“Shaft completely misinterprets Blackness.”
Title: Shaft (2019)
Director: Tim Story 👨🏾🇺🇸
Writers: Screenplay by Kenya Barris 👨🏾🇺🇸 and Alex Barnow 👨🏼🇺🇸
Review by Robert Daniels 👨🏾🇺🇸
Opening in 1989, Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) and his girlfriend Maya (Regina Hall) are caught in an assassination attempt ordered by an underground gangster named Gordito (Isaach De Bankolé). They survive, but Maya orders Shaft—and his crime-fighting lifestyle—to stay away from her JJ, their baby who sits idly in the backseat of the car as they argue. The excitement quickly dissipates, however, due to director Tim Story’s insertion of a pointless three minute montage: 30 years fast-forward through trends and fashions mixed with shots of JJ receiving poorly chosen gifts from his father. (One year, he gets a box of condoms.)
Speeding to present day, an adult JJ (Jessie T. Usher) now works as a data analyst for the FBI. Maya still lives separated from Shaft, and JJ’s personal life trudges in disarray. He hesitates to approach his crush Sasha (Alexandra Shipp) while his best friend Karim (Avan Jogia) struggles with a few dangerous secrets. A war veteran and recovering drug addict, Karim mysteriously overdoses and dies. JJ must then employ the help of Shaft to solve the murder of his best friend.
The simple storyline, of reuniting father with son for hijinks and growing pains, suffers under the weight of a terrible script filled with sexism, racism, Islamophobia, and homophobia. Samuel L. Jackson plays a parody of himself, ratcheting up the amount of expletives used by the minute. Some instances land, but most painfully miss the mark.
These ugly components receive no favors from a story centered around an unseen villain, Gordito. Rarely appearing in the film, Gordito’s danger to both Shaft and JJ never rises above a shrug. Other than the ever-effective presence of Samuel L. Jackson, Story’s film gives little reason for anyone to stick around during its interminable 110 minute runtime.
Shaft reduces women to the role of sex objects and damsels in distress. Sure, the original 1971 film, which ushered in the genre of Blaxploitation featuring Black leads and glorified violence, also regarded women as disposable Bond girls. But these early anti-establishment movies aligned women’s sexuality with internal empowerment and independence. Icons like actress Pam Grier were proud of their Blackness, their afros, and their bodies—a revolutionary stance, given the time period when Black signified “ugly”. Ironically, the modern reboot treats women in a way that simply feels misogynistic and outdated. Women crudely exist as consumables to Shaft’s libido. For example, two supporting characters named Baby and Sugar (played by Chivonne Michelle and Tashiana Washington) are offered by Shaft to JJ as sexual playthings, and later hang on Shaft’s arms as props to make Maya jealous.
Even the two main women, Sasha and JJ’s mother, work solely at the behest of their male counterparts. Attracted to Shaft’s hypermasculinity and brutal honesty, Maya at one point literally succumbs to the very scent of Shaft’s cologne. Such contrivances could occupy the realm of lampoon or satire, but a slippery slope exists between the former and misinformed comedy. On the other hand, writers Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow imbue Sasha with faint hints of independence. Sasha dislikes Shaft, finding him repulsive. However, her distrust stems from the vigilante abandoning JJ, not his disrespect toward women.
At every turn, the script elevates the men’s quest to achieve peak masculinity in lieu of anything that could be construed as remotely “feminine”. Shaft repeatedly decries JJ’s “flaws” as the result of “his momma’s shit.” From JJ’s healthy diet, respect toward women, avoidance of firearms, and even to the way he dresses, Shaft derides the way a female authority figure has made his son “effeminate”.
Any notion that this despicable stance could be satirical vanishes the moment Shaft’s methods are validated. When JJ must rescue Sasha, a damsel in distress, he only succeeds by using the tactics his father taught him.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 63% of key cast and crew members were POC.
For a film to have a Black director and screenwriter behind an entirely Black cast, the above score should be impossible. But here we are.
The film completely misinterprets Blackness. In some ways, Shaft’s background as a Blaxploitation hero could produce interesting points of contrast with JJ’s millennial upbringing. Story does play with those generational differences, but mostly diverts its attention to blunt commentary on race.
To Shaft, an old soldier of the ‘70s when Blackness was identified by a simplistic opposition to white traits, JJ’s appearance and attitude marks a disturbing betrayal of his father’s generation and their ideals. JJ exhibits every cliche about upper-middle class whiteness, from his diction to his clean-cut clothes or hatred of guns. None of these characteristics belong solely to white folks, of course, but the film sees no reason not to lean into such limiting stereotypes anyway.
Shaft spends much of the film trying to make his son “Blacker” and more masculine, firstly by pressuring him to use a gun. JJ rebels against such practices, but in one scene, he finally relents. To fend off hitmen, JJ fires Sasha’s pistol, and with each shot expelled, Sasha sits on the floor, aroused by JJ’s violence with her mouth agape while The Ronnettes’s “Be My Baby” plays in the background. For much of the film, JJ struggles to fully attract Sasha but with his “masculine” makeover, he succeeds.
The lesson—shoot the gun and get the girl—perfectly follows Blaxploitation norms. In films like Superfly (1972) or Cleopatra Jones (1973), guns are similarly fetishized. But during a period when The Black Panther Party preached empowerment through self-defense, a fascination with firearms makes sense. In 2019, the connotations of gun violence feel worlds apart and Story’s film ignores that completely, reducing the symbolism of guns to crude humor that feeds into dangerous, literally life-or-death stereotypes of Black men as always packing heat.
In some cases, Story does attempt to show strength through non-toxic avenues, taught by his mother Maya in opposition to Shaft's old-school ideas. In one scene, JJ avoids violence by disabling a jealous guy at a club through acrobatic dance moves à la Jackie Chan—but learned through capoeira lessons paid for by his mom. However, even in a scene meant to add support for Maya’s parenting style, JJ still drunkenly slurs his speech to sound “ghetto.” The scene shows how Shaft feels incapable of demonstrating the healthier effects of Maya’s parenting without undercutting it with stereotypical Blackness. This makes for a jumbled comment on toxic masculinity, as Shaft’s ideals are never rejected. Instead, JJ embraces them and is rewarded with Sasha’s love, once he does.
Deduction for LGBTQ: -1.00
Barris and Barnow’s script displays glaring homophobia. Not only does Shaft initially accuse JJ of homosexuality, later, when Shaft and JJ visit the war veterans group “Brothers Helping Brothers,” Shaft assumes the organization members must be gay. Later, the film confirms his beliefs as a few of the attendees act like caricatures: feminine voices, a roll of the eyes, a flick of the wrist, a sashayed walk. Later, these same men are villainized.
Deduction Religion: -0.50
In JJ’s work as a data analyst for the FBI, the bureau investigates a mosque for terrorist activities. Fearful of appearing Islamophobic, JJ’s boss exercises caution before making any arrests. When Shaft, JJ, and Sasha eventually visit the mosque to investigate their best friend Karim’s death, the leader demands they leave. But thanks to JJ’s unwitting errors, the mosque leader and the rest of his followers are mistakenly arrested, handcuffed, and paraded into waiting squad cars in an embarrassing, televised scene. Though these Muslim characters are later absolved offscreen, the final time the audience sees them is during this demeaning arrest as Story never circles back to show them in a better light. Muslims are turned into a plot device, and an exploitative one at that.
Mediaversity Grade: F 0.50/5
In this misguided and destructive sequel, Shaft devolves from an emblem of empowerment into a caricature of Blackness. The result makes for character assassination, even when the original Shaft actor Richard Roundtree joins the party for one final showdown. How a studio green-lit this script serves as a reminder of how far Hollywood still has to travel. Story’s film relies on harmful stereotypes of Black people, LGBTQ, Muslims, and women for easy laughs, making it the worst and most problematic film of 2019—or any other year, for that matter.