All true movie buffs remember the famous scene in sci-fi classic The Empire Strikes Back when Princess Leia finally shares her feelings with Han Solo (“I love you”), only to receive his self-centered reply (“I know”). Veteran actor Harrison Ford supposedly improvised his line in that 1980 Star Wars sequel. What’s been overlooked, however, is that we’d heard those lines before. Halfway through Shaft—the iconic 1971 movie that mainstreamed the blaxploitation genre—detective John Shaft stands in a Manhattan phone booth talking to his girlfriend Ellie Moore, and the two have the same exchange. Shaft was Hollywood’s original rogue.
This year’s Shaft—starring Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher, Richard Roundtree and Regina Hall—revives the much-loved franchise of the early ’70s trilogy: Shaft (1971), Shaft’s Big Score! (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973). Legendary photographer Gordon Parks first told the story of private eye John Shaft, a kick-ass Black investigator in his late 20s whose exploits in New York City’s seedy Times Square and heroin-era Harlem had rarely, if ever, been depicted in film. Shaft curses out White cops, has sensuous sex scenes (with a Black and a White woman), trades racist barbs with an Italian gangster, then takes on the Mafia and wins. Moviegoers used to the likes of Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte had never seen anything like Roundtree’s Shaft.
“I had to do some research,” admits Usher, 27, who portrays John “J. J.” Shaft Jr. in the latest installment. “Initially, I kind of knew what I was getting [into] because I hear the way people speak about Shaft and how they call him a neighborhood hero, the way that he’s looked at and respected. I understood, everybody felt at the time needed to be done. It wasn’t just for entertainment; it was like: ‘We need this. This guy, he’s a champion for us. And he’s to be respected.’ And I loved that.”
Shaft led directly to 1972’s Super Fly (directed by Gordon Parks Jr.), 1973’s The Mack and The Spook Who Sat by the Door and other Black films, including a slew of ’70s action-adventures starring bombshell Pam Grier (e.g., Foxy Brown, Coffy and Sheba, Baby). The so-called “blaxploitation” films showed African-Americans as we’d never been seen before: fighting back against White supremacy, making love and looking sexy, using our agency. No longer the servants or sidekicks that mainstream audiences were used to, the heroes and sheroes of these movies usually existed in their own Black universe. The shift changed Hollywood forever, setting the stage for directors such as Spike Lee, Tyler Perry, Ava DuVernay, Steve McQueen, Ryan Coogler and others to tell our stories, for us by us.
Such is the legacy of Shaft.
“We didn’t have a lot of . . . the iconic, strong, dark, handsome, well-dressed, stuff-talking guy that everybody kind of aspired to be in their fantasy lives from the life on-screen.” recalls Jackson, who portrayed John Shaft II in director John Singleton’s 2000 version of Shaft. “That made you feel good to be able to watch it, made you feel good to see a guy who lived life on his own terms, see a guy who stuck it to the Man in a way that we all wanted the Man stuck,” he says, laughing. “All those things were great for us.”
An attempt to make Shaft a success on television in 1973-74 fizzled after seven episodes on CBS. “It was a total disaster, that TV show,” says Roundtree, who reprises his familiar role in the latest Shaft film. “I wish that that had never happened. I was unprepared for what I was facing TV-wise. I thought I was gonna be doing Shaft, and it turned out I was doing a Black Barnaby Jones. At that point in time, you couldn’t put Shaft on television. It was so watered down. They [had] me in a suit and a tie at the Downtown Athletic Club in LA. C’mon, man. I complained . . . to deaf ears.”
At the turn of the millennium, Singleton’s Shaft was in his early 50s. Rotten Tomatoes’ 67-percent approval rating for the updated Shaft reflected the general attitude of moviegoers at the time. Isaac Hayes once sang of “the private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks” on his Oscar-winning “Theme from Shaft,” and though the original detective was clearly known for his sex life, Jackson’s version managed not to have one. Fans found it problematic.
“Totally different kinds of films and two very different generations of filmmakers,” Jackson says when asked to compare 2000’s Shaft with the latest version, which is directed by Tim Story (Fantastic Four). “The times were very different in that we had a movie that was being produced by Scott Rudin that was written by Richard Price. So [there] was a certain preciousness to what was going on. And every now and then, because we paid this guy’s fee, [Shaft couldn’t] talk like I talk. Sometimes I had to fix what he said. That became OK. John [Singleton] was always supportive of that.”
And thank goodness. Critics still took note of corny lines such as, “It’s my duty to please that booty” and “It’s Giuliani time,”a reference to onetime New York City mayor and current presidential lawyer Rudolph Giuliani. Singleton’s film recuperated its budget, but no one seemed eager for another installment. But nineteen years later, enter J.J., the estranged millennial son of Jackson’s character. Every generation gets the heroes and villains it deserves. For those of J.J.’s generation, that means an action-comedy Shaft with more one-liners than shoot-outs. The end result turns out far less like a Black James Bond movie and more like the Beverly Hills Cop and Bad Boys franchises of decades past.
Recalls Usher, “Tim [Story] and I had a conversation where he was saying, ‘I know what you think we’re getting ready to do here, but this is gonna be something totally different. I want you to just open up your mind and try a few things with me.’ It was interesting to do, to be honest, because it was something that I wasn’t expecting. I feel like a lot of people aren’t going to be expecting it. But I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the approach and the tone.”
John Shaft circa 1971 fought the Mafia to rescue a Harlem numbers runner’s daughter. John Shaft II, in 2000, brought to justice the murderous son of a Donald Trump-like real estate magnate, battling a fearsome Washington Heights drug dealer along the way. The 2019 Shaft sets up a reconciliation between father and son as they navigate the underworld of gentrified Harlem to avenge the death of J.J.’s best friend. Along for the ride is the youngest Shaft’s mother, Maya (Hall)—who left John II way back in the early ’90s.
But is the world ready for a comedic Shaft? The heroic archetype of the ’70s worked because of the character’s hard-boiled way of sticking it to the Man, his sexy swagger, his fashion-forward turtlenecks and leather coats. Can all of that translate to the social media age with overlaid comedy?
“I think because we didn’t change the character, the comedy comes from Shaft not understanding 2019 and all this new-age shit,” says Hall. “We introduce components of Shaft’s life that didn’t exist before, like him being a dad and actually having fallen in love with a woman before, and trying to have a relationship. I don’t think you’re gonna lose anything you loved about the original Shaft. I know they created the backstory so well that you get where the comedy comes from, and it’s not like Shaft does stuff that he would never do. Because the character stays rooted in who Shaft has been for the entire franchise, people will be able to go along with it and still feel the action that does happen in the movie. He’s still a bad mother. You will get all that.”
Writer-producer Kenya Barris (responsible for the black-ish, grown-ish and mixed-ish sitcoms) co-wrote the lighthearted, action-packed Shaft screenplay, which focuses on J. J. as a FBI cybersecurity expert forced to seek his father’s help to solve his friend’s murder. By the film’s end, all three Shafts swing through the window of a skyscraper to save the day, just as the original character did at the climax of the 1971 film.
Still, veteran cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales expresses reservations that probably reflect the opinions of many longtime fans: “When I saw the trailer for the new Shaft, I was shocked that it was a comedy,” he says. “Having grown up with Shaft as one of the first Black action heroes on-screen, I found it disrespectful and damaging. But it also reminded me of the original Casino Royale, a James Bond satire made in the ’60s. It was over the top, silly, a critical failure and did nothing to further the character’s mythology. When novelist Ernest Tidyman created the character Shaft, he was seen as a revolutionary figure. When Gordon Parks made the movies, he portrayed him as a symbol of strength and pride, not a joke.”
Hollywood’s biggest success story this century is the billion-dollar Marvel cinematic universe. Their superhero movies (such as Avengers: Endgame) blend action, adventure and comedy with a professional touch. The Shaft of 1971 is comparable to last year’s Black Panther in that African-American audiences flocked to theaters in droves to see heroic depictions of ourselves. But the Oscar-nominated Black Panther was the the highest-grossing movie of 2018, while last June’s SuperFly reboot of the 1972 classic completely tanked commercially. So maybe reintroducing Shaft with a comic twist for today’s audiences makes a certain amount of sense.
“I was concerned about the sanctity of the mythological character we have in our heads of who Shaft is and what that meant,” says Jackson. “There are a lot of ways to tell a story. There are different sides to every person’s personality. So I figured we were trying to present a new person to join the Shaft legacy. You got Richard [Roundtree], you got me, so you got two different types of personalities already. So we add another one. And maybe it can be a little lighter to introduce it, just to keep people engaged in a different way. He didn’t turn into a buffoon and disrespect who he is. I was real concerned about that.”
If done correctly, in an entertaining way that connects with ticket buyers, Shaft could be a true new beginning of the original trilogy that ended with Shaft in Africa. African-American filmmakers Lee, Jordan Peele and Barry Jenkins all raise golden Oscar statuettes to the sky these days, with small-screen series such as She’s Gotta Have It and The Twilight Zone on the side. The climate for a Netflix or Hulu version of Shaft totally exists in a way that wasn’t possible with the substandard old CBS version.
“These days, you kinda have to switch it up and lighten the mood when you’re breaking the gap between multiple generations so one generation can understand the next and everybody can kinda be of one accord,” says Usher. “And a great way to do that is always with comedy. Everybody understands the seriousness of it, everybody gets it, but you could still laugh at it. It’s less dramatic, but that doesn’t make it less serious. You may be thinking, ‘There’s gonna be a seriousness missing from it,’ and [there’s] not. We didn’t take that away at all. [We] s just added another component to it that was maybe shied away from before.”
Shaft opens in theaters Friday, June 14.
Miles Marshall Lewis is the author of Promise That You Will Sing About Me: The Power and Poetry of Kendrick Lamar (St. Martin’s Press), due next year. Follow him on social media at @MMLunlimited.