Dan's Review: Indulgent "Shaft" Misses on Cultural Awareness
Jun 14, 2019 05:59PM
● By Dan Metcalf
Samuel L. Jackson, Richard Roundtree, and Jessie T. Usher in Shaft - © 2019 Warner Bros.
Shaft (Warner Bros.)
Rated R for pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material, and brief nudity.
Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie Usher, Richard Roundtree, Alexandra Shipp, Regina Hall, Avan Jogia, SaIsaach De Bankolé, Method Man, Matt Lauria, Robbie Jones, Lauren Vélez.
Written by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow, based on the novel by Ernest Tidyman.
Directed by Tim Story.
Living in the age of recycled movie content, it’s inevitable that any successful movie idea will never truly die. It’s been 19 years since Samuel L. Jackson resurrected Shaft from its run in the early 1970s. Widely considered the “crown jewel” of Black Cinema of the era, Shaft holds the distinction of the only “Blaxploitation” movie to garner an Oscar (1971 for Isaac Hayes best song). As cultural values shifted, the success of ethnic-charged films diminished, staying dormant for several decades (even with the mild success of the Keenan Ivory Wayans’ 1988 parody I’m Gonna Git You Sucka). So, here we go again with this week’s version of Shaft, starring Jackson, Richard Roundtree (the original Shaft) and newcomer Jessie Usher as a third-generation “Bad-A.”
The plot isn’t really important here, other than to mention it’s pretty much the same premise of other films in the genre, with a former cop-turned-private-investigator on a mission to eradicate bed elements from the neighborhood by any means necessary. The story follows John Shaft Jr. (Jessie Usher) as his mother (Regina Hall) leaves Shaft Sr. (Jackson) to raise her son in a more protective suburban environment, away from the crime and drugs of Harlem. “JJ” grows up and graduates from MIT, taking a job as a data analyst for the FBI. When his childhood friend, an Iraq War vet is found dead in Harlem, JJ reaches out to his estranged and streetwise dad for help. Their adventures lead them to discover a complicated plot to traffic drugs into the city, using war veterans and an Islamic mosque as cover. Conveniently, the evil crime lord behind the sinister plan has a connection to Shaft Sr., providing the perfect vehicle for revenge. Along the way, father and son deal with their cultural differences (the violent, misogynistic tendencies of dad versus Junior’s millennial, political correctness). They eventually seek out Shaft #1 (Roundtree) for help, who is either Shaft Sr.’s dad or uncle, depending on how you ret-con the 2000 movie’s premise. JJ also learns how to “man up” and embrace his inner badass, thus kindling a relationship with his childhood pal Sasha (Alexandra Shipp). Shaft Sr. must also learn to adjust to modern societal norms of not being such a chauvinistic jerk.
Shaft relies heavily on the kind of humor most would find inappropriate in the age of #MeToo, with lots of sexualized jokes, testosterone-laden gunplay, sissy-shaming, objectification of women, and violence. If you’re willing to overlook such things and don’t mind the irreverent subject matter, more power to you.
Shaft is a true comedy, unlike the movies of the 1970s that inspired it, which leaned more on racial themes, like seeking justice against “The Man” (whites) trying to exploit the black community for monetary gain. This racial element is missing, lost in an overabundance of sight gags and macho one-liners that aim for the easy laugh over any kind of societal commentary. Even the villain crime boss turns out to be an actual African (SaIsaach De Bankolé), marking a true departure from the original film’s themes.
Shaft misses more than it hits any kind of cinematic distinction as a comedy or a buddy action movie. So, if you fancy Samuel L. Jackson’s brand of “Bad-A” persona, a few cheap laughs, a cut-rate story, and an absence of any redeeming societal nuggets of wisdom, Shaft 2019 is just the right thing, and don’t let “The Man” keep you from going to see it.