An unofficial count of the audience at a “Shaft” press preview found 14 white people in the (full) theater, all of whom were in rows reserved for press. In fact, most of the people in the press rows were white.
That’s to be expected: A 2018 USC study found that just more than 76 percent of film critics are white. That doesn’t mean that white men – or white women, a demographic that includes me – aren’t qualified to review the movie, which is a sequel to the 1971 classic of blaxploitation. But it is an issue, and we’ll get to that.
But first, I’m just talking about “Shaft.”
The new film is a sequel to 2000’s “Shaft,” which is itself a sequel to the 1971 original. The story opens with a 1989 prologue: Police officer John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson), the nephew of the original Shaft, is in a car that gets shot up by bad guys – while his squeeze, Maya, is in the passenger seat and their infant son, JJ (for John Junior), is in his car seat in the back. Not wanting JJ to grow up facing the violence that follows Shaft wherever he goes, Maya splits, taking the boy with her and issuing strict orders for his father to stay away.
Jump to present day, when a now grown JJ (Jessie T. Usher) is an MIT graduate working as a data analyst for the FBI. When a childhood friend of his dies under mysterious circumstances, he goes to his dad for help in finding out who is responsible.
What follows is a film that embraces the camp of each of its predecessors while adding a timely new depth: The generational and cultural differences between Shaft and JJ are largely about what it means to be a black man today. Shaft tells JJ that his mother did a great job of raising him to be, as he puts it, a “white boy.” JJ, for his part, rebukes his father for using the n-word. (If memory serves, he doesn’t use it from then on). Shaft works the case with a shotgun, from the driver’s seat of a Chevy Chevelle. To his chagrin, his son prefers technology and Uber.
The portrayal of women has much improved. While there are scantily clad women who exist to show that Shaft is still a “sex machine to all the chicks” (to quote Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning 1971 theme song), there are female characters who are better developed. Maya is one of them, thanks in large part to Regina Hall, who really flexes her comedic muscles here.
“Shaft” is also funny, with a sharp, fast-paced humor (though one transphobic joke is a tone-deaf clunker). And it’s always enjoyable to watch Jackson walking around while dropping f-bombs (and mother-f-bombs) all over the place. Director Tim Story makes some great visual homages to the 1971 “Shaft,” but he does miss the mark sometimes. His fight scenes are often too chaotic, and one scene fetishizes violence so much that Quentin Tarantino might blanch.
It’s the heritage of the “Shaft” movies that calls the race of the reviewer (and the viewer) into question. Blaxploitation films reveled in black culture – a culture that, for the first time in the history of popular film, made no attempt to cross over to white audiences. They were black films made for black audiences, steeped in a world in which white critics and white audiences were not a part. White viewers could – and often did – appreciate them, but they would always remain outsiders.
This “Shaft” follows in that tradition. The few white characters in the movie are drug addicts – or simply jerks. (This may be unusual for someone like me to see on screen, but black moviegoers have become inured to seeing black characters depicted in similarly reductive ways.) So while I enjoyed “Shaft” – it’s a fine, fun and funny movie, one that most people will probably enjoy, regardless of race – I can only appraise it through the eyes of an outsider, knowing that I’m not the target audience.
What does it mean to call “Shaft” a black film? Simply that, when weighing a story with as heavy a legacy as this one, the race of the person holding the scale matters.