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There are three movies called Shaft and all of them star Richard Roundtree. However, it was the 1971 original that was a landmark for cinema and spawned a whole franchise. Roundtree starred in Shaft, Shaft’s Big Score and Shaft in Africa before returning to appear in Samuel L. Jackson’s 2000 and 2019 Shaft movies. To original Shaft director Gordon Parks, Roundtree’s role depended on his mustache. 

'Shaft': Richard Roundtree and his mustache walk the streets of New York
Richard Roundtree | FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images

The Criterion Collection released the original Shaft on 4K UHD and Blu-ray. The 4K edition keeps ‘70s film look, like 8MM home movies but in high definition and with all the colors of the era, plus the dark, gritty back alleys of New York City. In the new bonus feature “Revisiting Shaft,” there is a clip of Parks telling the story of Roundtree’s mustache. 

Gordon Parks cast Richard Roundtree in ‘Shaft’ for his mustache 

Parks said a strong mustache was important to him in creating a Black hero who could compete with James Bond and Steve McQueen. Roundtree had that between his lip and his nose. But, Black actors hadn’t traditionally worn mustaches before Shaft.

“The day before we started shooting in New York, Joel Freeman, my line producer, told Richard to go cut his mustache off,” Parks said. “I saw Richard walking across the floor with a razor and I said, ‘Don’t take too much of the mustache off, Richard.’ He said, ‘I was going to take it all off.’ I said, ‘You wouldn’t have a job if you did.’”In ‘

In ‘Shaft,’ Gordon Parks and Richard Roundtree bucked Hollywood tradition

Roundtree was confused by these conflicting orders. However, Parks made an executive decision for Shaft.

“He said, ‘But you all told me to take it off,’” Parks said. “I said, ‘Forget it, you’ve got a mustache.’ So I went to Joel and said, ‘Why’d you do that?’ ‘I don’t know,’ and he really didn’t know. He was just following Hollywood precedent down through the years.”

A first for facial follicles 

John Shaft was the private detective who served his community when traditional law enforcement would not. He was a smooth ladies man and tough action hero. Parks said he was also the first one with a mustache.

“The romantic hero part, the mustache, you’ll be delighted to know was the first mustache put on a Black hero on film ever,” Parks said. 

It may have been personal for Parks. Parks also sported facial hair in real life. 


Wesley Snipes Once Turned Down ‘Shaft’ Because It Was an Insult to ‘African-American Culture’

“So [MGM President] Jim Aubrey says, ‘What are you trying to do, make an image of yourself, Parks?’” Parks said. “I said, ‘Maybe, Jim, I don’t know. I like the mustache.’ Actually, they had figured in Hollywood it was too macho for a Black hero to have a mustache.” 

The Shaft Criterion Collection edition also includes new features on the film’s music and costumes, and archival interviews with Roundtree and songwriter Isaac Hayes.