A social and cultural shift took place shortly after Shaft hit theaters in 1971. Inspired by Ernest Tidyman’s novel and with influence from director Gordon Parks and actor Richard Roundtree as the titular character, Shaft became more than a household name. He became an ideal which the African-American community could look up to, a super hero without super powers, a man capable of taking on The Man and walking away clean. This is just some of what gets explored in the three-part series “A Complicated Man: The Shaft Legacy,” just one of the special features included on the home release for 2019’s Shaft, a film which is equal parts modern update and continuation of the story begun in 1971. Considering director Tim Story’s Shaft (2019) wasn’t received well by critics, many might think that the home release may not be worth exploring. However, the special features may be the best reason to pick it up. From this reviewer’s perspective, the “A Complicated Man” series is a worth the purchase for any Shaft fan and it adds nuance to the 2019 tale.
For the last 25 years of his life, with the exception of a few gifts on holidays and birthdays, John Shaft, Jr. (Jessie T. Usher) has grown up without his father, private investigator John Shaft II (Samuel L. Jackson). Instead, the task of raising him was left to Jr.’s mother, Maya (Regina Hall), and the duty of protecting him was left to friends Karim Hassan (Avan Jogia) and Sasha Arias (Alexandra Shipp). Despite this estrangement, John Jr. (JJ) grows up to be a data analyst for the FBI, making the draw to law enforcement and protection more nature than nurture. However, when tragedy strikes, JJ calls upon his father to help him find the truth. What starts as a search for answers turns into a family affair as three generations of Shaft men come together to close this case.
From a critical perspective, it’s easy to see where Shaft (2019) misses the mark. It’s simultaneously an action-drama, family drama, dramatic thriller, and buddy cop comedy rolled into one. With that much to cover, it leads to several moments where the tone is disjointed, the story itself becomes predictable, and moments of tension are absolutely tossed out the window by going for the joke. It’s a huge lift to try to tackle all of these things at once and that’s where Shaft (2019) easily loses its audience. For example, the entire film detours to introduce grandpa, John Shaft, the heavily imitated and never matched Richard Roundtree, to JJ. This scene offers a few tidbits about Jackson’s Shaft, as well as offers the three generations of Shaft men a moment to be damn adorable together, but it is smack-dab in between two action sequences. One could argue that the family reunion offers a chance for the audience to catch their breath between sequences, which it does wonderfully, except that something happens at the end of the previous scene which starts an internal timer for the narrative. The reunion does offer the audience relief and gives the Shaft men the tools they need for the next sequence, but the entire scene yanks the tension right out of the air. The same thing happens when the film isn’t sure what tone it wants to achieve. Take a poignant moment between Maya and John, where the two parents discuss JJ. Speaking through a door, the two try to reach an accord about who did what to whom and what John owes JJ. It’s a sweet scene that keeps being played for laughs as an older white hotel neighbor keeps giving John the stink-eye for the noise he’s making in the hallway. In this scene, we have John facing-up to his choices to a woman, the film suggests, is the one who got away. By constantly having the neighbor interject, while amusing in its handling, undercuts the emotional weight of the moment. When things like this happen over and again throughout the film, it’s clear why Shaft (2019) wasn’t received well by critics.
That said, there’s another way to look at the film, which is within the context of the universe it resides in. Doing so recognizes that Shaft (2019) is more than a modern action-drama-comedy hybrid, it’s something which continues the rich history begun in 1971. As explored in “A Complicated Man,” the Shaft films gave African-American audiences post-Civil Rights Movement something they hadn’t had before: a larger than life hero. Someone with confidence, coolness, intelligence, and flair. Someone who could move in circles of all kinds and receive the respect he deserved. Considering how African-American citizens are treated today, by and large, Shaft remains just as relevant and just as necessary as a figure of righteousness. If The Man won’t do what’s right, then it’s up to Shaft to handle business. When Samuel L. Jackson took on the mantle of John Shaft in identically titled Shaft in director John Singleton’s film from 2000, John Shaft is a police officer who eventually quits the force to be a detective like his father. His version tried working within the system until he comes to the conclusion that his father had the right idea. The same happens for JJ. Once more, the, mantle of Shaft is passed down as the notion that taking care of one’s neighbors, one’s people, is more important than the flag you fly, that being good and doing good are not the same, that sometimes justice comes from outside the law. To some, that’s a scary notion. Yet, within the framework of a society which keeps trying to put a group under its boot heel again and again, there’s no denying the empowering nature of the ideal. Shaft offers that over and over, in any generation.
The concept of crossing generations isn’t particularly new and it’s something which the Shaft series doesn’t shy away from. As Jackson himself explains in “A Complicated Man,” he wasn’t going to replace Roundtree, an impossible feat, but he could bring his own flavor to it. That aspect comes front and center in this iteration as everything from language, worldviews, and music collide on-screen as all three generations get involved. Take a sequence where JJ and John ride in a car and debate the merits of contemporary Hip-Hop versus old school R&B. On its own, the scene highlights the expected generational divide from two individuals from two different eras suddenly thrust together. However, later, when both engage in separate shoot-outs, the music used is a blend of songs from both worlds. Stylistically, it’s a small thing, but if you break down the significance of John fighting bad guys to a remix of James Browns “Get Up Offa That Thing,” the sequence takes on a notion of John maturing with the times, even as he remains stuck in his element. Similarly, JJ gets The Ronettes classic “Be My Baby,” a less masculine song, but one which fits the character, signaling a connection to his father, and also adding a little hilarity to the sequence. That said, the language John uses throws up a number of red flags which make the performance of the character hard to read. There are times when violence seems like John’s only answer, yet he’s reticent to do anything which might possibly endanger children. He doesn’t use slurs, but the way he speaks creates a confusion as to whether he’s homophobic or ribbing his son. While this aspect isn’t explored in any of the special features, Story does acknowledge in “Can Ya Dig It The Making of Shaft” that Shaft (2019) is about bridging the generational divide, which includes the hyper-masculine POV of John and the more culturally sensitive POV of JJ. Both have their place, Story suggests, but neither are a complete view of the world. Being that its Jackson in the role, an actor more than capable of making anything sound layered in meaning, a certain benefit of the doubt is in order.
Even with a few questionable comments from the characters, tonal dissonance, and the family storyline being absolutely predictable, Shaft (2019) is some straight-up fun. The cast is fantastic and is completely at ease in any of the ever-escalating situations. The story, though predictable, is not without its surprises. When the various narrative tones blend well, they hit beautifully. Just like James Bond and Bullitt were ideals white audiences dreamt of being, Shaft remains a character which African-American audiences can look toward and be inspired. It doesn’t matter if one generation does it differently than another, the desire to be respected, to possess earned confidence, and be a person of determination and integrity remains real. Even if only on celluloid, to see someone like Shaft, John Shaft, or JJ recognize the power within themselves to help others remains incredibly moving. To their credit, the supporting roles from Hall and Shipp are not to be underestimated either. But that’s no surprise. It may be a man’s world, but the Shaft men would be nothing without their women.
Shaft Blu-ray Combo Pack contains the following special features:
- Can Ya Dig It? The Making of Shaft
- A Complicated Man: The Shaft Legacy – Part One: A Bad Mother Born
- A Complicated Man: The Shaft Legacy – Part Two: No Questions Asked
- A Complicated Man: The Shaft Legacy – Part Three: A Legend of His Time
- Deleted Scenes
- Gag Reel
Shaft DVD contains the following special feature:
- Can Ya Dig It? The Making of Shaft
Available on digital September 10th, 2019.
Available on Blu-ray Combo Pack and DVD September 24th, 2019.
Final (Film) Score: 4 out of 5.