It’s always a little awkward to reexamine a beloved older film so rooted in its own era that the chance of it seeming somewhat barbaric today is inevitable. But our current culture seeks not only to revisit our past through a nostalgic lens but also to confront how history has enabled some of the toxicity and broken systems we struggle to dismantle now.
Rarely, though, has that reckoning been approached by a male filmmaker — in this case Tim Story — who aims to explore how we engage with images and dialogue we’ve been accustomed to from a hard-partying, system-overthrowing, womanizing hero better known as Shaft.
Nearly 50 years ago, this titular renegade private eye, first played by Richard Roundtree, sauntered onto the big screen with his own badass theme song, knocking out racist white police officers and hooking up with every woman who crossed his path. That’s what he’s since been known and heralded for, and for a long time that was accepted. That’s mostly because the character was exalted from an era that marginalized and emasculated black men, so he was quickly and understandably feted as an icon.
But now that the reckoning has moved on to toxic masculinity and similar ills, it’s interesting to see a black male filmmaker like Story taking a hard look at this archetypal role in order to confront its longtime narrative, one that has been targeted almost exclusively to black male audiences.
Story reunites Roundtree (John Shaft is now a retired grandpa but still a bad motha-shut-yo-mouth) and the cool AF Samuel L. Jackson reprising his role as John’s nephew from in the 2000 reboot, adding the latter’s 20-something, super-politically-correct FBI data analyst son Junior (Jessie T. Usher, “Independence Day: Resurgence”) to check both of them on their constant microaggressions as they try to uncover the truth behind the murder of Junior’s friend Karim (Avan Jogia, “Now Apocalypse”).
This new “Shaft” explores the question of how a woke millennial would engage with alpha-men like his dad and grandfather. And, for the most part, their exchanges are refreshing while relying on the traditional good cop/bad cop formula: Junior advocates anti-violence and feminism while his dad remains a shoot-now-ask-questions-later man who’s always unapologetically on the prowl for “p—y.”
Screenwriters Alex Barnow (“The Goldbergs”) and Kenya Barris — who has already proven his facility with provocative sociopolitical banter among dissimilar black characters on “Black-ish” — are uniquely suitable to engage with audiences in a narrative that is still rooted in New York City’s noxious criminal underbelly, replete with brothels, crack houses, and — wait for it — shady mosque dealings. With Regina Hall as Junior’s mother, the writing duo also squeeze in a subplot confronting Shaft’s absence from his son’s life. “Shaft” 2019 attempts to reckon with the many different facets that make the tough-guy private dick a flawed hero, to the ultimate detriment of its main storyline.
Oh, and since the narrative begins back in the day (1989) when Junior was still a baby, there is a brief montage early on that shows the evolution of time through vintage clips of Roundtree and Jackson walking the streets of Harlem in their respective versions of “Shaft,” with meticulous costume changes by designer Olivia Miles (“Ride Along 2”) and newspaper headlines essentially highlighting that as much as things change in the black community, they remain the same.
But “Shaft” spends so much time window dressing with witty dialogue, and placating to what it perceives as an audience that is easily incited by trending topics like “Blue Lives Matter” (used in one of the newspaper headlines), that it forgets that the unlikely male trio have joined together to solve a pretty serious crime. That’s where the film falls apart. Karim, a recovering drug addict, reclaims his faith, falls in love, and is mysteriously killed after getting caught up in a strange cocktail of a crooked mosque, a local supermarket, and Shaft II’s old nemesis (Issach de Bankolé). Barnow and Barris struggle to tie this all together by the end of the film, but it becomes excruciatingly clear that their efforts mainly went toward appeasing a millennial audience rather than creating a tight crime drama.
Add to that, the film treats its women — Hall, and Junior’s love interest Sasha, played by Alexandra Shipp (“Dark Phoenix”) — as damsels in distress who both need to be rescued by the Shaft squad at separate points in the film. Even an epic bathroom scene with Hall trying to talk herself out of falling back into the clutches of her toxic ex isn’t enough to propel her out of the margins. As much as “Shaft” tries to confront its own stereotypes from the past, it refuses to truly disassociate from them.
Though there is a comforting nostalgia from seeing the Shaft men stick it to the man while simultaneously holding on to their old-school alpha-male swagger, Junior’s presence adds a much needed reproach — and smartly comedic element — that ultimately doesn’t blame them but instead makes them take a hard look at the error of their ways in the face of justice. But because so much effort was put on confronting the toxic black male figure, “Shaft” neglects the hero’s duties as slick crimefighter.