Over the last decade or so, many franchises have attempted the “add another familial generation to the story” reboot. Perhaps the most notoriously bad example is 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Mutt, Indiana’s illegitimate son, was integrated into the archaeologist’s narrative. Played by a young actor who was slated to be Hollywood’s next big action star (Shia LaBeouf), the character was largely flat and uninteresting (perhaps because the writers felt the need to add the descriptor “illegitimate” to him just as they felt the need to add “interdimensional” to the aliens that resided in the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull).
As is evident from the trailers, Shaft goes in this exact direction–and perhaps the best way to summarize this sequel’s success is to say that it works because it remembers what it is rather than using the introduction of the younger character to attempt to modernize the underlying ideas. Here, Jessie Usher is introduced as John Shaft Jr., the estranged son of Samuel L. Jackson’s Shaft. (Ironically, Hollywood has attempted to use Usher in this capacity once before, casting him as Will Smith’s step-son in 2016’s Independence Day: Resurgence.) Or rather, Jackson’s Shaft is estranged from Usher’s Shaft because JJ’s mother Mya (Regina Hall) is sick of the violence that follows the Shaft lifestyle. Surely there is some sort of commentary in here on absentee fathers in black culture, but I’m not experienced or knowledgeable enough on this subject to parse it out.
What I can infer (mainly because it’s really obvious) is that this story is not intended to be so limited to any single race or gender in its application. Firmly filled with a minority cast (the only two white men in the movie are minor villains), the film never draws attention to its diversity. The racial makeup of the characters is simply part of the world, and it is the same world as everyone else’s because the focus here is on the individual experiences, not group identities.
JJ’s experience is that of a well-off millennial. He attended MIT. The Soho loft that he just moved into for his data analyst job at the FBI has a Lord of the Rings poster on the wall. Shaft tells him that his button up shirts and ties that he wears even when he’s off the job are “white” clothes. Essentially, he is everything Shaft isn’t. And that conflict between JJ and his father is what drives the narrative.
After JJ’s childhood best friend seemingly dies of a heroin overdose, JJ’s disbelief at that cause of death leads him to track down his father to ask for his aid in the investigation. What follows is a politically incorrect, father-son buddy cop movie that is arguably more Die Hard then A Good Day to Die Hard was. The two butt heads again and again until they start to learn from each other–and when they do Mya and JJ’s love interest Sasha (Alexandra Shipp) are added into the mix to deepen the conflict.
Don’t be mistaken though. The movie isn’t positing some balance between modern day social justice and old school American values. What Shaft learns from his son is important to his relationship with Mya, but what JJ learns from his father is important to the resolution of the story–and the future of the franchise. Ultimately, Shaft is an ode to manhood properly understood. The scenes wherein JJ finally embraces that part of himself are when the movie soars–once on his own and once beside his father and grandfather (Richard Roundtree reprising his role as the original Shaft). In what can’t be an accident, those scenes also feature the heaviest visual stylization and borrow a shot or two from Zack Snyder movies (which are so directly copied I can only assume they are intended as homages).
If you’re looking for a visual masterclass, Shaft is not for you. Much of the direction is simple and almost television-like. What powers this movie (and the pure joy I felt while watching it) is that it dares to exist and not apologize for existing in a way I haven’t seen since the golden age of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s South Park or their movie Team America: World Police. Hopefully it is a sign of things to come and maybe, just maybe, the backlash against Naturalism and social justice in mainstream cinema has begun.