SHAFT: super-empty but super-cool thrills (2000 in Film #24)

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This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of June 16th, John Singleton’s Shaft

Once again, this week, I’m handing over to the recurring spectre of 2013-era Tony who last looked at Shaft and devoted some thoughts to it, and once again I’m forced to make a confession: I still haven’t seen the original 1971 Shaft.

As a result, what I continue to wonder is whether I got from the 2000 sequel Shaft–and we must so denote the year as there now, as of 2019’s third sequel, three movies all in continuity and all just called Shaft–what I should have taken, not being conversant in the original. This Shaft, of course, wants to place a stamp on popular culture at the turn of the millennium by replacing Richard Roundtree as lead with Samuel L. Jackson, arguably sailing at the height of his career following his legendary turn in Pulp Fiction, a career that has never entirely faded. Jackson has made a fair amount of dross in the subsequent two decades but he remains in that elite tier of stars who are still A-list, still a household name, and thanks particularly to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, still appearing in the biggest films in Hollywood.

Sadly, we did lose before his time the film’s director, Singleton, who died just aged 51 in 2019 and remains a sad loss not just to African-American cinema, but Hollywood in general. Not all of his films were great, indeed Shaft itself is by no means a great film, but he remains influential to the burgeoning, potentially great black filmmakers of the 2020’s – Ryan Coogler, Steve McQueen, Ava DuVernay etc… all of whom have taken the gauntlet lain down by directors like Singleton and Spike Lee and ran with them. Shaft, in that sense, deserves to be remembered much like its well-known, 1970’s predecessor, and that is perhaps why this version is both a remake of sorts, *and* remains in continuity (a trick repeated by the 2019 Shaft), which was rare in cinema then and remains rare now, to serve both of those masters.

Time then to turn over to 2013-era Tony for his thoughts on whether Shaft lives up to the hype. Let’s find out…

Who’s that black private dick who’s a sex machine with all the chicks?

Shaft asks that question right from the off, launching us into a super-fly credit sequence set to Isaac Hayes’ classic 70’s tune that is director John Singleton from the get go saying ‘look, this is very much still your father’s Shaft, so sit back and enjoy the ride’. I haven’t actually seen the original trilogy of early 70’s Blaxploitation actioners that inspired this… not quite remake, not quite reboot, not quite sequel, yet all three at once–however the message Singleton’s film gives out very much brings the same black power, ultra cool vibe racing into the 21st century. And who better to be the man himself than the mac daddy of modern pop culture, Samuel L. Motherfuckin’ Jackson?

You can’t argue with him playing a total badass who doesn’t give two shits about the system or what people think, and in that way Shaft makes for a neatly retro kind of hero in these PC times – he’ll happily walk up to Jeffrey Wright’s Latino drug dealer and call him a piece of shit to his face, and Shaft’s old fashioned cool is a breath of fresh air. Plus, you can tell Jackson is having a whale of a time in such an iconic role. It’s really him that makes it so much fun, plus Singleton making sure despite a potentially worthy and earnest central plot about Christian Bale’s entitled, racist douchebag prep school rich kid avoiding punishment for racially murdering a man in a bar, that the tone remains a little tongue in cheek, a little wry and always exuding that sense of slightly hyper-real cool without being too OTT. 

It’s best not to analyse the story really, as it often goes around in circles & Toni Collette is saddled with a bland, thankless role as a terrified witness, while Wright strays a little into irritating & Bale gets a one-note prick who’s largely forgotten about in the second half. You’ll get more out of this if you just enjoy Jackson strutting about like the cock of the walk, and lap up any moment where Richard Roundtree turns up (often quite randomly) as the original John Shaft, now Jackson’s characters uncle – and watch too cool dudes shoot the breeze.

You know, I enjoyed Shaft a lot more than I was expecting. Yes it’s about a subtle as a brick tied to Chris Tucker thrown off a bridge, its story is best forgotten & its one small step away from falling into spoof, but John Singleton makes sure we’re having fun the majority of the time – with a super cool score by David Arnold, a script with enough motherfuckers to fill an incest convention, and Samuel L. Jackson gliding around in a long black coat shooting bad guys in the name of justice… honestly, what’s really not to like? That Shaft’s a cool mother–you daaaamn right.

Shaft, therefore, is principally designed to be fun, and revels in Jackson at the peak of his cool taking down Bale, pre-Bruce Wayne and becoming an iconic star himself and just in the slipstream of his own iconic turn in American Psycho earlier in the year, a peg or two. It enjoys revelling in having Roundtree and Jackson, black icons from different eras, sharing screen time – even if they are both men of the same generation, with a mere six years separating the two men in real-life age. Roundtree was an icon of emerging Blaxploitation while Jackson serves as almost a post-modern black icon, making the key transition into a major headline star beyond simply black cinema, and aiding the profile of African-American stars breaking into the mainstream.

It makes a lot of sense, as a result, that Jackson would inhabit the iconic role of Shaft and even if the film around him is not enormously memorable, can you think of anyone then (or now, in all honesty) who fits the Shaft template better? If you can, you daaaamn *wrong*.

Read the previous 2000 in Film pieces here:

1 – The Hurricane

2 – Next Friday

3 – Down to You

4 – Eye of the Beholder

5 – Scream 3

6 – The Beach

7 – The Whole Nine Yards

8 – Wonder Boys

9 – The Next Best Thing

10 – Mission to Mars

11 – Erin Brockovich

12 – Romeo Must Die

13 – The Road to El Dorado

14 – Rules of Engagement

15 – 28 Days

16 – U-571

17 – Frequency

18 – Gladiator

19 – Battlefield Earth

20 – Road Trip

21 – Mission Impossible II

22 – Shanghai Noon

23 – Gone in 60 Seconds

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