It seems we have reached a period of cinema where nostalgia marketing is at an all-time high. A good third of new releases are remakes, sequels, or re-imaginings of pre-existing successful films. It’s no secret that the motivation for reboots is easy money; the concept being if it was a hit once, it will be a hit again. Similarly, film studios have a habit of giving beloved films culturally sensitive ‘updates’ to concepts deemed unfavorable in retrospect. This is often accomplished by the text going out of its way to specifically call attention to the outdated messaging and the corrections being inserted.
Depending on who you ask, it’s a film movement of either empowerment or demeaning exploitation. But undeniably, blaxploitation was a response to the lack of Black-centered stories in film. Prior to the 1970s, Black characters in film were either squeaky clean and morally perfect Sydney Poitier types, or worse, relegated to side characters who only served to uplift the white protagonist with little characterization of their own. Black directors such as Melvin Van Peebles took it upon themselves to provide an alternative to these sanitized, white-pleasing roles. In comes Marvin Van Peebles’ low-budget film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, a film “dedicated to the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the man.” This also set the standard for most blaxploitation tropes: superstud badass protagonists, excessive violence, explicit sex scenes, inner-city crime — sometimes drug-related, all set to an ever-present funk/soul soundtrack.
But most importantly, Sweetback is a story of a wise-cracking, ultra-cool Black man from a poor background who fights against police authorities and wins. This sentiment, working in tandem with the rise of the Black Power movement, would become a staple of the genre, and no doubt a part of its appeal to Black audiences — even to those who refuted the more exploitative elements.
Shaft (1971) was put into production after the unexpected box-office success of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Studio executives saw an opportunity as the trend of low-budget all-Black cast action films began to rise. MGM had secured the rights to the Novel Shaft by Ernest Tidyman and hired Tidyman and John D. F. Black to convert the story into a screenplay. They recruited George Parks to direct the film and Isaac Hayes to compose the iconic soundtrack. MGM manufactured Shaft to mimic the style and provocative energy of Van Peeple’s flick but removed the "overcoming the white man" elements as well as the full-frontal pornography.
Now, John Shaft (played by Richard Roundtree) is, in effect, a bad mother-shut-yo-mouth. He’s a well-dressed private eye with no fear and a quick tongue. The man even gets a bullet removed from his chest and barely feels the pain.
He does his business on his own terms, and with impeccable skill that leaves NYPD with no choice but to let him get away with stunts like throwing a man out of a glass window. However, Shaft’s enemy in this film isn’t really "the man" (a.k.a systemic racism), and the NYPD doesn’t so much repress Shaft as resent him because they rely on Shaft’s street knowledge. Instead, Tidyman and Black, trying to make Shaft a mainstream hit, used the Italian mafia as the main source of conflict — a much more palatable choice for wide consumption seeing as crooked cops would have been a bit too “controversial.”
Although Shaft’s attitude very much represents Black power, Shaft is not political. As Joe Bob Briggs points out in his essay, Who Dat Man?: Shaft and the Blaxploitation Genre, “Shaft has no civil-rights views at all, he dislikes Black people as much as the white ones” (25). It almost seems like Shaft exists in a world without racial prejudice. He does admit in one scene when he’s on the phone with his girlfriend, “I’ve got two problems, I was born poor, and I was born Black.” But that’s as deep as it goes. Shaft, of course, was intended to be a fun action film that catered to Black subject matter, not an accurate reflection of the Black experience. And like any other white-centric action film, Shaft is not interested in complex characters. But the film did prove to the film industry that Black-centered stories and characters were profitable, and more importantly something that interested the public at large.
Yet, unfortunately, the success of Shaft gave way to a period of formulaic rip-offs that would reproduce many exaggerated archetypes of Black masculinity.
So what does a movie like Shaft have to offer in 2019? Blaxploitation is a dead genre, but the legacy and influence still remain. What part of that legacy would filmmakers want to include in the present day, and which elements will be discarded and re-written?
Well, one would expect in 2019’s political landscape that the film wouldn’t be shy about having a Black main character that rebelled against a repressive system. Over the past few years, we’ve seen a revitalized push for the Black Lives Matter movement as police brutality continues to pervade police departments. Now more than ever, a "stick it to the man" narrative would resonate well with the public, even if the enemy isn’t explicitly the police force. People want to see oppressive systems brought to justice.
Shaft (2019) is not that film. Instead, director Tim Story, accompanied by writers Kenya Barris (writer-producer on black-ish) and Alex Barnow, strangely re-imagines Shaft (2019) as a father-son comedy; one in which Shaft (played by Samuel L. Jackson) and his estranged son, JJ (Jessie T. Usher), investigate the wrongful death of JJ’s friend, Karim. The film refocuses its major themes towards dueling presentations of masculinity between Shaft and JJ, a clear effort to combat the hypermasculine reputation usually attached to Shaft.
The 2019 John Shaft is your typical action film prototype: a gun-wielding ladies' man who is willing to disregard the law in order to solve the crime at hand. He’s the type of guy who breaks a few fingers to get some answers. This is all quite shocking to JJ, an awkward FBI cyber analyst and avid rule-follower who proclaims he’s "not a gun guy" and can’t muster the courage to ask the one-note love interest, Sasha, out on a date. They work as foils to each other — JJ is completely devoid of any bravado, while Shaft is overflowing with it, and it is clear by the end of the film they will meet somewhere in the middle. This is exhibited through contrived moments of dialogue. For example, Shaft claims, “men used to be men. Now you millennial[s]…walk around worrying about what women think and how they feel and apologizing. It’s embarrassing… men don’t apologize… real men just own they sh*t,’’ to which JJ contests, “Real men take responsibility for what to do, real men are strong enough to admit when they’re wrong.” This conversation becomes the catalyst for each character’s arc. Shaft later apologizes to his ex-wife for endangering his family with his fringe PI lifestyle, and JJ fosters the confidence to finally kiss Sasha and pick up a gun, which he knew how to shoot all along.
The original Shaft does feature heavy gun use, and as in most action movies, guns signify masculinity and power. John Shaft in 1971 is also highlighted as a ‘sex machine’ as stated in “Theme from Shaft”. He has a girlfriend, but that doesn’t deter him from the occasional one-night stand.
Women don’t really play a huge role in Shaft (1971), nor do they in the 2019 remake — Sasha and Shaft’s ex-wife serve as pawns for Shaft and JJ to exhibit what they learned from each other.
Shaft (2019) is an unnecessary update to the original. The filmmakers chose to revise how masculinity is perceived to combat some of the stereotypes associated with Shaft. The original movie furthered blaxploitation as a whole, while failing to make more significant changes that would truly counter the accusations of hypermasculine messaging, such as adding three-dimensional female characters. A more meaningful revision to the original Shaft would have emphasized the positive tropes of blaxploitation by including a stronger "stick it to the man" narrative that was missing from Park’s version. Who is the "man" in this version? Well, the plot is generic and a bit convoluted — but it seems the main antagonist role falls on a terrorist group fronting as a mosque that collects funding from an adjacent Hispanic drug cartel. I guess one could make the case that JJ does rebel against his boss at the FBI, who scolds him for doing an unsanctioned investigation on Karim’s death and ends up eating his words when JJ busts open the cartel-terrorist operation. However, this is not a major source of conflict and is given less than two minutes of screen time.
Shaft (2019), like the original, goes for the softer institution to rebel against instead of targeting a more compelling opponent. Instead of fighting off "the man," the film is mainly concerned with what it means to be a man, which comes off stale along with the hackneyed sitcom punchlines, and especially the Richard Roundtree cameo thrown in by the third act. Most telling is that Shaft (2019) underperformed at the box-office, demonstrating the public’s lack of interest in these tired action comedies. The soft lecture about perceptions of masculinity doesn’t help either; it feels out of place and incredibly unsubtle. Ironically, I suspect a better way to satisfy the public’s appetite for nostalgic properties may have been not to revisit Shaft, but to revisit the gritty nature and rebellious spirit that made blaxploitation take off in the 1970s.
(This article was originally published by Isa Maginnis on Medium.)