The Dove Take:
In 1971, we could dig it. In 2000, we might have dug it. But in 2019, it’s time to dog it. Shafts of three, let it be.
John Shaft Jr., a cyber security expert with a degree from MIT, enlists his family’s help to uncover the truth behind his best friend’s untimely death.
We’re talking about Shaft, “a complicated man … no one understands … but his woman,” as Isaac Hayes’ classic theme song puts it. Dove audiences won’t dig it because of the violence, language, sex, occasional nudity and implied pornography. And because there are three generations of John Shaft in this movie, a little clarity here is a must: Richard Rountree is the 1971 blaxploitation original, who started the character many African-American boys grew up wanting to be. Samuel L. Jackson is Shaft II, who avoided the problem of being called “junior” in John Singleton’s 2000 remake because back then, they were uncle and nephew. In this 2019 version, however, Jackson (born in 1948) is son to Rountree (1942), despite the impossible difference in their ages. If the scriptwriters had left the 2000 dynamic in place, it might be easier to accept young newcomer Jessie T. Usher (born in 1992) as “John Shaft Jr.,” or as he is more often referred to in the movie, “JJ.”
As with The Godfather franchise—and this is the only context to which these movies can remotely be compared—the third version of Shaft is the worst. It’s not even really about Shafts 1 or 2, but JJ as the anti-Shaft. The son’s nickname is reminiscent of another African-American character—or some might say, caricature—from the 1970s sitcom Good Times—the lean, lanky guy audiences waited to hear say, “DYN-O-MITE!” in every episode. That’s appropriate because this iteration of the Shaft franchise tends more toward comedy than action/adventure, although there’s plenty of that mixed in.
JJ grows up to graduate MIT, gets a job as an FBI data analyst and is well versed in the political correctness of today. He’s far more nerdy than you’d expect anyone bearing the name Shaft to be, and it gives Jackson as his father plenty of politically incorrect fodder to ride him mercilessly. The movie’s excuse for this is that he was raised by his mother Maya (Regina Hall) alone, specifically because she didn’t want him following his paternal legacy. Mamas don’t let their babies grow up to be cowboys, and Maya doesn’t let her baby grow up to be Shaft.
Well, she tried. JJ gets pulled into the meat and potatoes of the Shaft persona when best friend Karim, a Muslim veteran, dies of something the police are only too willing to characterize as a drug overdose. JJ’s got to uncover the real cause, and his formidable hacking skills aren’t enough. So he, somewhat reluctantly, enlists his father’s help and, after they are joined much later by the original and now graybearded Shaft, high jinks ensue. They navigate their way past the seedier side of Harlem to exact some street justice.
There have been three versions of Shaft—1971, 2000 and 2019. Enough already! Anybody talking about making a fourth should be told, as Hayes’ theme song says, to “shut your mouth,” even if they are talking about Shaft.