“Shaft” is back, but his time passed long ago. Director Tim Story’s take on the iconic blaxploitation hero is neither timely nor compelling, resurrecting the character with a generation-spanning plot that seems unwilling to look beyond the past. The latest attempt to mine commerciality out of the 1971 property drops the original’s commentary on black issues of the moment in favor of tone-deaf declarations of masculinity. It’s an ugly time capsule.
That’s too bad, because the “Shaft” ethos is overdue for a revision. As the black community confronts longstanding notions of masculinity and how they might change — see “Moonlight” for one prominent example — the anachronistic “Shaft” promotes an outmoded 007 brand of toxic masculinity that just doesn’t cut it anymore. The concept behind “Shaft” hinges on one man’s playtime with shiny possessions — his cars, coats, guns, and of course, his women; feeling nothing, the Shaft archetype relishes violence as the most innate means to an end, and takes what he wants. There’s a reason for the phallic connotations of his name.
The first “Shaft” came along at a time when black audiences were hungry for depictions of black heroes being victorious on screen. Richard Roundtree played the character as a Vietnam veteran who was able to persevere after the war by becoming a ruthless detective in New York City. He was a gritty embodiment of troubled times, but the studio-backed feature didn’t dig too deep, especially in contrast to the far more radical “Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song,” which came earlier in the same year. But while Roundtree’s Shaft may have been the “black private dick” who “gets all the chicks,” he also became a symbol of black power.
The new Shaft, however, has been stripped of any discernible political relevance. He simply puts the dick in private dick, embodying an archaic brand of black masculinity. Jackson’s Shaft is a character out of time, who fails to build on the original’s lasting appeal, however problematic it might be. “Shaft” doesn’t improve on the genre, satirize or lampoon it (like “Black Dynamite,” an unapologetic blaxploitation sendup), nor does it really have anything of consequence to say. The 2000 reboot (also starring Jackson, but directed by the late John Singleton) didn’t carry the same political heft of the original, and wasn’t a particularly good movie either. But, possibly due to Singleton’s vision, it seemed to recognize and attempt to walk in the 1971 film’s weighty footsteps with a serviceable plot about corrupt police officers and the flimsy justice system. Story (known more for his romantic comedies and Kevin Hart vehicles) offers a version that ups the folly significantly, and fails to salute or upgrade the original; instead, it’s content to rest on the laurels of the franchise’s legacy.
That includes the original’s most troubling, sexist tendencies. After movies like “Black Panther” and even the most recent installments of “Mission: Impossible” featured formidable female characters whose intellect and physicality matched their male leads, the women in the “Shaft” universe still exist as props devoid of agency, despite attempts to make them extra feisty.
The story introduces John “JJ” Shaft Jr. (Jessie Usher), the 25-year-old son of John Shaft II (Samuel L. Jackson), who abandoned JJ as a child in an act of selfishness (after all, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do), leaving his mother (a wasted Regina Hall) to raise him solo. The adult JJ is depicted as effete — a preppy MIT grad, and now an analyst for the FBI, he’s more brains than brawn and lives in a modern apartment that looks like a snapshot from a West Elm catalogue. His mother has raised him with pro-feminist, pro-environment, anti-violence values. All of that means that when he reconnects with his estranged father, the older man isn’t thrilled to see what his son has become. But to uncover the truth behind the untimely death of his best friend, young JJ seeks his father’s expertise. Little does he know that the elder has plans of his own, to provide his son with a crash course in Shaft 101.
Cue the cruelty: Shaft openly mocks JJ’s attire, repeatedly questions his sexuality (more than once, he asks, “You sure you like pussy?”), worries about his disdain for gun violence, and frets over his inability to properly “handle” women. These motifs occur throughout the movie, as the father is shown to be most impressed with son when he displays what the father believes are more traditionally masculine traits. Perhaps director Story and screenwriters Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow intended to mock the elder’s dated mindset, but the movie embraces those qualities. There’s a clear delineation made between positions taken by father and son on the issue of masculinity, and the elder is unwavering in his stance all way through.
The movie’s trite father-son bonding story has been buried in a rather convoluted revenge plot involving radical Islam and war veterans with PTSD. After 90 forgettable minutes of a buddy action-comedy that feels more like the latest entry in the “Ride Along” franchise, the father finally demonstrates that he does indeed care for his son in an act of self-sacrifice befitting a man of Shaft’s mystic.
But “Shaft” falls short of exploring the generational divide between father and son, and hardly tackles their opposing definitions of black masculinity with anything close to nuance. Story instead suggests that there’s no room for compromise, and his film sides with the father’s dictum that brutishness and domination of women are key to a man’s path to salvation. In the end, Shaft the elder wins the culture war. The implication is that Shaft remains immutable no matter who plays him. Roundtree eventually surfaces near the end of the movie, providing an authorized stamp of approval on this installment’s connections to its roots. He scores a handful of snappy one-liners in an intergenerational shootout, but the movie gains a lot less from his appearance than marketing materials suggest.
Which makes sense, because this “Shaft” is all about passing the baton. By the end of the movie, as with most sons who want to please their fathers, JJ’s transformation is complete. He embraces a career, lifestyle and set of values that his mother — the one parent who actually raised him — protected him from for much of his life, and with good reason. As the final credits start to roll, three generations of Shafts step forward in slo-mo, all dressed alike in the character’s trademark boots, pants, turtleneck and long coat, while Isaac Hayes’ theme song swells.
Story and his screenwriters have crafted an unapologetic love letter to the “Shaft” mythos. It’s easy to see where they’re coming from: “Shaft” is a fun, exciting archetype and means a lot to viewers who have celebrated the fantasy of his heroism for decades. But the movie is so reverential to the character that it makes any potential in shaking up the formula look like sacrilege. Rather than celebrating JJ’s progressive upbringing and pushing the franchise in a fresh new direction, “Shaft” pulls it back to the past. And for those of us who want to see real progress in black cinema at all levels, this antiquated hack job is a real kick in the balls.
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