Laugh in Haste, Repent in Leisure
DIRECTED BY TIM STORY/2019
When I walked out of the screening for the new Shaft sequel I asked myself my standard post-viewing question: did this movie accomplish what it set out to accomplish? And I answered, “Yes.” Director Tim Story (Ride Along) hit many of the right notes from earlier Shaft films – the cars, the clothes, the catch phrases. The cast is talented. The script by TV writers Kenya Barris (Black-ish) and Alex Barnow (The Goldbergs) made me laugh a number of times. So this should produce a positive review, right?
Well, no. Shaft is one of the rare movies that has me completely rethinking my initial response. Of course, it’s not a perfect film, and I don’t expect it to be. But some of Shaft’s problems are looming larger and seeming more important in the clear light of day.
The new Shaft both updates the classic blaxploitation franchise, and makes it a comedy. Samuel L. Jackson, who played John Shaft in John Singleton’s 2000 remake, returns: but the new film centers as much on his son, J.J. (Jessie Usher). After a brutal 1989 shootout, J.J.’s mother, Maya (Regina Hall) decided that keeping her son safe would require raising him away from his detective father. In his mother’s care, J.J. grew up to be a fastidious, gun-hating, F.B.I. data analyst. But after the suspicious death of a close friend, J.J. decides he needs his father’s help to find answers. Investigating the death leads to exposing a drug-running, money-laundering criminal web, but it also builds a relationship between the very different father and son. There’s even some late-in-the-film bonding and action with granddad, the original Shaft (Richard Roundtree, who is terrific in his limited time onscreen).
All of this seemed solid, if not brilliant, as I watched the film. Perhaps I was caught up in the mood of the very enthusiastic screening audience. But the things that niggled at that back of my mind while watching the film blew up on further reflection.
Firstly, simply in terms of the story, the script is often clumsy. Too much exposition is given in dialogue – said, rather than shown. There are too many predictable elements. And the criminal enterprise that drives the story is a convoluted mess, with an extraneous subplot involving a mosque and a potential terrorist threat. By the end of the movie it didn’t seem to matter that I didn’t follow all of the story’s threads, and that’s careless film making. Everything in a story should have a function and should be coherent. Not so with Shaft.
But I was willing to tolerate a somewhat incoherent story for the sake of good laughs and well executed action – it would hardly be the first time I’ve done that. The problem is that the laughs are ultimately not “good”, but often ugly and cheap. The overarching joke at the center of Shaft is the contrast between the socially conscious, clean living young millennial and his hard living, womanizing, violent father. There’s no denying that Samuel L Jackson can deliver vulgarities as winsomely as anyone working in Hollywood, but the fact remains that if John Shaft were a real person he would epitomize toxic masculinity. Of course, this film pokes fun at people who use phrases like “toxic masculinity”. J.J., who is painfully fussy and effete in early scenes, has to learn to swear, fight, and dress like his father in order to be a real man. John Shaft’s growth as a man is limited to apologizing once, to Maya (something he earlier insisted a man should never do in a relationship with a woman), but his apology is followed up by a crude proposition. In Shaft’s world, surely a woman – even a woman you’ve had no contact with for 25 years – should respond to an apology with sexual favors, right?
So let’s start there. Shaft’s attitude toward women is not just retrograde, it’s repulsive. He rarely refers to women as women, but as a particular body part which he find serviceable. In the movie’s final scene he even refers to Maya in this way, despite the plot’s trying to convince us that she was his one true love. This level of misogyny – and yes, it’s misogyny when women are reduced to things – is especially gross given that Shaft is clearly supposed to be cool. Yes, yes, the film gives lip service to J.J.’s enlightened feminism and allows Maya to be exasperated by John’s behavior. But it’s also clear that Maya will take him back, and that J.J.’s romantic prospects have increased by becoming more like his father.
And speaking of J.J.’s romantic prospects…there are way too many jokes in Shaft about the father’s suspicions that the son is gay (he’s not), and about the name of a non-profit that J.J.’s dead friend was involved with. Homophobic jokes abound, and when LGBT folks still face high levels of harassment and threats to their civil rights those jokes just seem abusive. They also seem hackneyed. Can we not move on from jokes about a man being gay simply because he has a nice apartment or wears skinny jeans? Wasn’t there any point in script development when someone said, “I think we’ve used, ‘Are you sure you like p****?’ too many times.”
Finally, there’s the violence. Now…I am a fan of the John Wick franchise, so clearly I have high tolerance for cinematic gun play. But there is a scene in Shaft in which gun violence and sexual arousal are tied together very overtly. Do we really want that message in our movies, when guns take the lives of over 30,000 Americans per year – a disproportionate percentage of those deaths in the African American community? We’ve been eroticizing violence in movies for almost as long as movies have been made, but Shaft removes all coding and subtlety. It presents a moral challenge, and maybe it’s time to accept the challenge and say, “Enough is a enough.” In my own major metropolitan area four children have been killed by guns in the last six days. Gun violence is a disease in America, not a sexual turn-on.
Chances are, if you go see Shaft you will have a good time (unless you object to profanities, in which case you should run hard in the direction of almost anything else now playing). But the fact that we have a good time watching movies doesn’t always mean that those movies are good, or that we are better for having seen them. I love popcorn entertainment, I love escapism, but above all I love the cinematic art form and believe it has real power to humanize us, expand our thinking, grow our empathy – or not. In the case of Shaft, it’s not. It’s not that good, and not good for you.