Shaft changes generational gears as millennial meets classic MOFO

Movie Review: Shaft

Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex magnet to all the chicks? You’re damn right. It’s Shaft, a manufactured icon that’s organically adapting to the times, and reflecting an African-American identity in the midst of transition.

Shaft

3/5

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Jesse T. Usher, Regina Hall, Richard Roundtree

Directed by: Tim Story

Running time: 1 hr 51 mins

Rating: Restricted

Opening wide June 14, 2019

By Katherine Monk

For those of us weaned on 1970s and ‘80s television, Shaft feels like dozing off on a shag rug — an unconscious nod into a long, open loop of nostalgia that conjures an entire, and unique, set of sounds and textures.

The squeak of a leather jacket, the woolly weave of a checked tweed trouser, the glossy chorus of an Isaac Hayes single — and a whole trunk-load of Naugahyde luggage packed with racist and sexist depictions of people on the big and little screens that permeated our lives.

Yes. We spent a lot of time watching screens back then, only the screens issued massive waves of one-way information that saturated every living room. We all watched the same things together, instead of watching different things — and the same things — as individuals. Hence, perhaps, the nascent need for niche tribalism.

It’s not an idle thought when it comes to the resurrection of Shaft. A character born from Blaxploitation movies created specifically for African-American audiences, and a bid to separate them from their money by rehashing Hollywood cliche with black casts and funk soundtracks, John Shaft was moulded from stardust to become a tribal icon.

Bestowed with magical powers to kick ass clear across 110th Street, Shaft doesn’t work for ‘The Man.’ He’s the ultimate power within the ‘hood. He brings street justice to the streets. He’s the wish fulfillment fantasy of the “Black James Bond” — a “ghetto avenger” in the grand tradition of the Jewish Golem, a creature intended to save villagers from pogroms.

Bestowed with magical powers to kick ass clear across 110th Street, Shaft doesn’t work for ‘The Man.’ He’s the ultimate power within the ‘hood. He brings street justice to the streets. He’s the wish fulfillment fantasy of the “Black James Bond” — a “ghetto avenger” in the grand tradition of the Jewish Golem, a creature intended to save villagers from pogroms.

No surprise he’s also conjured up at interesting moments in time. From the first film featuring the private detective in 1971, Shaft turned into a ’70s TV series with Richard Roundtree, then disappeared into the folds of time until the year 2000. That was when Shaft was turned into a rather sombre action vehicle for A-lister Samuel L. Jackson, who played the police detective ‘nephew’ of the original John Shaft.

Nineteen years after that, we’re getting a generational adjustment once more, with a movie that includes both previous Shafts (Jackson and Roundtree) — and a new John Shaft: JJ Shaft (Jesse T. Usher), son of the Sam Jackson Shaft.

Can you dig? The roots of that family tree may be set in the back lot of MGM, but that Shaft keeps growing new limbs, and sprouting all varieties of foliage to adapt to the changing environment.

This millennial version of badass MOFO wears GAP plaid shirts, skinny jeans, and a tie. So lace up your avocado toast Addidas, and get ready for a different take on cool as father and son team up for an action-comedy with endless charisma, and enough confidence to wink at its own artifice.

This millennial version of badass MOFO wears GAP plaid shirts, skinny jeans, and a tie. So lace up your avocado toast Addidas, and get ready for a different take on cool as father and son team up for an action-comedy with endless charisma, and enough confidence to wink at its own artifice.

It’s an empowering place to be, and it’s embodied in JJ. After his father abandoned him and his mother (Regina Hall) to keep them safe, JJ grew up in a white neighbourhood and went to college, graduating from MIT and becoming one of the youngest analysts at the FBI.

Shaft Sr. thinks his son is a little too white, a little too metrosexual, and a little too into home decor. But when JJ asks for his help in solving the murder of his best friend, dad obliges, and the audience can feast on the big fat burgers of father-son spats.

The scenes work because Samuel L. Jackson can pretty much say anything, no matter how outrageous, and remain the charming hero. He can unpack all the sexist language, dated concepts of racial identity, and social taboo that no one else can touch. All he has to do is give us that double-edged grin. Its corners are so sharp, it cuts through all the bullshit.

Jackson is the big engine under the hood of this vintage SS Camaro, but Usher brings a fresh boost with his modern masculinity that isn’t dependent on a big gun, a long leather coat, or a 1970s muscle car. His teddy-bear screen presence marks such a stark contrast to the ambient grit, that director Tim Story never has to work for the odd-couple beats.

Jackson is the big engine under the hood, but Usher brings a fresh boost with his modern masculinity that isn’t dependent on a big gun, a long leather coat, or a 1970s muscle car.

The humour covers every scene, even the one where a baby is under heavy gunfire. It’s a good safety blanket for the audience, and one that keeps Shaft contained to a universe that we know and understand, even when it’s shooting up the status quo with loaded commentary. Shaft targets the humour with enough precision that things never get messy, and the shag carpet of sleepy memory isn’t left with a stain.

@katherinemonk

THE EX-PRESS, June 14, 2019

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Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex magnet to all the chicks? You’re damn right. It’s Shaft, a manufactured icon that’s organically adapting to the times, and reflecting an African-American identity in the midst of transition. Here Tim Story changes generational gears and introduces us to Shaft’s (Samuel L. Jackson) son, JJ, (Jesse T. Usher) -- an FBI analyst who wants to solve the murder of his best friend. Father and son make an odd couple that challenge racial stereotypes from within, opening the door to identity issues via buddy action-comedy genre. It’s easy to enjoy, especially for people weaned on ‘70s TV. -- Katherine Monk

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