.

‘Beverly Hills Cop’ (1984)

Stream it on Paramount+.

Propelling Eddie Murphy from standup star to Hollywood mega-muscle, “Beverly Hills Cop” is distinct in the buddy-cop genre because it made the Black detective Axel Foley the alpha in the pairing, as he uses savvy, charm and daring to navigate the very white territory of Beverly Hills. Murphy’s Foley succeeds in avenging the death of his childhood friend, and toys with the historically antagonistic relationship of Black man to the cops, but the movie does without a love interest, swapping the female lead for a platonic friendship.

‘Set It Off’ (1996)

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The 1990s renaissance of Black big-budget filmmaking had already spawned a bank heist hit a year earlier with The Hughes Brothers’ “Dead Presidents,” set just after the Vietnam War. F. Gary Gray’s take flipped the genre and rooted it in Black female characters whose bond is solidified through their conspiring against systemic racial traumas. Its shootouts and dramatic escapes lack the punchlines (and nudity) of forerunners like the Pam Grier movie “Coffy,” but ramp up the ammunition and realism.

‘Black Dynamite’ (2009)

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Michael Jai White in “Black Dynamite.”Credit…Sony Pictures

Though Keenen Ivory Wayans’s “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka” first spoofedblaxploitation films in 1988, “Black Dynamite” derives its humor from knowing winks at the production of those films and the tropes they inspired. It stars and was co-written by Michael Jai White, who has seen all sides of Black action hero stardom since his breakout in “Spawn,” in which he became the first African American to portray a comic book hero in a major motion picture. A trained martial artist, White shines in choreographed action scenes, but the movie’s real pleasure comes from its meticulous nods to the slapdash nature of Blaxploitation movies: cannily deployed continuance slips, eager overacting and boom mics showing in certain frames.

‘Django Unchained’ (2012)

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Perhaps no director has so publicized his ardor for Blaxploitation movies as Quentin Tarantino, and while there are arguably better homages throughout his filmography — “Jackie Brown” comes to mind — “Django” is worth watching both for its sweep as a western epic and for reversing the trope of white gunslinger and nonwhite sidekick in service of Black vengeance set against slavery. Jamie Foxx is profanely and farcically heroic, with a resourcefulness that seems derived from Black heroes of the contemporary past.

The Equalizer (2014)

Rent or buy it on most major platforms.

Denzel Washington in “The Equalizer.”Credit…Scott Garfield/Columbia Pictures

The actor/director pairing of Denzel Washington and Antoine Fuqua reached an awards peak with “Training Day,” nabbing Washington an Oscar for his portrayal of Alonzo Harris, a leather jacketed philanderer. But Harris’s moral deficiencies create distance from “Shaft.” The trio of “Equalizer” movies the two have made trades in a smooth vigilantism, yes, but one delivered by an outsider with a rigid code.

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