(Author’s Note) Given the always dazzling and simply fantastic state of this country at any given moment, I thought I would dive back into the well, bringing up a quenching bucket of a lovely and embracing film experience. With theaters almost/not really/kinda sorta opening back up if they are/aren’t already, now is the perfect time to go back to the past. The long and distant past of the year 2019. So please enjoy my hastily re-edited in places rambling blather about the greatest film that was ever released that year, if not the best release of the past decade: Shaft! Get ready to dig it!
Also, isn’t everything I write on here an Author’s Note? Seems rather redundant doesn’t it? I apologize. But I digress. Pray continue with Shaft.
It is a rare moment when my lovely bride and I can escape the worries and needs of being parents. When those moments come, we take advantage of them with all speed. So, if Grandma says that she’ll watch your three little dickens for an evening and if you’re a harried parent, take my advice: drop those kids off and…run. Just run. Throw bags of Oreos and Dog Man books over your shoulders and keep running!
When my wife and I caught our breaths from sprinting to the car and escaping at the speed of light, that is if light travels at a safe 45 miles per hour through that neighborhood, we found ourselves at a local movie theater, Junior Mints in hand, each with a ticket to see the family film of the summer. No, not The Secret Life of Pets 2: The Quickening! We saw Shaft! You’re daaaaammmn right.
Golly, could a movie with this small of a budget be worthy of such ire from the social consciences out there in the wilds of the internets? I thought this volume of tsk-tsking was only reserved for Ghostbusters reboots and Marvel Universe movies with femaley C-list characters as the lead. Why would we even see such a film? Were we fans of racism, misogyny, homophobia, bad language, violence, millennial bashing, stereotypes, sexism, and above all else: quite good soundtracks?
These were the questions that faced us as the lights went down in the cinema. My Junior Mints weren’t too melty and as the familiar face of Samuel L. Jackson occupied the screen, we prepared for one of the worst things that social justice has condemned in the total history of the past 15 minutes: the 2019 Shaft sequel.
Annnnnnnnd…we loved it! The crowd loved it too. By the way, the audience for this showing was one of the most diverse that I had ever seen. And yet, despite the kajillion differences between our various backgrounds that the outside world is continually ramming down our throats, somehow, we were all laughing together at the right moments, enjoying the right beats of action, oohing and aahing whenever Sam Jackson’s John Shaft did something smooth and gratifying onscreen.
I can’t remember the last time when a movie was exactly represented by every trailer I saw. This movie was just plain damn fun. So here as always, are my randomly arranged bullet points of topics that crossed my mind when seeing Shaft. Yes, there be spoilers ahead and no, I won’t shut my mouth because I can dig it.
- If you’re going to see Shaft to watch Samuel L. Jackson be the best damn Samuel L. Jackson he can be onscreen, you won’t be disappointed. The brakes are off, the gas pedal is floored, and I don’t think that I’ve seen him be this enjoyable recently outside of a Tarantino movie. You can just tell he relished shooting this movie. Perhaps after the barrage of Nick Fury-ing, it was just great to see Sam Jackson kicking ass and being too cool to take names once again. Thankfully, the film knows where the bread is buttered, and Jackson is a constant welcome presence.
- Jessie T. Usher as John Shaft’s son JJ is wonderfully fun too! Yes, he is a millennial character, filled with all the stereotypes that go along with that. But he is not just the cliché, he shows intelligence and sense of humor about the circumstances. He just doesn’t have the street smarts like his father does. At the same time, JJ isn’t just letting the old school methods of his father stomp over everything. JJ holds his own, displaying his savvy, tech skills, and marksmanship throughout the film. This is clearly a movie that isn’t just about the differences in generations, but about differences in culture as well. And it shows how one can learn from those difference. Perhaps I’m laying it on a bit thick, after all this is just a Shaft sequel, but this movie was getting it laid on pretty thick by those that unfairly bashed it, so I’ll allow it. Bottom line: Usher is quite good throughout.
- Speaking about differences in culture, let’s just acknowledge that Shaft is completely aware of the targets it goes after. Everything is fair game. No one is considered a sacred cow that is beyond comment. In that sense, everyone is considered…dare I say it…equal. Whoa. That’s truly profound on my part, isn’t it? Are there race jokes? Yes. Are there homosexual jokes? Yes. Are there religious jokes? Yes. Are there sexual jokes? Yes. Everyone makes the commentary list, no one is beyond it. On that level Shaft is an equalizer and for that I think it is rather refreshing. Rather than worrying about causing some dreaded offense, Shaft plows through and essentially says, “Yeah, I did that. And I don’t care if you or you or you have a problem with it.”
- On the demerit side of the ledger, I have to say that the villain in question isn’t overly memorable or threatening. While it is satisfying to see his final comeuppance, it would have been so much more if we had seen this guy’s history with John Shaft. At the very least, seeing him be more a dangerous bad guy as he goes throughout the movie. Granted, this would take time away from Sam Jackson on the screen, but just a few throwaway scenes displaying how vile a baddie this dude is would have been welcome. And it would have made Shaft going after him to be all the sweeter, knowing the stakes that were involved.
- Did I mention how wonderfully badass Jackson is in this movie? I did? Hm. Well, I’m mentioning it again.
- Just as a matter of warning, this is more of a direct sequel to 2000’s Shaft rather than the Shaft films and TV movies of the 1970s. We follow Samuel L. Jackson’s John Shaft more than we follow Richard Roundtree’s John Shaft. While this is by no means a bad thing, I do wish there was more Richard Roundtree in the overall film. Roundtree is a delight in this movie and I couldn’t get rid of my smile as soon as Jackson and Usher come to see him. Damn, I miss the 1970s movies and God Bless Richard Roundtree.
- Is the film misogynistic? Let me start off by saying that I hate when social labels pigeonhole a movie. Does anyone remember that the original movie received an Academy Award for a score that contained the phrase “Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?” Hm. I wonder what the atmosphere will be like in a film in this series? Still, the two main female leads, JJ’s friend and longtime crush Sasha (Alexandra Shipp) and JJ’s mother Maya (Regina Hall) are both fantastic. Shipp more than holds her own with Usher and Jackson and isn’t simply some bimbo/damsel in distress. Hall as Shaft’s ex-wife is equally good. She doesn’t put up with Shaft’s crap and knows how and when to read him the riot act. Are there some throwaway female characters in the movie? Yes. But there are plenty of throwaway male characters in the movie as well. Most of them get shot by Jackson. Pretty even-Steven actually.
- The film even addresses misogyny directly, which you can see in the trailer. When a female crime boss is brandishing a bat, JJ calls Shaft’s going for his gun as an act of misogyny. Shaft directly says that he’s not calling gender into this. He just sees someone with a bat, threating them. Shaft doesn’t care what you are or who you are if you’re intending to do harm to him or his son. Hm. Sounds like he treats everyone equally. Hm. Sounds quite progressive. But that can’t be because that would mean the more social justicey souls out there are wrong in their criticisms.
- Another point is the plot or what there is of it. The story at hand isn’t a daring and complex action thriller, full of twists and turns. Nope, not at all. It is standard for the genre. However, remember that the original 1971 Shaft wasn’t a radically plotted movie either. When you pare away everything to the core, the 1971 Shaft was a by-the-numbers detective movie. The 2019 Shaft is the same. However, you don’t watch either movie for the plot, you watch it for the lead character, the atmosphere, and the attitude throughout. What was amazing for the 1971 Shaft was how vibrant and confident Richard Roundtree was. He spoke to an entire generation and became an icon. This wasn’t Virgil Tibbs or some comic relief lackey, this was John Shaft.
- The same goes for the 2019 Shaft. It shows how far the world has come along. I’m not black. Neither is my wife. We are some pale translucent folks indeed. Yet, we love the character of John Shaft. We admire the sheer cajones on him and the fact that he doesn’t put up with anyone’s shit. He’s quick on his feet, he’s quick with his wits, he’s too cool for school. In certain circles of racial hatred, this character was reviled in 1971. Almost 50 years later, I can sit in a theater with an audience from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds and we can all enjoy John Shaft together. That is some amazing progress indeed.
Which reminds me of the most narrow-minded group out there regarding this movie: the dismissive social justice critics. Yowza. Who would have thought that the most blinkered people for a Shaft movie would be this group? After all, if nothing else, John Shaft is a very strong character of color. We went from some racially intolerant people that couldn’t stand the 1971 Shaft movie to the social justice voices that can’t stand the 2019 Shaft movie. This doesn’t seem very progressive, does it?
If one looks at Rotten Tomatoes, which one should never do when determining what movies to see, the critical score for the 2019 Shaft isn’t that great. Some critics enjoyed the movie, but more sat from on high with their attempted bon mots, enjoying their comments that they thought were witty and withering. Yet the audience score is in the mid-90th percentile. What does this tell us? It tells me that the general public isn’t interested in dramatic critical darlings about social justice issues in America today. No, save that for pandering Academy Award nominated films that no one aside from these critics are going to see.
Instead, the people apparently want to see something fun. Something that breaks down the barriers. Something where one can relax and enjoy some escapist entertainment and wish fulfillment. The 2019 Shaft knows what it is and doesn’t apologize for it either. In this day and age that is refreshing, but it is also quite sad that we’ve come to this point culturally.
To close, I just want to give a little backstory. Back when I was a freshman in college, the local grocery store had quite a selection of VHS tapes for rental. The non-new releases were dirt cheap. Also, I should mention that I went to the whitest college on earth. Only certain Mormon universities lacked more melanin than our overall student body. In an act of rebellion against our school’s system, I decided to rent some classic Blaxploitation films since that world was so very far removed from the one I inhabited. The movies were Superfly and of course, Shaft.
I knew nothing about Shaft beyond the classic theme song. My compatriots and I huddled around the TV in our Minnesotan dorm room and popped Shaft into the VCR. And it was a revelation! That film changed our narrow-minded lives, especially mine. It opened a door to peek at a whole other culture. Richard Roundtree was amazing, the movie was entertaining, and we cheered Shaft along the whole time. My eyes were opened and that day the first bricks in a cultural bridge of appreciation was built.
In the end, critics be damned. When it comes down to it, most of those voices probably know they could never be John Shaft and therefore hate him for it. I know that I can’t be him either, but the difference is that I love John Shaft for it. Because Shaft at its heart is a wish fulfillment that cuts through the bullshit. Social justice folks and finger-wagging critics live for having more bullshit, so it is understandable why they dislike the film. Let them be unhappy in their self-righteous corners. I’d rather go with the audience and enjoy something fun.
Oh, by the way, did I mention that Samuel L. Jackson kicks serious ass in this? I did? Hm. Well, I’m glad I did and I’m even gladder he does. The bigger question is: can you dig it? Because you should.