Why We Now Can't Dig Shaft

  • If memory serves, I saw the original, Richard Roundtree version of Shaft in Jackson, Miss., with a group of college students who had volunteered for Charles Evers' quixotic campaign to become the first black Governor of the most racist state in the nation. Even by the standards of blaxploitation flicks it wasn't a great movie, but back in 1971 it seemed just right for the tumultuous times. The original Shaft wasn't merely "the private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks" or "the man who won't cop out when there's danger all about." Like Evers, he was a tough guy caught up in the movement for black freedom, a cocky straight shooter with equal disdain for bad cops and for dope-pushing mobsters--in short, the kind of hero who would have pursued the new Samuel L. Jackson incarnation of Shaft and nailed him for police brutality.

    If only the Rev. Al Sharpton were a movie critic! If only Johnnie Cochran could file a damage suit for cinematic misconduct! If only Hollywood did not have such an exploitative view of the young black urban audience this gratuitously violent and graceless remake of Shaft is meant to attract! The problem is not just that Jackson, normally as good an actor as they come, is to Roundtree what George Lazenby, who played James Bond in the deservedly forgotten On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), is to Sean Connery. It's that instead of updating the heroic Shaft of the '70s to fit the ambiguous racial climate of the new century, the makers of this disgraceful film have pulled the character inside out and transformed him into a thug. If this Shaft were a real-life member of New York City's Finest, he wouldn't be tracking bad guys. He'd be the overaggressive cop who stops, frisks--and beats up--people just because they look suspicious. This new film invites young black moviegoers to applaud the kind of police abuse they protest against in the streets.

    Unlike the original, the new, ersatz Shaft is addicted to curbside justice. He delights in breaking the nose of a handcuffed prisoner in full view of the police commander. He relishes the line "It's Giuliani time!" as he prepares for the film's final showdown--a reprise of a cruel reference to New York City's hard-line mayor that was famously and falsely attributed to the cop who tortured Abner Louima. If that isn't enough, contrast this Shaft's vulgar behavior toward a black woman in the film's only romantic sequence with the original Shaft's tender, though hardly exclusive relationship with his girlfriend. The new Shaft is neither a heroic knight errant nor a sex machine; he's just another ego-tripping homicidal misogynist.

    Which, of course, is standard fare for the cookie-cutter action movies Hollywood cranks out by the dozen. But I had hoped that a director as noted as John Singleton and an actor with Jackson's talent would produce something more challenging than a cinematic gangsta-rap song. The original Shaft--one of the first black movie heroes to talk back to the Man and get away with it--meant something special to blacks like me who came of age during the '70s. We could use another hero like that now. Instead we got the shaft.