When I was a kid, I had my mind blown watching Isaac Hayes perform the theme from “Shaft” on TV during the Academy Awards telecast. I am reminded of that moment when I consider why the Oscars matter.
The Oscars are a cultural touchstone. The Academy Awards represent the beliefs, mores, and values of their time, for better or worse. Over the years, the Oscars have symbolized important shifts in culture, too. For example, consider the 44th Academy Awards in 1972, when Isaac Hayes performed his Oscar nominated theme song from the movie “Shaft,” released in 1971.
The production values seem a bit cheesy when you watch the performance now. But they don’t matter. What matters is what the moment represented: a breakthrough for Black artistry.
Hayes appeared on a night when the Academy Awards were hosted by Sammy Davis, Jr. — the first time a Black man had hosted the Oscars. The theme song from “Shaft,” composed by Hayes, was nominated for best original song — only the third time in the history of the Oscars that a Black person had been nominated in this category. “Shaft” was directed by Gordon Parks, a Black photographer, writer, and artist who had accumulated a historically significant body of work documenting the Civil Rights movement and Black culture. The hero of the movie was a brash Black private investigator who succeeded in a white world. In fact, nearly every major character in the movie was Black.
By 1972, Isaac Hayes was a global superstar. He capitalized on his stardom in grand fashion, emerging during the Academy Awards wearing sunglasses and chains on his bare chest. If you knew anything about popular music at that time, you understood the significance of the chains and his bare chest: this was his Black Moses persona, an essential expression of his identity proudly on display before a largely white audience. (He would emerge again, bare chested and adored with chains, at the Wattstax concert in August 1972 — a moment that would be largely ignored for decades and is now more fully appreciated today.)
The appearance at the Oscars mattered. For a white kid like me, seeing a Black man command center stage surrounded by a swirl of multi-racial dancers was an eye-opening moment. Especially a Black man dressed like Hayes, who refused to pander to white, middle-class sensibilities. This was not something you saw on a televised awards show in the early 1970s. After the performance, a visibly moved Davis said, “Talk about heavy!”
Before the night was over, Hayes would make history as the first Black winner of best original song — as well as the first Black winner in any Oscar category outside of acting.
It’s no accident that the theme from “Shaft” has resonated for decades (as fans of “The Simpsons” can attest). The Oscars helped bring “Shaft,” and what it represented, to center stage.