He’s A BAAAD…
Shaft 2019 is…Shaft. The character is unchanged by the advances of the times. He still vows to get the job done in the way he knows best and treat women… with sexual equality?? The evolution of Shaft in this film shows itself with the introduction of Shaft’s son, John Shaft Jr. played by Jessie T. Usher.
The film is considered a sequel to the 2000 John Singleton directed film that introduced powerhouse Sam Jackson as Shaft. A perfect role for Sam Jackson then and he brings that same character out with a bit of age in this depiction of the no hold bars character. In this iteration, love interest Maya played by Regina Hall has taken their son and moved to the suburbs to protect him from the violence and chaos of the life Shaft has chosen. The main villain is a drug lord (of course) named Gordito played by Isaac De Bankolé (who portrayed a River Tribe Elder in Black Panther). The same case Shaft was working that caused their family to break up over 20 years.
Although the film is part of the Shaft legacy it does take a different turn than its predecessors. Shaft has always had its moments of comedy whether intentional or not, but this film written by the writing team that includes comedic talents of Kenya Barris (Blackish, Girl’s Trip, Barbershop) and Alex Barnow (The Goldbergs, Mr Sunshine, Family Guy) leans heavily into the action comedy brand than the action P.I. focus of the other films have had. I felt this was certainly an angle that might be fun to explore in the Shaft brand to update it and give some laughs as well as a modern twist.
As a audience goer, I was ready for the laughs mixed with the P.I. crime action story to keep me intrigued. The film does brings comedy first and story second, it is important to note that the comedy took to Shaft a bit hard meaning it was not the best blending of modern times and the old ways of Shaft. We have a son who did not grow up in the streets of Harlem but the suburbs outside of the city, learning computer science and working for the FBI in their computer technology department. Meaning he’s a hacker, cyber security, cyber intelligence guy and hates guns. It is obviously the opposite of how Shaft operates, making the perfect environment for an odd couple relationship.
The odd couple for me was too odd and maybe I am thinking with my too ‘woke’ mind but I was not comfortable with the amount of times men threw around the word pu**y and towards John Shaft Jr. The writing turned Shaft’s relations with women as a way to school Jr on his inability to talk to women, for me that was a miss. The amount of jokes around it were intense and I never found redemption for this because how do you really push back against Shaft? He’s a man stuck in his ways, of an era past that pushes Jr to embrace a different side of himself, but I really wanted to see Shaft confront his outdated notions and be told some things were just not okay. Instead we saw Shaft Jr get frustrated but never really address any issues. For some people these moments are enough to counteract the gay jokes, the pu**y talk and the many sexual uses of women but for me it wasn’t up to par with the times and it certainly shows.
Maybe I have high expectations, maybe I am very judgmental but I couldn’t get past it and it is a glaring flaw in the narrative. Does it bring the culture back two steps? I don’t think so, but I know it hasn’t advanced it somewhere new. Those who were in the theater able to laugh at the gay jokes, the gendered talking down of Shaft Jr were not looking for an elevated Shaft. I only hope that if they continue the franchise that the writing does not need to lean on the comedy that highlights what makes a strong man of days past or notions of outdated notions of what women want. There were such moments for instance when Shaft Jr would remark to his father: “I’m pretty sure women don’t want you telling them what they want.” But Shaft dismissing it and giving him advice that Shaft Jr. just rolls his eyes at didn’t make me feel better.
It was a lot of back and forth between two men discussing how men should act towards women and towards other men. The trailer scene in which Shaft Jr is trying to explain why Shaft Sr. shouldn’t hit a woman is an unfortunate mansplaining extravaganza. It would be clever if the woman they were trying to question also had actual lines for substance sake, at least. Instead her punching Jr in the face was supposed to offset the mansplaining I guess? Which was disappointing because we had a heavy hitter Luna Lauren Velez (Det. Nina Moreno of New York Undercover) also more recently loved as Rio Morales, Miles Morales’ madre from Into the Spider-verse with almost no lines in this film…in fact I think she had maybe 5 lines as a throwaway scene as Shaft is shooting her designer hand bags and shoes in questioning.
The intrigue for me was in the two main women characters who were well written and a necessary element of the film. Maya, mother of Shaft Jr. and ex of Shaft played by Regina Hall, does a fantastic job as always. Her performance is funny, actually realistic, and also nuanced. She had a mission and love for her son, wanting the best for him and also the best for herself. We see her dating again and then dealing with that feeling when you encounter your ex – whom you loved but just couldn’t be with in the circumstances, and trying to ground herself in a hilarious way. She is caring and knows Shaft’s antics are outrageous and not something she is willing to tolerate – which was a breath of fresh air for me. She kept me going and is an anchor that kept me invested in watching.
The other female character was best friend and love interest Sasha played by Alexandra Shipp (Storm of X-men Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix.) While her outing as our favorite weather witch in the most recent X-Men films has not been widely received, I have faith in Alexandra Shipp and feel the perfect role for her is, one day, going to show us what she’s really got as an actress. In this film, she is the down-to-earth best friend that isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. She is protective and tough, which I enjoyed seeing her character play up. In the film, it is revealed that she has around Shaft Jr’s whole life,sees how his father not being present has affected him and knows he deserves better. She is funny to watch on screen and skeptical of Shaft which I yearned for in many of the scenes. This type of attitude is one of the saving graces of the film that Regina Hall’s character also employs and aids in helping Shipp’s character one to love.
SHUT YO MOUTH
It would hurt my heart if I gave off the impression that I don’t like Shaft or that I don’t understand the cultural phenomenal of Black cool that is Shaft. Nor do I want this review to imply that I want to see him change in an unrealistic way. Not true, I love Shaft – as a kid I enjoyed the original and the 2000 reboot. I just want more not just for him, but for Black folks on screens, big and small in 2019. I did not and still do not expect Shaft to come out the gate drinking Kale smoothies and recommending the young women today to womanist book reading lists.
We need to be more clever in the way we bring beloved, old school characters and franchises such as Shaft to the modern world. We don’t need to leave him behind, yet there certainly could have been a smoother transition to bring him along that could have made this sequel smoother. In addition I wanted to see more of Shaft’s skills as a detective, and a more in-depth unraveling of the narrative. I desired to see more of the intricacies of the case at hand to demonstrate Shaft’s brilliant and cunning mind, but the case did not have high enough stakes and was not a big enough focus.
The father son relationship did end up being the meat of the film and Shaft Jr coming out of his shell introduced this film as a classic introduction film for his character. Bringing in the iconic and one and only Richard Roundtree as John Shaft Sr, from the original films was a nice touch truly, only the most logical step for this film. Seeing all three Shafts was the moment everyone wanted to see in the film, and Richard does a superb job. He is funny, he brings in more of that cooool, Jive Shaft for the old heads but in 2019 style and let’s be honest – what can Richard Roundtree do wrong? He’s had a storied career and it’s great to see a pillar of Black Hollywood past on screen today, including him in this film and just having him is great homage to the suave blackness that audiences loved back in the day.
I don’t hold this against Sam Jackson, he played the role as the Shaft he knows and does it well. I reckon Jackson is the only actor who could pull off Shaft today. The film did play up Shaft’s disdain for millennial aesthetics which is a popular troupe in film and television today and realistically a very logical thing I feel that he would do in 2019. Another item of note that worked with the story was of the changing times that was messing with his way of life and his neighborhood.
Yet I do wish the writing team addressed gentrification in Harlem more. I see really see this is as a missed opportunity to deepen our connection with him and to stand as more significant social commentary reflecting the times. With a tagline of “More Shaft than you can handle”, I do feel there is a chance to have an more evolved Shaft. While I am unsure of the future of the franchise, we’ve seen Jessie T. Usher’s performance and he may be helping to ring in the new age of Shaft, I just hope we can see the ally Shaft come through much more to the forefront.