Bright Lights Film Journal

UCLA Archive revisits “Cotton Comes to Harlem” and “Shaft”

L-R: Christopher St. John, Joel Freeman, Judy Pace

The UCLA Film & Television Archive’s current series on black cinema of the 1970s has featured guest appearances by a number of actors and other people associated with films on the marquee. Last Friday (October 15), in between a double-bill of Ossie Davis’ COTTON COMES TO HARLEM (1970) and Gordon Parks’ SHAFT (1971), a Q-and-A session was held with COTTON star Judy Pace and two personalities from SHAFT: producer Joel Freeman and co-star Christopher St. John (who played Ben Buford, friend of John Shaft).

What follows is a brief excerpt from the conversation. For full details on the UCLA film series and future screenings, visit the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

Christopher St. John: I remember I went to a building on Fifth Avenue. Gordon Parks and a few other people were there. My agent had told me, “You’re going to audition for the part of Shaft.” I said, “Oh! I’m going to star in a movie!”

I walked in and he said, “Chris, nice to meet you. This is the part I want you to read for.” I said, “This is not the part of Shaft! My agent sent me here to read for the part of Shaft!” And I walked out of the room, walked out of the office, left the building, walked down Fifth Avenue, and went home.

L-R: Christopher St. John, Joel Freeman.

I went home and I thought to myself, “Man, what the heck did you do?” I sat there thinking, “How could you do that?” That night, Gordon Parks called me at home and said, “Chris, come back in tomorrow and see us again.” I said OK, and came in the next day and he gave me the script and said, “You’ve got the part.” That’s how it happened. I was so surprised.

I enjoyed so very much working on that movie and what it aspired to be, and what it became. I have long since understood how important that movie was to the black film industry, and to the industry itself.

Joel Freeman: It was not blaxploitation. Shaft was a hero in his own right. That was the image. Fortunately the picture was in both troughs, black and white, and it was received unbelievably well.

Richard Roundtree was in a small company of THE GREAT WHITE HOPE in Philadelphia. He came in one day on a cattle call and we made a test filming over my back, I played a role. And he did very well.

Judy Pace: You know that term, black exploitation, I thought it was a very ugly term and I don’t know why everyone latched onto that term so quickly. I think it had such a derogatory kind of message in it, because it was show business and the films that were being made were being made perhaps in the manner of perhaps B-movies, but it is show business and most of show business is exploitive, so I never understood that term. But one of the things about COTTON COMES TO HARLEM – as I said, I had never seen it – but I was very proud of what it did and how it opened up a whole new box office. It was the first film within that whole genre, and the first film shot completely in Harlem with an all black cast. And it was the first all-black that ever made the top 20 grossing films for that year and it set the stage for the others to follow. Everyone said, “Oh, this can make money!” … I’m really happy to have been a part of that first genre [film] within that group of genre films that came out, with SHAFT following and many of the others, but I hated that tag, black exploitation, I really really did. I wish we could lose it.

Christopher St. John: I made a movie the following year (TOP OF THE HEAP, 1972) that somehow got tagged with the same thing, blaxploitaiton. It wasn’t that at all; I never thought of it that way at all. But they kind of put it in that category, and I think that word and categorizing the films in that way actually hurt films. A lot of good films were made that had nothing to do with blaxploitation.

Judy Pace: I kind of disagree. I felt it was an ugly hook, but it was a hook. I felt that it showed Hollywood money could be made with very talented African American persons. And in Hollywood they always like a hook on whatever the group of films are, like romantic comedy, whatever the hell that is, or action films. So this was another group and I think by having that hook, which I don’t like, I think helped push it along. It was different, it was exciting. I think people had become bored and Hollywood was in a slump at the time these films came along. And it brought money. If it hadn’t brought money there wouldn’t have been any more films. So I thought it was an exciting time. I was sorry to see it leave and go away. But I think it also set the stage for the films that came along later with Spike lee and other persons… The fact that we have African American male movie stars and actually have more than one. There was a time we could have only one – what was his name, Sidney Poitier?