Underrated/Overlooked: Jim Hemphill on Shaft

Maybe because it was a sequel/remake, most audiences missed out on one of the most entertaining films of 2019.

In June 1971, Gordon Parks’ Shaft opened in American theaters and kept playing in them for more than a year and a half, eventually spawning two sequels and seven made-for-TV movies. All 10 of these films, which were released in a flurry between 1971 and 1974, starred Richard Roundtree as the groundbreaking title character, a black private eye who had the intelligence and dignity of the characters typically played by Sidney Poitier, but also the sexual swagger of James Bond, the antiestablishment rebelliousness of Clint Eastwood, and Roundtree’s own unique combination of relaxed confidence and intense righteousness. His characterization remains one of the most iconic in mainstream crowd-pleasing cinema, and the movie was incredibly influential both in its time and afterward. Shaft’s box-office success unleashed a torrent of genre films with black stars (Superfly, Hit Man, etc.), and its tropes found their way into some of the biggest hits of the 1980s and beyond – the way in which Eddie Murphy’s Axel Foley moves through the action of Beverly Hills Cop and casually dominates everyone around him owes a lot to Parks and Roundtree’s creation, whose shadow also looms large over the Bad Boys and Rush Hour films and many others.

The 2019 Shaft brings things full circle, absorbing the influence of the 1970s Shaft films and John Singleton’s 2000 incarnation as well as the dozens of action-comedies that borrowed Shaft’s template but added humor to the mix in the wake of Beverly Hills Cop’s staggering commercial success. The new Shaft, as conceived by writers Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow and directed by Tim Story, is both a terrific urban action film – the best in years, with one expertly choreographed set piece after another – and a hysterical buddy comedy that compares favorably with classics of the genre such as 48Hrs. and Lethal Weapon. It’s the kind of smoothly engineered entertainment machine that’s so well crafted, it doesn’t look like it’s being crafted at all, but when you take into consideration all of the pitfalls Barris, Barnow, and Story not only avoid but use to their advantage, and the skill with which they both honor their source material and reinvent it for a modern audience, it quickly becomes apparent that this film deserves far more appreciation than it got during its all too brief theatrical release this past summer.

One problem facing any filmmaker tackling Shaft in 2019 is the issue of how to address or ignore the original movie’s point of view toward women. As anyone who has heard Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning title song knows, John Shaft is “a sex machine to all of the chicks,” and he spends most of the 1971 film treating women the way airline workers treat luggage. Barris and Barnow know they can’t celebrate the character’s misogyny the way that Parks and Roundtree did, but they’re also aware that a Shaft who doesn’t have those attitudes isn’t really Shaft – and they don’t seem interested in taking the James Bond approach to the series, stripping the character of his original values so thoroughly that he’s barely recognizable. Instead of becoming paralyzed by the conundrum, the writers build it into the DNA of their premise: they give the John Shaft character an estranged son (also named John Shaft, but referred to as Junior) raised by a single mom who has to team up with his dad to solve a friend’s murder. Pairing Shaft with a millennial son (played with pitch-perfect comic timing by Jessie T. Usher) who is as enlightened and sensitive as his father is blunt and vulgar allows the filmmakers to both maintain the sensibility of the original film and slyly comment on it; as played with gusto by Samuel L. Jackson, their Shaft revels in his voracious sexual appetites to often uproarious effect, but by contrasting his world view with that of his son, the writers turn Shaft into a surprisingly rich satire on warring forms of masculinity. Adopting an affectionate but sardonic tone, the movie generates many, many laughs from its overall realization that both of these men’s ideas of manhood are hopeless in their own ways, an idea that becomes even funnier when the most retrograde character of all – Roundtree’s John Shaft, Sr. – enters the action in the third act.

Roundtree is just one of many supporting characters who orbit around the two leads in a movie that is paradoxically both one of the great buddy movies of the past 25 years and a masterfully balanced ensemble film. Shaft is jammed to the hilt with sharply defined character roles: Titus Welliver as Junior’s cranky boss (a man as put upon and bewildered by changing cultural mores as Shaft is impervious to them); Lauren Vélez as a wealthy, shady, and defiant convenience store owner; Avan Jogia as Junior’s doomed childhood friend; and many more. All of these characters feel like they have lives that extend beyond the boundaries of the narrative; none are perfunctory or cliché, even though they’re often serving functions we’ve seen hundreds or thousands of times in other films and on episodic television. Most important – and essential to the filmmakers’ parody of heterosexual male attitudes toward women – are Alexandra Shipp’s turn as Junior’s love interest, Sasha, and Regina Hall’s performance as Maya, Shaft’s ex-wife and Junior’s mother. Hall brings a comic ferocity to the role that is positively sidesplitting, and her and Jackson’s energy combined with the snap of their dialogue make Shaft as much a throwback to classic romantic comedies like His Girl Friday as to blaxploitation flicks. Shipp, meanwhile, brings an easygoing self-assurance to her work that generates big laughs when placed in opposition to Usher’s insecurities.

All of this is orchestrated by director Story with an abundance of visual invention and exuberant wit; from the split-screen opening credit sequence that elegantly lays out all the film’s relationships and thematic preoccupations to the dynamic final set piece (which both pays homage to and hilariously lampoons the most famous image of the 1971 picture), Story uses his camera with an exquisite sense of cool control that’s just right for Shaft the character and the franchise. He also brings to Shaft the same sense of structural precision that marked his great ensemble comedies Barbershop and Think Like a Man. As in those films, the pacing is air-tight yet somehow allows every character to have as much time as he or she needs to fully register; every point of view in the multi-perspective narrative is properly honored, and that’s why Shaft is ultimately so satisfying on so many levels. Story and the writers solve the problem of how to change John Shaft for a contemporary audience by not changing him much at all; instead they surround him with alternate philosophies, and characters like Junior who do change, making Shaft’s archaic views both part of the joke and the crux of another of the movie’s themes. Shaft isn’t just about race and sex, it’s about age and time, and about how so many men don’t change, and both the appeal and limitations of a rigid adherence to the past. That this is all so gracefully integrated into what could have been just a routine formula movie designed to exploit 48-year old IP is Shaft’s major achievement; perhaps assuming Shaft was indeed just a typical studio cash grab, audiences largely stayed away. Their loss – they missed out on one of the most entertaining movies of 2019.

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble With the Truth, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and other platforms. He has written about movies and television for Filmmaker magazine, American Cinematographer and Film Comment, and is the author of The Art and Craft of TV Directing: Conversations with Episodic Television Directors. He also serves as a film historian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and has contributed audio commentaries to DVDs and Blu-rays for Indicator, Shout Factory, the BFI, and other home video labels. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.