By Alan Scherstuhl
By Mark Holcombe
By Scott Foundas
By Nick Pinkerton
By Michael Atkinson
By Scott Foundas
By Keith Phipps
By Alan Scherstuhl
So let's talk about Shaft--the original cat, you dig? Back in 1971, director Gordon Parks introduced his hero with a shot that brilliantly articulated what was so radical about a "black private dick" taking charge of the big screen: The camera starts high above a grimy avenue in Times Square, panning along a series of movie-theater marquees touting Burt Lancaster and Telly Savalas in The Scalphunters, Robert Redford and Michael J. Pollard in Little Fauss and Big Halsy, and, somewhere down the food chain, double bills of He & She and The Animal, and School for Sex and The Wild Females. A single slap of Isaac Hayes's high hat and the next title we see is "SHAFT"--not on a marquee, you dig, but rising up from the sidewalk in red block letters to claim its rightful place upon the screen. Then Hayes's wah-wah riff kicks in, and with it Shaft himself--rising up from the subway in brown leather threads and a proudly worn Afro, ready to take what's his.
In other words, to talk about Shaft is to talk about a revolution, no matter that the movie itself argued against militant action and in favor of a black bourgeoisie that would beat the Man at his own game onscreen and off. As Parks told me in 1996 before a screening of his classic at the Juneteenth Film Festival, "Shaft is nowhere near blaxploitation." Which is to say that his film fights not against whitey per se but for a world in which even a black gangster's daughter could go to college, and in which a sex machine like John Shaft could feel cool ordering espresso in Greenwich Village--and tipping well. Thirty years later, this battle has apparently been won: The new Shaft opens with a Bond-style credit sequence that, being slick and impersonal where Parks's was raw and in-your-face, doubles as a near-subliminal product placement for blue steel, bare skin, dead presidents, and the new-and-improved theme song on digitally mastered CD.
Among the other things Hollywood has seen fit to commodify in recent years is the tragedy of black men murdered in hate crimes, as the new, Armani-clad Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) begins his latest case briefly mourning a young African-American student (Mekhi Phifer) beaten to death by, most likely, the arrogant, affluent racist (Christian Bale) who had taunted him in an Upper East Side bar. Now, this being a black action film by the director of Boyz N the Hood (John Singleton, who co-wrote the screenplay with Shane Salerno and Richard Price), you'd imagine our NYPD-employed hero would strive to inflict equal damage upon the suspect, perhaps even taking a few of his frat-boy friends to the grave as well. Right?
Not exactly. Fearful of parading a slew of white bodies before suburban multiplex audiences, Singleton (or should I say Paramount?) permits Detective Shaft merely to break the Bale character's nose at the crime scene and then to wonder whether this ill-tempered outburst has enabled the accused to post bail. Law-enforcement brutality, you see, needs to be kept in check--that is, when it's directed at white people. Conversely, Shaft needn't show the slightest remorse after leaving a young black drug dealer with a mouthful of bloody Chiclets, this ferocious pistol-whipping having nothing to do with cleaning up the community but rather with extracting info as to the whereabouts of Diane (Toni Collette), a white witness to the murder. Our insurgent Shaft may not play by the rules, but he does have his priorities.
If Parks's original Shaft was principally a "get your house in order" sort of project, the new film expresses its politics purely through the color of its victims. Conveniently diverting our attention away from that messy issue of black-on-white vengeance, a Dominican drug lord (Jeffrey Wright) conspires with Bale's aristocratic Walter Wade Jr. to rub out the witness, thus risking his entire Latino crew in order to satisfy Shaft's discriminating desire for hard-core action. Not that our hero fails to issue fair warning. After the Dominican tells his new Caucasian associate "I wanna be joo" (his "colorful" pronunciation giving Al Pacino's Scarface a run for his powder), Detective Shaft speaks aloud the blockbuster maxim that nonwhite villains get theirs when they "try to rise above their station."
Rudy Giuliani calling John Shaft. A careful tally of Shaft's big score here puts the number of his lead-poisoned victims at 16--all of them nonwhite, and most of them blasted in rapid succession, save for a quick break during which the crime fighter grabs a shotgun and exclaims, "It's Giuliani time!" Despite having lost his badge by this point, the superhero never expresses his amazement at how he's able to get away with such unequal opportunity bloodletting, much less the slightest dismay at how his hunger to bust a white man and rescue a white woman would result in the shootings of more than a dozen people of color by his own hand. (Would a little self-reflection along these lines have made the film too critical? Too sensitive? Too boring?) Rather, Shaft reserves his greatest concern for Miss Diane. "These last two years must have been hell on you," he says after cradling her head in his arms. (Chastely, that is: Sex between them--or between Shaft and anyone onscreen--is evidently out of the question.) Meanwhile, lacking the lawman's loving care, the murdered student's mother is left to face her own hard justice.
That the new Shaft offers little to offend the likes of Howard Safir hasn't been much noticed by daily reviewers--although the Strib's did see fit to attribute Parks's and Singleton's successes to two white writers (Raymond Chandler and Richard Price) and one movie by a white director (William Friedkin's The French Connection). Speaking of dubious honors recently published in the Strib, the paper reported two weeks ago that Minnesota holds the record for the nation's worst racial disparity in incarceration, with black men in our fair state being 27 times more likely to be locked up than white men. Alas, it's doubtful we'll ever see Shaft assigned to solve that particular crime.
Shaft is playing at area theaters.
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