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Arts & Culture

Samuel L. Jackson Returns as 'Shaft'

Three generations of Shaft: Junior (Jessie T. Usher), his father John (Samuel L. Jackson), and the original John Shaft (Richard Roundtree).
Warner Brothers
Three generations of Shaft: Junior (Jessie T. Usher), his father John (Samuel L. Jackson), and the original John Shaft (Richard Roundtree).

New take on John Shaft goes for comedy

Companion viewing

"Cotton Comes to Harlem" (1970)

"Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" (1971)

"Shaft" (1971)

"Coffy" (1973)

“Shaft” announced in 1971 a new kind of black screen icon. Hollywood tried to build on the Shaft name in 2000 with Samuel L. Jackson playing Shaft’s nephew. Now Jackson is back with another incarnation of the New York private detective in yet another film simply named “Shaft.”

In 1971, a camera swooped down from above New York City to find Richard Roundtree emerging from the underground subway to cross the street against traffic and flip off the cab drivers honking at him. “Shaft” was the first major studio feature to be directed by an African American, Gordon Parks, and it helped usher in an era of Blaxploitation films that gave us new black stars like Roundtree, Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Godfrey Cambridge, Tamara Dobson, William Marshall and Jim Kelly as well as directors such as Parks, Melvin Van Peebles, and William Crain. But Blaxploitation cinema also stirred controversy with groups such as the NAACP condemning it for creating negative black stereotypes and for often being created by white Hollywood to cash in on a growing black audience.

Richard Roundtree in Gordon Parks' 1971 film "Shaft."
Warner Brothers
Richard Roundtree in Gordon Parks' 1971 film "Shaft."

But there is no denying that the original “Shaft” sent rumblings of change proving that a black cast and director could deliver a film that could make money at the box office and even take home an Oscar (for Isaac Hayes’ memorable score).

The fact that John Singleton’s 2000 sequel with the same name “Shaft” failed to capture any of the groundbreaking vibes of Parks’ original film was sadly disappointing considering the promise of Singelton’s debut film “Boyz in the Hood.” What Singleton’s film tried to do was have one generation, Roundtree, the original Shaft, pass the baton to the new generation of African American stars, Samuel L. Jackson who plays Shaft’s nephew. Singelton’s “Shaft” paid homage to the original film in a number of ways (from a cameo by director Parks to having Jackson walk against traffic just as Roundtree had) and that was satisfying. But the film as a whole was run of the mill action entertainment.

Now Tim Story, a lesser director than both Singleton and Parks, has found success by re-inventing Shaft in a more comedic vein with the introduction of a third generation of John Shaft. Jackson is back but this time as Roundtree’s son (there is a throwaway line about how Roundtree’s Shaft had been pretending to be Jackson’s Shaft’s uncle) and he has a son John Shaft, Jr. (Jessie T. Usher). Junior is a millennial who works as a data analyst for the FBI. He refuses to carry a gun, points out that drawing a gun on a woman armed with a bat is misogynistic, and has book smarts versus his dad’s and granddad’s street smarts. And that’s where the film finds most of its humor, in the contrast and conflict between the generations.

Junior has been raised by his mom Maya (Regina Hall) who removed her son from her husband’s dangerous and violent lifestyle. But when Junior’s friend dies under mysterious circumstances in Harlem, he decides his dad might be of help. And then when things get out of hand, father and son seek granddad’s help.

The film has some fun dialogue as well as great chemistry between the original Shaft Roundtree, Jackson as his son, and Usher as Junior. It is especially fun to see Roundtree still with that swagger and cool getting some good screen time. Although the film makes big show early on of trying to give the women (Hall and Alexandra Shipp as Junior’s love interest) more respect and agency in the story, the actresses are left with little to work with and Hall is so shrill in the early scenes that you want to cover your ears. It’s a shame because last year’s “Support the Girls” proved how nuanced an actress she could be.

In some ways, it is a little sad to see Parks' film turn into fodder for comedy but Story seems to take his cue from the recent "21 Jump Street" film that found a mix of nostalgia and spoofing its source material to work at the box office. As you might expect from this approach, Story's film does not seem as knowing or respectful of the original film.

In many ways, Story’s “Shaft” has a better sense of what it wants to be and that makes it better than Singleton’s formulaic thriller. But neither film can compare to the landmark 1971 film. Singleton’s film couldn’t figure out how to reinvent Shaft for the new millennium, This latest “Shaft” never quite figures out how to view its Blaxploitation roots in an era of millennials and political correctness. But at least it has some fun trying.

Samuel L. Jackson Returns as 'Shaft'
By Reporter Beth Accomando In 1971 “Shaft” announced a new kind of black screen icon. Hollywood tried to build on the Shaft name in 2000 with Samuel L. Jackson playing Shaft’s nephew. Now Jackson is back with another incarnation of the New York private detective in yet another film simply named “Shaft.” You can hear this story and other local news every morning by subscribing to San Diego News Matters, KPBS’ daily news podcast. Subscribe via iTunes, Google Play or your favorite podcatcher.