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The Impossible Perfection (and Utterly Problematic Nature) of Shaft

Plus some other random thoughts about the latest Samuel L. Jackson action-comedy where he gets to swear a lot

Last week, MEL contributing writer Zaron Burnett III convened what he described as “a multigenerational roundtable of black men” to discuss the legacy of Shaft, covering everything from the films to their soundtracks to the detective’s stylish wardrobe. But the most striking moment came when writer Carvell Wallace talked about Isaac Hayes’ iconic Shaft theme song:

It’s irresistible. It’s epic. It’s beautifully composed … but it’s also absurd. I mean, it lays out in the lyrics that he’s the greatest lover of all time, also a hero who saves every oppressed brother alive but also can’t be understood by anyone but his woman, who, by the way, he cheats on unmercifully and kicks out of his house all the time so he can be alone or go do some Shaft business. It’s an impossible definition of black maleness, and I often wonder how many brothers ruined their lives and relationships trying to manifest that shit.

None of Burnett’s participants, including his dad, had seen the new Shaft, but I, a white man, have. And while watching this largely forgettable action-comedy, I thought about something that Wallace was hinting at. If Shaft is a complicated figure for black men, he’s even knottier for the rest of us.

It’s no secret that the history of American pop culture is the story of the white mainstream coopting the work of black artists, rendering it safer and more “palatable” to a broader audience. But the legacy of fictional private eye John Shaft, a character who originated in Ernest Tidyman’s 1970 novel, has always stood in defiance of that appropriation: For white men, at least the ones I know, he’s represented a bold, rebellious symbol of African-American life, refusing to be watered down, marginalized or compromised. Strong, proud, confident and dangerous, he’s projected an unfiltered masculinity that refuses to bend to changing times. That makes him mythic. But in the new movie, that also makes him deeply problematic.

The 2019 Shaft, like the 2000 Shaft, stars Samuel L. Jackson as John Shaft II, the son of the Shaft from the Shaft movies of the early 1970s. (If you saw the 2000 Shaft, this might be confusing: Wasn’t Jackson’s character the nephew of Richard Roundtree’s original Shaft in that movie? Well, yes, but in the 2019 Shaft, they explain that Roundtree’s Shaft basically lied to his kid.) Shaft II teams up with his estranged son, J.J. Shaft (Jessie T. Usher), to figure out who killed the young man’s close friend. Eventually, Roundtree’s Shaft also shows up, giving us three generations of Shaft.

Because the 2019 film is a comedy, that means that director Tim Story presents us with a John Shaft II who’s grumpy about the modern world. His boy, who he hasn’t seen in decades, is a pretty enlightened guy: sensitive, cultured, unaggressive, woke. But in the eyes of his dad, he might as well be gay — which this manly man considers the gravest insult. Shaft tries to have fun with this generational conflict — Jackson’s character is a “Get off my lawn!” type, while Usher’s character might as well be named Every Annoying Thing You Associate With Millennials. Minor hilarity ensues, not to mention an uncomfortable trans-phobic joke and some garden-variety “Har har, this is how I know you’re gay” nonsense.

But what’s lurking underneath the surface of Shaft’s flippant gags is an intriguing tension that the movie rarely acknowledges. Shaft II has clearly tried to model himself after his own badass father, and because he’s played by Samuel L. Jackson, he’s instantly imbued with a bulletproof coolness. In a sense, Shaft II is honoring dear old dad’s virile hardness, as well as the original character’s unapologetic chauvinism — an antiquated portrait of the idealized man’s man who kicks ass, gets plenty of women and always looks cool doing it. And in case that description sounds like another outdated legendary male character, Shaft II makes the connection explicit, bragging in this new Shaft that if James Bond were real, 007 would wish he were him.   

Society has become increasingly more accepting of the fact that masculinity isn’t some monolithic, alpha-male construction, which makes Shaft II’s strutting, old-school manliness all the more novel — and the filmmakers hope, funny. We’ve gotten so used to being civil and caring about other people’s feelings. But not Shaft II! He sends his boy condoms as a gift when he’s a kid! He doesn’t get why young people text when they can talk face-to-face! Basically, the entirety of Shaft concerns Shaft II teaching J.J. not to be so much of a pussy.

There’s an enviable simplicity to the way Shaft II lives his life. He fucks who he wants, doesn’t answer to anyone — he’s also disdainful of his son working for the FBI, i.e., “the man” — and engages in vigilante justice outside the law. You or I couldn’t get away with that, but because he’s John Shaft’s son, it’s all right. In fact, I suspect that’s why audiences secretly love him. The rest of us adhere to our conscience — or at the very least, societal conventions — but Shaft II can be, as Wallace put it, an “impossible definition of black maleness.” White culture has been so conditioned to envy and fear black maleness — to see African-American men as well-endowed, super-smooth athletes, artists and lovers. Of course, it’s a horribly racist perception, but there’s also this weird sort of awe built into it, putting black men’s potency up on a pedestal. John Shaft (and Shaft II) is the embodiment of that deification.

Funny, then, that J.J. isn’t just contending with his disapproving father’s nagging insistence that he’s “acting gay” — Shaft II also needles him about “being white,” making fun of the kid’s tasteful, decidedly funk-less loft. In Shaft II’s mind, anything that’s nuanced, considered or thoughtful is a betrayal of authentic blackness. That’s a ridiculous worldview, but iconic figures like 007 or the original Shaft, especially when we’re young, bully us into thinking that only such a rigid form of masculinity is acceptable. Anything less is wimping out — or, in the vernacular of the new Shaft, becoming too much like your mom.

And yet, in Shaft’s slyest moment, the filmmakers suggest that, sometimes, maybe Shaft II is right. J.J. keeps insisting that he hates guns — a reproach of his dad’s armed-to-the-teeth mentality — but when he and his crush Sasha (Alexandra Shipp) are ambushed in a restaurant by gun-toting thugs, he has no choice but to mow them down. And during that knowingly over-the-top action sequence, Sasha (who always thought J.J. was cute if a bit of a pushover) is instantly attracted to his Shaft-like swagger. The scene could easily be slammed for its sexism — chicks sure are suckers for macho bros! — but I think the movie is tweaking gender stereotypes. Yes, Sasha is into J.J. because he’s a sensitive dude, but hey, it’s also a turn-on when a guy can be assertive.

This moment is the sort I wish happened more in Shaft, which doesn’t do nearly enough to interrogate its old-guys-versus-millennials divide on masculinity. Lots of dudes pretend they’re enlightened and have moved beyond the Cro-Magnon doltishness of man’s-man bravado. But we’re all susceptible to feeling like our manhood is being challenged — we’re always craning our neck to check out the more macho guy in our midst. The world may not need a John Shaft II — as a role model, he probably does more harm than good — and yet the primal urges he represents lurk within all of us. Who’s the black private dick whose depiction of rigid masculinity still messes with our minds? Shaft! You’re damn right.

Here are three other takeaways from Shaft

#1. Why is Samuel L. Jackson so good at swearing?

Shaft is rated R, and you know what that means: Samuel L. Jackson gets to curse a ton. That’s not enough to recommend this movie, but I can’t deny that, after all these years, there’s still immense pleasure in watching the 70-year-old actor drop F- and MF-bombs. For decades now, Jackson has been cursing at people in movies. It’s never not been a delight.

While watching Shaft, though, I kept wondering: What is it exactly about the actor that makes all that swearing so funny? I subscribe to the notion that swearing in and of itself isn’t hilarious — it has to be wielded in the proper way to be effective. So what does Jackson know that the rest of us don’t?

Newsweek asked Jackson last year for his secret to good swearing, prompting this response:

Having a command of the language in a specific way and having more than a rudimentary knowledge of how English works, in terms of coloring a word or coloring a phrase or making sure that what you say is understood without any question. Swear words are used for emphasis or as a description of what a thing particularly was. If you tell somebody, “It was really amazing,” that’s one thing. But if you say “It was a motherfucker!”? That’s even greater than amazing.

There’s quiet cursing, too. Quiet cursing is pretty frightening to people. They know, “Oh my God, he’s seething. This person’s so angry they can’t raise their voice to me.” There’s an explosion building. [Laughs]

That’s a helpful explanation, but it doesn’t entirely encapsulate Jackson’s talent for cursing. Deep down, I just think he really loves swearing. There’s a pure joy to his F-bombs, even when his character is enraged, that’s oddly life-affirming. It’s not just a command of language but a love of language that animates Jackson’s every fuck, shit and motherfucker. Even his cursing has swagger.

And yes, people do come up to him and ask that he curse at them. “It’s something you accept,” he told Newsweek. “If that’s their dynamic and how they want to interact with me, okay. Nothing I can do about that. If that’s how they perceive me, fine. It’s something to appreciate, it’s not something to hate. Better to be liked than not liked, so fuck it.”

#2. For the love of God, don’t get Laurence Fishburne and Samuel L. Jackson confused.

There’s this throwaway joke in Shaft where Shaft II is made fun of for dressing like Morpheus in The Matrix. That sets Shaft II off, and he starts ranting about people getting him confused with Laurence Fishburne. I’m wondering how many people in my audience got the real-life incident that was being referenced.

In early 2014, Jackson appeared on a local L.A. television news program to promote the Robocop remake, speaking with entertainment journalist Sam Rubin. During the interview, Rubin asked Jackson about the Super Bowl commercial he’d recently been in — which struck Jackson as weird since he wasn’t in any Super Bowl commercial. Turns out, Rubin had confused Jackson with Laurence Fishburne, which set Jackson off.

I’ll let the L.A. Times’ Greg Braxton explain what happened:

“You’re as crazy as those people on Twitter,” scolded Jackson, pointing a finger at the camera. “I’m not Laurence Fishburne! We don’t all look alike!”

Rubin clumsily admitted he had made a mistake and tried to make light of the misstep, but Jackson relentlessly pressed on, clearly gleeful at Rubin’s embarrassment.

“You’re the entertainment reporter?” he said to Rubin in an incredulous tone. “You’re the entertainment reporter for this station and you don’t know the difference between me and Laurence Fishburne?”

The actual footage is even worse:

Rubin and Jackson eventually buried the hatchet, but clearly the damage had been done. For what it’s worth, Fishburne a few months later said that people had been confusing him and Jackson for 25 years, “even though we don’t look anything alike. I’m so grateful to Sam for calling out that TV reporter for doing it — that was pure fun. I don’t take offense: Forty years ago people did the same thing with Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino because they didn’t look like the screen gods who came before.”

Fishburne is being very polite: I don’t think that’s why people get him and Jackson confused.

#3. Regina Hall is wasted in Shaft. Watch her in this instead.

At 48 years old, Regina Hall is enjoying one of the most creatively fecund periods of her career. First coming to the world’s attention on Ally McBeal and in the Scary Movie series, she’s worked consistently for a couple decades, but she’s been especially good of late — in everything from Girls Trip to The Hate U Give. And now she’s in Shaft, where she plays John Shaft II’s ex and J.J.’s loyal mother. It’s a somewhat thankless role that she makes fun.

But you shouldn’t see Shaft. If you’re looking for more proof of Hall’s greatness, let me recommend a little-seen indie gem from last year where she gets to play the lead.

Support the Girls tells the story of a rundown, Hooters-style sports bar called Double Whammies, which is run by Lisa (Hall), the patient but endlessly frazzled middle-aged manager. Over the course of about a day, we see just how crazed Lisa’s professional and personal life is. At work, she has to deal with her sometimes unreliable wait staff, lewd customers and the general realities of operating a struggling local eatery. Meantime, she and her husband are having problems, which may lead to divorce. Lisa doesn’t get a moment’s reprise, as everything around her comes tumbling down.

American movies aren’t great at depicting working-class life, but Support the Girls cannily examines these characters’ paycheck-to-paycheck existence. Plus, writer-director Andrew Bujalski is especially attuned to the challenges Lisa faces. She’s not as effervescent as her younger, perkier employees — she’s a grownup and she’s tired. Hall demonstrates how downright heroic it can be to simply stay sane when the world seems to be conspiring against you.

This indie gem made about $130,000 in theaters, which is nothing in comparison to what studio movies gross. But Support the Girls earned Hall some of her best reviews, and she won Best Actress from the New York Film Critics Circle. Shaft doesn’t need your support, but small American independents like this certainly do.