Review: Shaft (2019)

Distributor: Warner Bros.
Director: Tim Story
Writers: Kenya Barris, Alex Barnow
Composer: Christopher Lennertz
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher, Regina Hall, Alexandra Shipp, Richard Roundtree
Genre: Comedy, Action, Crime
Rating: R

Like most savants of Af. Am. culture, I maintain a love/hate relationship with Blaxploitation films. Of course, the “exploitation” aspect entails the spectacle of urban slumming, hyper-sexualization, casual drug use, gaudy dress,  flamboyant mannerisms, and general disregard for the rule of law, reifying white stereotypes of black life. On the other hand, films featuring predominantly black casts before the 1970s were exceedingly rare, placing Blaxploitation movies at the forefront for marginalized audiences to see images of people who look like they do on the big screen.

The gang’s all here. I’m not sure if they’re all looking in the right direction, though.

Perhaps one of the reasons why the original Shaft has maintained a seminality that eludes other films of its era is that it was not originally intended for a black lead. Richard Roundtree’s iconic role as a private dick was written without the baggage of the tripe listed in the above paragraph. For the 2000 Shaft remake, Samuel L. Jackson’s infamous Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction catapulted him into a lead candidate.

I have no idea why Warner Bros. found it necessary to make yet another Shaft, but away we go!

I giggle to myself when movies set in NYC fail to illustrate how diverse it is. Shaft sets the record straight.

Content Guide

Language and Crude Humor: Did you read the intro information? Samuel L. Jackson is in this movie—yes, that SLJ, the man who gets memes made about how much he uses the F-word. Viewers should anticipate LOTS of vulgar stuff.

A child actor uses more profanity than the lead character, and even hustles to snitch…for a price.

Alcohol and Drug Use: Good news! One character is actually SOBER, and orders a club soda when he and his friends go to a bar. Therefore, viewers should still expect to see some social drinking, including an instance where one character vomits from drunkenness. 

As a part of an investigation, the main character visits a hit-house where more than drugs are within the realm of possibility…

Shaft II is persistently concerned about which side of the bread his son places the butter.

Sexuality: …A crackhead propositions a Shaft, $5 for fellatio, $10 for…more colorful activities. He then jokes in response, “Those are reasonable prices,” but declines. 

In another scene, a Shaft visits another Shaft, but when the front door opens, someone akin to an adult entertainer greets him, her breasts visible through her open silk robe. 

Violence: Shaft features a number of fisticuffs, including…capoeira. The primary source of violence though are the improbable gunfights, where of course, whichever Shaft that happens to be on the screen at the time activates god mode; everyone dies, he lives. 

Spirituality: The murder mystery eventually brings the investigation to a mosque. Before entering, the Shafts’ female companion covers her head in respect. As they walk in, worship is in session; a room full of men finish praying. 

Shaft eschews the wholesome dad-and-son adventure. Here, Shaft II tries to get Shaft III some…action.

Review

“Hey man, did you check out that new Shaft movie?” The only other black man in my entire department is a self-proclaimed movie connoisseur, so I thought that I would pick his brain. 

“Nah, not me. I didn’t even see the remake let alone the new one. Let me tell you why. Denzel, Michael Jai White, Laurence Fishburne, Will Smith, Omar Epps, man even Eddie Murphy—any of those would have been better. Look, Shaft is a ladies’ man. Can you think of any woman, ever, who has said she’s gotten hot in the pants for Samuel L. Jackson?” 

I snigger. “No, dawg.” I hadn’t thought about it like that. But now that you mention it, yeah. That does strike me as a mis-cast.”

Shaft III as a baby, with a few scratches from broken glass in the film’s opening shootout.

This old-school gentleman remembers Isaac Hayes’ legendary theme song for Richard Roundtree’s iconic character, Shaft. Though he wasn’t willing to entertain the 2000 movie, I enjoyed it. So when I discovered that there was another, curiosity got the best of me. I know that remakes are popular and profitable, but both Roundtree and Jackson are long in a tooth, despite the latter’s MCU cameos as Nick Fury. Who would take up the challenge of upholding  their characters’ sex appeal?

The model-like Sasha playing as the “girl next door” love interest is one of the film’s biggest punchlines.

In actuality, no one. In Shaft 2019, Jessie T. Usher plays John “JJ” Shaft III, the son of John Shaft II, Samuel L. Jackson’s character. Unlike his father, JJ Shaft is written with the present generation’s sensibilities in mind. What my old school friend describes as a “lady’s man” is now considered womanizing. Thus, this Shaft—Shaft 2019 edition—is not a self-made man of the streets oozing testosterone, but a nerdy MIT graduate who copies fashion trends from GQ and allegedly furnishes his home with merchandise from Pier 1. JJ HATES guns despite wearing a badge, and does not presume that every woman who breathes is swooning for his company in the early AM hours. Despite being good looking and surrounded by gorgeous friends, the film tries to make JJ out to be a coiffured Steve Urkel who does not understand how the real world operates.

JJ is not street-smart. Here, a foul-mouthed kid hustles him for a tip on his case after noticing the tie-wearing brotha ain’t from ’round these parts.

JJ’s friend suddenly turns up dead; because JJ is the protagonist, ostensibly, everyone outside immediate social circle is incompetent. A savvy audience might catch on to how the plot will proceed. JJ will suffer a few setbacks, but will eventually emerge the hero despite disobeying a direct order from his superior to leave the case alone. 

JJ argues with his boss over who calls the shots. His boss must have forgotten whose movie this is.

It is after one of those setbacks—JJ getting his butt kicked when he should have died if Shaft were not a work of fiction that takes itself only half-seriously—when Shaft II (Samuel L. Jackson) enters onto the set. Unlike JJ, this Shaft is manly, the kind of manly that can get away with a face full of glitter, because director Tim Story makes sure that the body of his female company is also full of glitter; this Shaft pours strong drinks and brags about sending his son condoms and adult magazines for his birthdays; this Shaft immediately takes offense that someone would put hands on his…Shaft, and proceeds to take revenge; this Shaft is comically obsessed with his…Shaft’s sexual orientation. Samuel L. Jackson’s rendition of Shaft would belong on the cast of Predator, The Expendables, or Broforce. Manly!!!

So manly, they can walk across a street in NYC when they do not have the right-of-way, and not one person dares to hit them.

The contrast between Sam Jackson’s BDE and JJ’s contrastingly sensitive, modern interpretation of masculinity is what provides the majority of the film’s humor. And it works. I am not ashamed to admit it. I can’t laugh at romcoms, yet Shaft II’s chauvinistic, homophobic, ageist tendencies are so absurd, that I found myself laughing either at his expense. Or my credibility? Hey, in real life, when I laugh at something my wife says is not funny, I respond that laughing is involuntary.

Even the thug with the broken fingers is skeptical of what the organization Brothers Watching Brothers really means (snorts).

Look, Samuel L. Jackson is astoundingly good at what he does: being loud, being a smart-a—er, smart-alec, and sprinkling around f-bombs like salt bay seasons meat. Like in Captain Marvel, he carries the film. Jessie T. Usher reminds me of Michael Jai White in Spawn; he demonstrates an awareness that he is in the kind of movie that should not be taken seriously, and so recites his lines as if he is reading them. I know he can do better, because when he switches to “BAMF” mode, as indicated in screenshots where his attire matches the other Shafts, he corrects himself on his line delivery. It is nice to see that Richard Roundtree is still around and kicking; the fact that he has managed to do just that allows me to forgive the ridiculous notion that he is still capable of fighting. 

How did Tim Story not notice in this shot that Roundtree is shaking while holding out his gun? They could have found him a lighter prop piece.

I appreciate Alexandra Shipp’s character, Sasha, and how she is an already-accomplished individual, a medical doctor. Her love for JJ has to be earned, though the pivot from their friend zone relationship to how she becomes hot in the pants for JJ comes simultaneously in cliché with his BAMF transition; hey, I did warn that JJ would emerge the hero, and what hero would dare be caught single? Regina Hall (as Maya) is a criminally underrated actress, not only managing to age impossibly gracefully, but also very much reminding me of Alfre Woodard’s ability to convincingly change in mood at whim. Shaft II is correct in pursuing her as the one, and I wish he would quit “f***ing up,” as she says, his chances at redemption in her eyes. Sigh, men…

Maya wants a regular-smegular man who does not have vulgar or hyper-violent tendencies. Shaft argues that those men are wusses, like the man here, who cowers at the sight of danger.

If someone had asked for my personal permission to make another Shaft movie, I would have scoffed. However, what Tim Story has put together here works. I got lost in the details of the conspiratorial plot and its resolution. This film is a good popcorn flick that reaches a predictable ending. Because I watched this movie in 2020 rather than its release date in 2019, I appreciate predictable nonsense during chaotically unpredictable times.

Lauren Valez will always be Detective Moreno in my eyes.

 

Positives

+ Samuel L. Jackson + Surprisingly funny + Unexpected meta-commentary on (toxic?) masculinity + Soundtrack (especially, or particularly, the old-school selections)

Negatives

- But why? - Jessie T. Usher's acting - Alexandra Shipp's transition from girl-who-can-handle-herself to damsel-in-distress

The Bottom Line

Shaft (2019) is a fun, modern interpretation of how the Blaxploitation genre has evolved from the 1970's to the present.

 

7.6

Maurice Pogue

Since picking up an NES controller in 1985 at the age of 2, Maurice and video games have been inseparable. While most children aspired to be lawyers, doctors, or engineers (at the behest of their parents), he aspired to write for publications such as EGM, PC Gamer, PC Accelerator, and Edge. After achieving ABD status in English at MSU, Maurice left academia and dedicated his writing to his lifelong passion. He is currently the Video Game Editor at Geeks Under Grace.

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