The latest ‘Shaft’ is not what you might expect. It’s not gritty or raw or even attempting to be all that cool. Instead it maintains intoxicatingly upbeat sitcom-style energy, with gentrification jokes, generational jabs (mostly at the expense of millennials) and Samuel L Jackson, reprising his nearly 20-year-old role as John Shaft II, seemingly having a blast every step of the way.
It’s not that it’s sanitised or without violence. There are guns, many of them, and of the automatic assault variety. But this is the kind of movie that will play The Ronettes’ ‘Be My Baby’ during a big shoot-out, and not in a Martin Scorsese kind of way.
It’s hard not to be on board with the liveliness and the generally sharp writing. The film starts off so well, too, and as most movies really should, in 1989 Harlem. Regina Hall (Maya) is dressing down Shaft for his reckless life choices and he’s not really having it, but their conversation gets interrupted by an ambush that almost kills Maya and the baby we find out later is in the back seat. So Maya moves upstate to the suburbs with little John Shaft Jr (or JJ) to raise him away from danger (and his father).
Shaft is there in JJ’s life through the occasional Christmas present which, over the years include a New York Giants Super Bowl XXV ring and adult magazines. But despite his attempts to raise a mini version of himself from afar, JJ grows up to be a nice young fellow and MIT grad who wears slim fitting jeans and shirts buttoned all the way to the top and works for the FBI (aka “the man”). He’s played, charmingly, by Jessie T Usher.
The mysterious death of his friend, and his inability to investigate on his own, leads him to his dad’s office to ask for some help. He gets more than he bargained for in terms of late-game fatherly advice on how JJ is failing to be a man, and, specifically, a black man worthy of the Shaft name. And so this odd couple sets off to solve a murder, and, you presume, learn some lessons from one another as well. All well and good right?
Director Tim Story and writers Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow made the pretty curious and unforgivable choice to imbue this story not just with a generational divide, but with all the antiquated and offensive world views from the “good old days” that they could fit in to two hours.
Early on there’s a throwaway joke about an FBI boss having a transgender kid (the things he has to deal with!). It goes by quickly enough that it MIGHT BE forgotten, but then come the gay panic jokes — a lot of them — and the misogynistic jokes (because what women really want is a man who tells them what they want and never apologises). As if that all wasn’t enough to sour what could have been a simply joyful experience, they also manage to get an extended fat-shaming joke in before the final showdown.
It’s very possible that the filmmakers assume this is all in good fun and even be acceptable because when Shaft is going off on what women want, it’s clear that his son disagrees. But I’m not sure two woke characters (including JJ’s smart love interest played by Alexandra Shipp) are enough anymore, especially when the movie clearly views JJ as the nerd who needs to lighten up and embrace the old school ways of his much cooler father.
How jokes this offensive can make it to the screen in 2019 is beyond comprehension and a bit of a shame, considering that this has so much else going for it including a delightful late-game appearance by the original Shaft, Richard Roundtree, who looks fantastic, by the way.
There is potential commentary to be made about the generational gap that doesn’t require dredging up the most deplorable intolerances. So what on earth were these bad folks thinking?
Check it out!
‘Shaft’ is streaming now on Netflix.