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EUR Review: Giving An Icon The ‘Shaft’

shaft

*Ever since debuting on the big screen in 1971 with “Shaft“, the character of John Shaft has been looked at with awe and reverence. Though pigeonholed as a product of the blaxploitation era, the character was much more than that. As portrayed by a young-but-not-too-young Richard Roundtree, “Shaft” gave the world the first really convincing cinematic black private eye.

Tough and full of personality, Roundtree’s Shaft was every bit as formidable as other legendary gumshoes like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. At the same time, he distinguished himself as a black man who would align himself with or take down everyone from local rackets bosses to the mafia to keep his Harlem  neighborhood – while making a buck at the same time.

Most of all, Shaft was portrayed as a STRONG black man, who could in equal measure throw a man out of a window, insult an obnoxious white pick-up and bed gorgeous ladies. He was a gritty character that demanded to be taken seriously, while having fun.

Nearly half a century later, with 2019’s “Shaft”, that character is unrecognizable.

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A character that was the epitome of cool, exuded masculinity from every pore, relied on grit in his fight against the system and that had oodles of sex appeal has all that taken away. In its place, Warner Brothers decided to enlist Tim Story, the director of “Barbershop”; screenwriter Kenya Barris, who created  “Black-ish”  and Alex Bamow, a screenwriter for flipping “Family Guy” and turned a 48-year-old franchise built on a black man who exhibited courage, spirit, resolve, determination, nerve, guts and plenty of testosterone in his previous incarnations into just another lame sitcom.

This is an absolute travesty. It is akin to Clint Eastwood returning for another “Dirty Harry” movie – and then finding out he recruited Jim Carrey to be his partner and they make a “Dumb and Dumber”-type slapstick comedy. It is like if you turned the new “Jason Bourne” movie into a slasher film. It is similar to how people would feel if we got a new James Bond film in which it gave off an “Austin Powers” vibe. You get the point. It simply should not happen.

The story, what there is of it, starts with John Shaft II (Samuel L. Jackson)- son of Roundtree’s Shaft – becoming a deadbeat dad.

Laughing yet?

Seriously. It’s 1989 and Jackson’s Shaft and his wife (Regina Hall, fine in a thankless role) and his infant son survive an assassination attempt by drug lord Pierro “Gordito” Carrera (Isaach de Bankole). Concerned that Shaft II’s lifestyle will put them in danger and raises JJ on her own – and the film then flashes forward 25 years later, in which time Shaft II has not seen JJ.

This does not ring true on virtually any level. That John Shaft – any John Shaft for any reason – would go 25 years without seeing his son is preposterous  – and sadly, turns the icon who broke the mold by always going  up against The Man a stereotype and a sorry excuse for one. Worse, later in the film, John Shaft II tells JJ that he is going to make Gordito pay  for “costing him his family”.

This is ludicrous. A man with the name John Shaft would have taken care of Gordito immediately, the moment he put his family in danger – NOT let a relatively small-time thug cost him a quarter-century with his family. 

If played straight, seeing a character like John Shaft adapt to the modern world and it’s sensibilities could have been fascinating. Instead we get a cheap sitcom in which Jackson’s, Shaft is still bedding women , but this seems gratuitous – like one full frontal nude scene –  not at all sexy and not at all believable. also, at 70, Jackson’s Shaft is only six years younger than Roundtree in real life. It is never believable that h would be his son.

netflix reboot
Richard Roundtree as John Shaft

As for JJ, played by Jessie Usher… Eesh. Again, carrying on the Shaft legacy could have been fun. Instead we get a goofy, milquetoast millennial who is a FBI agent working FOR “The Man” and who is a not-so-bright Cybersecurity expert with a degree from MIT. Again, played straight, the contrast between generation might have been interesting to explore, but instead we get  goofy,sitcom vibe that is impossible to feel engrossed in and a character that’s impossible to be taken seriously, especially when JJ is shown to be such a soy boy that he refuses to pick up a gun even as others are shooting at him. 

Like too many Hollywood productions lately, the film thinks showing masculinity to be toxic is a barrel of laughs. But to do that to any John Shaft is an outright betrayal of the character as first conceived by Ernest Tidyman, who took a chance and wrote a story about a detective named John Shaft in the novel “Shaft back in 1970 and was such a needed breath of fresh air it was immediately made into the film that make Roundtree a household name a year later.

As for Roundtree..Yeesh. Again, a film in which he had to deal with a changing world could have been relevant and entertaining. Instead, he is reduced to silly grandpa and that is unforgivable and a waste of an opportunity to carry on the character’s true legacy while we are still blessed to have him in the role. 

Instead of a hard-boiled drama, we get a situation in which all 3 shafts act like a ripoff of “The Aging Bickersons” as they investigate the apparent overdose death of JJ’s friend Karim. (Avan Jogia).Of course, we soon know that Gordito is responsible.

Because playing into negative stereotypes and overdose deaths are such knee slapping, laugh-out concepts. Right?

This film is such a tragic insult to the character’s legacy, it’s unbelievable. 

As soon as someone floated the story idea, someone in the room should have screamed “bad mother-shut-your-mouth”.

Grade: C+   

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