2/10 Several years ago, there was a major social media hubbub over the idea of Donald Glover playing Spiderman. A counterargument that rose above the initial din was to equate that to casting Michael Cera as Shaft.
Now it’s 2019. The furor inspired a new black Spiderman, Miles Morales, who now has his own highly successful movie, and the new Shaft also seems to be inspired by the idea of a Michael Cera-type playing the character.
In 1989, Maya Babanikos (Regina Hall) takes her infant son, John “JJ” Shaft III out of Harlem after being in the car during a messy assassination attempt on the father. Twenty-five years later, Shaft (Jessie Usher) is back in New York City working his new job as an FBI analyst. When he needs the help of a private detective to solve a crime he can’t pursue with the bureau, he goes straight to his father, a bad mother – shut your mouth! – the legendary Det. John Shaft II (Samuel L. Jackson).
Shaft is a direct line, literally and figuratively, to the blaxploitation movies of the ‘70s, and there’s still a lot of room for that genre today. When Luke Cage hit Netflix in 2016, one of the most uncomfortable takes on it was the importance of a bulletproof black man in the media. Shaft isn’t just bulletproof – he’s everything proof. Rules simply do not apply to him. New York City traffic stops and watches him cross the road. Bullets do not bounce off of him, they don’t even touch him.
Shaft is hypersexual black masculinity incarnate. He’s always aggressive when it’s warranted. He’s always aware of which women want him and never extends himself at those who don’t. Even today, the 2000 reboot doesn’t have a hint of toxicity. You can do this! You can make these old-fashioned movies and have them be free from the problems of their era!
That’s why it’s so disappointing that in the new movie, the same character is so gleefully poisonous. Where the Shaft magic had passed down directly from Sr. (Richard Roundtree) to Jr., JJ – “JJ” stands for “John Junior,” even though he’s Shaft III, and Shaft Jr. refers to Shaft III as “Junior,” just don’t think about it – JJ hates guns and pines pitifully after his childhood crush, Sasha Arias (Alexandra Shipp).
And so, Shaft (2019) is a buddy comedy, but most of the comedy is Shaft emasculating his son and mocking gender fluidity as a concept. What’s worse, this isn’t born of any direct homosexism, but as shorthand for their generation gap – Shaft seems to think that all men his son’s age are just as effeminate as JJ is, and therefore gay and also transsexual.
So Shaft isn’t homosexist, he’s just anti-millennial – but he’s also so deeply homosexist that he thinks homosexuality and transsexuality are new things, and thinks therefore that being proudly anti-millennial, which he is, necessarily involves directing homosexism and transsexism at younger people. And since JJ’s character arc is toward the kind of masculinity that Shaft exhibits instead of a validation of his own, it appears that Shaft is supposed to be in the right on most issues here.
It’s pretty ugly, is what I’m saying.
I really have a hard time imagining a worse direction to take this. It should go without saying that the horrifying ways this movie misconstrues LGBT history, post-#MeToo millennial culture and masculinity as a whole are immediately disqualifying problems, but from a film history perspective, this is a terribly sad fate for Shaft. Juxtaposing him against a lesser man to make it clear how cool he is – Shaft doesn’t need that. He’s Shaft. And he certainly doesn’t need that when his main interaction is to lower himself by making fun of someone he perceives as too feminine.
Not only do I not want to see Shaft making fun of JJ, I don’t want to see JJ. His character is treated with mean-spirited condemnation, the camera bullying him just as much as his father. It’s not fun to spend time with a character who is so hated by his own movie and who is so deliberately hobbled by its script. The buddy dynamic of the film is also made weaker by the decision to go with one being so dominant over the other – a much more assertive third-generation Shaft fighting his father over investigative methodology and for control of the screen is a much more entertaining premise for a movie and a much more entertaining version of the generational conflict they were trying to go for here anyway.
As a completely separate issue, Usher, a favorite of director Tim Story, simply cannot share the screen with Jackson. Usually, a good actor will elevate the people around him, but in this case, Jackson chews Usher up and spits him back out. The fact that this is what Jackson’s character is doing to Usher’s character, which pushes Jackson into a much more external and active performance and Usher into a much more subtle one, certainly plays into that, but there’s also a clear gap in talent that makes their scenes unpleasant.
These decisions to systematically emasculate Shaft III and bring in Usher for the role denies the audience of a better character and denies better actors the chance to play that character. There’s a score of black actors I’d love to see as a third-generation Shaft – Michael B. Jordan is set up as the eminent black actor of his generation, but Chadwick Boseman would be great as well. Glover would be a cheeky choice, but he could certainly pull it off. Anthony Mackie would be perfect.
I miss bad guys in movies. Just about every major blockbuster – and I lay 100% of the blame for this on the MCU – is some variation of a buddy comedy. Long gone are the days when a protagonist’s most important relationship is with the antagonist or with a love interest, now it’s always with a partner. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s come at the expense of villains, and Shaft is an example. Pierro “Gordito” Carrera (Isaach de Bankolé), the overarching villain who tried to have Shaft killed all the way back in ’89, doesn’t hit the screen until there’s five minutes of movie left, and spends most of the runtime as a forgotten subplot.
This Shaft reboot isn’t the worst movie in the world. As problematic as most of the movie’s humor is, I still laughed. As poor as the character dynamics are, I still felt things. It’s just not very good.