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‘Shaft’ Suffers an Identity Crisis

Shaft suffers from a failure of nerve and crisis of identity. It is by no means the worst movie I’ve ever seen or even the worst movie I’ve seen this month. Yet, in spite of its flaws, vulgarities, and tendency to reach for low hanging fruit, I found myself entertained.

Tim Story has taken an icon of blaxploitation and essentially done little to nothing with it. The original 1971 Shaft was directed by Gordon Parks, a photographer who became a director. He also directed the sequel Shaft’s Big Score. John Singleton directed the 2000 remake, also called Shaft. All three films, like the current Shaft, were directed by black men.

Ironically the only Shaft film not directed by a black man is of course Shaft in Africa. Now all of this is marginally important because it’s important to understand the context of Shaft and the genre from which he was born. Blaxploitation is a genre many younger film buffs know little about. If they do, their knowledge is via Quentin Tarantino.

Samuel L. Jackson’s Shaft isn’t a likable character. Maybe that’s wrong. We like him because Jackson has an innate charisma that draws our sympathies towards him. A smooth talker who’s never afraid to shoot first and ask questions later. But he makes homophobic jokes, thinks men shouldn’t apologize, and has never met a woman he hasn’t tried to hit on.

Then again characters in blaxploitation movies weren’t meant to be likable to mainstream audiences. Otherwise known as white audiences. More on that later.

Contrast Shaft with his son J.J. (Jessie Usher) and we have the embodiment of the two basic ideas of masculinity. Usher’s J.J. is a “nerd.” He works as a data analyst for the F.B.I. J.J. abhors guns, treats women with respect, and calls out his father whenever he makes a “gay panic” joke.

The problem is Story doesn’t have a strong enough hold on the story. It’s difficult to tell whether the character’s beliefs or words are shared by the filmmakers. The result is millennial bashing that feels half-assed along with jokes about how Shaft doesn’t use computers.

The movie would have you believe the plot is about J.J’s friend Karim (Avan Jogia) who is found dead from an overdose in front of a crackhouse. J.J. doesn’t believe the newly sober Karim would be using again and goes about clearing his friend’s name. Luckily his estranged father lives in Harlem nearby where Karim’s body was found.

Shaft would like you to believe that. In reality, it’s about what it means to be a black man in America today. I’m not saying it’s eloquent or even claiming to know how true or false it is, but that is the through-line of the movie.

This is not new. Previous generations have always sneered at the one coming up behind them. Much like current generations have always believed the old ways to be ancient and silly. Good movies find a bridge and understand that there is more that unites us than divides us, or so the saying goes.

Shaft on the other hand punts the ball. Yes, J.J. calls out his father whenever he makes a tasteless joke about women or queer people. But Shaft never really changes. Granted, J.J. never stops calling him out, but we’re never shown that Shaft is actually listening.

The script is a mish-mash of ideas and great scenes watered down to good ones and blended down to passable. Written by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow, Shaft has a serious case of schizophrenic wit. At times it will be self-aware and sly. Other times it will be obtuse, mean, and incoherent.

Take the scene inside a crack den where J.J. and shaft hope to find a lead. I could be mistaken but I swear the establishing shot outside was using an abandoned Walden’s bookstore. If that’s the case, it’s a rare flair of visual wit by the director Story. Anyhow, after beating up a couple of thugs, Shaft tosses J.J. their guns. He promptly throws them out the window.

Shaft asks for one of the guns and J.J. tells them he threw them away. When he finds out where he threw them Shaft is enraged. “Don’t throw guns out an open window; kids live up here!”

But let’s take J.J. as an example of how the script forgets itself. He is an agent of the F.B.I., which means he has had to go through Quantico. He’s handled a gun before. Not liking guns is fine but Usher holds them as if he’s never held a gun before. Even going so far as to overreact physically, as if the gun is diseased.

Yet, later on in the film while having dinner with Sasha (Alexandra Shipp), he takes her gun and effortlessly guns down four other armed men. Yes, he has a line about how he still “hates guns” but at no point do we see why he would go from “eww” to “give me that.” I’m not arguing that a character who hates guns can’t know about them or be good with them. I’m arguing the film doesn’t care either way.

Barris and Barnbow clearly have two vastly different sensibilities and Story seems to differ as well. Shaft is a jumbled mess tonally but Jackson, Usher, Shipp, and Regina Hall as J.J.’s mother Maya somehow find the notes that work and hold it all together.

At parts, I cringed and wondered why the film needed to be so cruel. Such as when J.J.’s boss, played by the great character actor Titus Welliver, vents about how stressed he is. He spouts off a long list of personal grievances with the youth today and caps it all of with, “I have a seven-year-old daughter who wants me to call her Frank.”

The audience in my theater had no issue with laughing at almost every other joke; except that one. Thankfully the joke died the merciless death of a hushed packed house. Welliver’s character isn’t meant to be likable, so maybe the joke is meant to show us what a horrible jerk he is. Either way, it is a cruel moment aimed at people who already face unimaginable cruelty by mainstream society.

But then take the scene in which Shaft tells J.J. what women really want in a man. It’s the usual speech you can probably recite in your sleep. He says real men don’t apologize, don’t listen to women, do what you want, and take no prisoners. Of course, when Hall’s Maya calls J.J. and is put on speakerphone we see a different version of Shaft.

Shaft begs J.J. not to tell her he’s there. In a matter of seconds, Shaft has retracted almost every sentiment he uttered. Later on in the film, he even shows up at Maya’s motel room to apologize.

Earlier I mentioned how it was necessary to understand the context of blaxploitation. It is a genre ripe with social commentary disguised as b-movie sleaze. The heroes of blaxploitation were often pimps, drug dealers, and murderers. Yet, they were heroes because they were allowed to be something other than Sidney Poiter. Plus, movies such as Sweet Sweetback Badasssss Song ended with the hero killing a cop and getting away with it. Much like the slap in In the Heat of the Night, these moments were radical because they had never been done before.

Movies like Cleopatra Jones had heroes who were undercover agents but they were comedies as opposed to the other blaxploitation movies. Sometimes tongue in cheek, other times dead serious but always filled with black men and women misbehaving or chasing after justice being denied them because of an administrative system inhabited by feckless whites.

John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) was a private detective. Justice administered outside the system by a typical wisecracking, no-nonsense, street savvy detective characters are a dime a dozen. But up until this point, none had been black. More importantly, oftentimes the bad guys were white or the establishment as a whole, be it the police department, the F.B.I. or an Italian mob.

The exploitation part of the name refers less to the type of grindhouse low-level b-budget style and more to the people behind the scenes. White businessmen and often times—such as with Cleopatra Jones and Coffy—were written and directed by white men. Black America had finally had a  genre of cinema to call its own, but it came at the hands of white artists forcing stereotypes and caricatures. Even the character of John Shaft was created by a white man, Ernest Tidyman.

The roots and legacy blaxploitation are complicated, to say the least.  Tim Story’s Shaft seems unwilling or unable to wrestle with any of it. The bad guy is a black Latino drug dealer, Gordito (Isaach de Bankole). Bankole is himself also a terrific character actor but he is reduced to menacing stares and hiding in the shadows and given almost no dialogue. He’s not a villain so much as a plot contrivance.  

On the one hand, filling the frames of Shaft with black and brown talent is a welcome reprieve from the almost endless sea of mayonnaise Hollywood seems convinced we crave. But on the other hand, by having Shaft go after a drug dealer, a Latino one at that, feels not just trite but lazy. One could argue it all but betrays the notion of blaxploitation. It doesn’t help that Shaft explains to J.J., “He’s responsible for what 45 calls ‘the opioid’ crisis.”

For a genre and a character built to give the authoritarian establishment the middle finger, Story and the script come off tepid in their critique of the current state of affairs. Even the introduction of Roundtree as Shaft’s father, Shaft, only adds fuel to the “generational war” aspect of the film.

Not to mention that Story seems to have decided with investing the film with zero personality was a way to go. In the beginning, Story seems to allow his cameraman Larry Blandford some room to play. The opening scene has a seventies grindhouse feel with the screen divided up into three different frames.

The frames glide across the screen vertically while the titular original theme by Issac Hayes and John Allen pumps underneath it all. Even the title card is in big yellow block letters with a small “™” at the bottom corner of the title. It is a strong opening that despite the many flaws and failings I’ve laid out never grow too stale or boring.

Regina Hall and Alexandra Shipp deserve more than to be damsels in distress. Sadly, compared to Dark Phoenix, the other movie Shipp is in that’s out right now, she has considerably less screen time and more to do. Yet, Hall has a scene in the bathroom in which she tries to talk some sense into herself that slowly turns into a pep talk for what she knows to be a bad decision.

Blandford’s camera smartly just sits down and allows Hall’s mannerisms to sell the comedy. I won’t spoil the payoff. Suffice to say that while yes, it is the oldest gag in the book, it still works.

Look I know I seem like I hated this movie but I didn’t. I laughed, clapped, and in general had a good old time. Shaft is not a horrible movie. Though I admit I am an easily amused man. As my unironic love for the seminal 1987 classic Catch the Heat starring the fantastic Tiana Alexandra as Checkers Goldberg should attest.

Tim Story has not made a great film, but he has made a good time at the movies. He stumbles over himself trying to mesh a buddy action comedy with blaxploitation and it appears to have been a mistake. Possibly Story, Barris, or Barnow just haven’t figured out the right mix necessary for success.

Either way, while Shaft is not perfect, it’s not some unwatchable bore either. It’s a thumb sideways type of movie and I’m okay with that.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Jeremiah
Written By

Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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