Saturday 4 November 2023

Ernest Ralph Tidyman and the Creation of Shaft

Ernest Ralph Tidyman (1928-1984) created John Shaft for the 1970 novel of the same name and co-wrote the screenplay for the 1971 film version of Shaft. It was Ronald Hobbs, one of the very few Black literary agents at the time and the only one in New York City, who - in 1968 - had recommended to commission Tidyman to write Shaft (via and via and via and via). More books and more film sequels followed.

"Encouraged by his literary agent, Ronald Hobbs, Tidyman took up a commission on a $1,800 advance from Macmillan mystery editor, Alan Rinzler. Rinzler had been looking to spice up the publisher’s mystery output and had been looking for something new in the field. He had the idea of creating a black detective hero in the Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe mould. After reviewing the initial pages Rinzler encouraged Tidyman to toughen up the lead character deeming Tidyman’s initial version too soft. He suggested a gesture of violence by having the hero throw a gangster out of his office window." (via)

Reading black fiction, you see that the central figure is either super hero or super victim, as in [William] Styron's book. The blacks I knew were smart and sophisticated, and I thought, what about a black hero who thinks of himself as a human being, but who uses his black rage as one of his resources, along with intelligence and courage.
Ernest Tidyman

"Tidyman’s true skill was an ability to define the hero and the bad guys without ever allowing racism to bump into itself. Everyone, black and white, was rooting for Shaft, the hero. The fact that he was black had nothing to do with it . . . and, of course, everything to do with it. Blacks and whites could root side by side, but in Shaft territory it was always going to be hipper to be black." (via)

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photograph of Ernest Tidyman via