The new movie SHAFT, which is the third produced screenplay with that same title, and the second to star veteran actor Samuel L. Jackson, was fun and interesting. The generational tension between Millennial actor Jessie T. Usher as J.J. Shaft and Baby Boomer actor Jackson as his father John Shaft was intriguingly expressed via cleverly written repartee between them throughout the narrative.
The implications of changes in inner city African American culture through generational and economic shifts are adeptly packed into this entertaining comedy-action movie. Kudos to writers Kenya Barris (creator of the TV show BLACK-ISH) and Alex Barnow.
Jessie T. Usher is able to hold a lot of nuances or layers in his character as an MIT educated, rookie FBI data analyst– nuance of having a natural sensitivity to women as equals to men, the value of healthy eating, the embracing of multiculturalism, and a reluctance to glorify guns as a means to power and domination– to name a few that come to mind. And all this while coming across as emotionally expressive and caring, strong in convictions, and downright adorable. He is someone I could imagine talking with over coffee or a drink, very approachable and relatable.
Jackson portrays the less evolved old guard, “kill or be killed” inner city Black, tough guy private detective, unapologetically coarse and sexist, making both a comic yet thought-provoking foil to the younger, warmer Shaft (Usher). He holds the primal force, including (but not only) rage, for the film, balancing out his son J.J. Shaft’s comparative softness and tendency to think more deeply. Their dialogue had me laughing often– that and the interweaving of old, Motown R&B songs into the musical score, including within some action sequences, particularly a few done in slow motion as if to imply dancing. This was bizarre, clever, disturbing, and funny all at once, leaving me to think of Kabuki theater somehow merging with old action films from the 1960s and 70s. This movie makes fun of itself often, including humorously yet gracefully glorifying people’s nostalgia for earlier, seemingly “simpler” times, namely the 1970s and 1980s. The result is a form of high camp within both a visual and musical theatricality that I eat up like rare, fine truffles. Granted, such treats are not to everyone’s liking.
The one matter I took some issue with is the blatant homophobia expressed via John Shaft’s hyper concern about his son J.J.’s sexuality. To the older, traditionally hyper-masculine Shaft, the younger man’s sensitivity, non-macho presentation, and non-aggressive, respectful approach to women is confusing and anxiety-inducing, with the father asking his son if he likes “pussy.” John later circles back to this matter, listing off possible sexual orientations, including “metrosexual” and “fluid,” for J.J. to choose from before the younger man clarifies that he is indeed straight. However, the fact that John knows these latest terms and states them matter-of-factly while caringly putting his very drunk son to bed for the night suggests to me that a part of the older man is wrestling with his discomfort and more likely than not to ultimately accept J.J. regardless of his sexual proclivities. And it is realistic to portray a middle-aged inner city African American man and other men around him as rigid believers in compulsory heterosexuality being bound up with achieving true manhood. The movie does not push the envelope nearly enough here to my satisfaction, which it would, say, if J.J. Shaft’s orientation were left vague, not so defined, hinted at as possibly bisexual or fluid. Well, homophobia and heterosexism in mainstream media are very slow to fade, this production only confirming that point, sadly. More open-mindedness and acceptance to happen all in good time, I suppose– so long as the good fight for queer visibility and equality continues.
The actual storyline concerning taking down a powerful drug smuggling and dealing ring is secondary to the strong, sympathetic, ever-evolving characters of SHAFT, namely the father-son duo. However, these two are well-supported by Maya Babanikos (Regina Hall), John Shaft’s long-lost girlfriend and mother of his son J.J., and Sasha Arias (Alexandra Shipp), the close friend and love interest of said son. I would have liked each of these smart, independent, likable women to be given more to do in the action sequences other than act freaked out and helpless. But, perhaps that switch up of roles will be forthcoming in a sequel. After all, it is the young woman Sasha, herself a physician, who carries a gun and lends it to J.J. in a time of need. Clearly, her full abilities are not put to use here. Hopefully, they will be in any future Shaft productions. As for Maya, she is the one who raised J.J. Shaft to be the well-rounded person that he is, leaving his long absent father to return and mix a healthy bit of grit into him for good measure. Fortunately, Maya and Sasha survive to flesh out a true family, anchored by three generations of Shaft men, with the elder actor Richard Roundtree (the original John Shaft in three early 1970s movies starring that character) showing up to improve the odds in a final face-off against the arch villain and his henchmen. And those three Shafts aim for laughs with us viewers while packing heat and going for broke.
I had no qualms with seeing white people portrayed unflatteringly at every turn in SHAFT, be they as secondary villains, suspicious cops, or establishment assholes (i.e., J.J. Shaft’s uptight boss in the FBI). We all need to laugh at ourselves, regardless of what ethnicity and socio-economic class/status we happen to belong. We white folks especially need to be brought down some pegs and onto the ground with everyone else, there to roll about in the dirt and laugh at the theatricality, often absurdity, and ever-changing wonder of life. The movie SHAFT clearly, amusingly reminds us viewers to do just that.