Three generations of ’Shaft’ bring the 1970s hero up to date
By JEN YAMATO | Los Angeles Times | Published: June 14, 2019
LOS ANGELES -- When he took up the mantle of Harlem detective John Shaft for the 2000 action reboot "Shaft," Samuel L. Jackson knew his character, John Shaft II, would need a persona of his own.
But as a young actor who’d come up in the 1970s watching every new addition to the emerging black film canon, delighting in Richard Roundtree’s Shaft -- the first black action hero of cinema -- he’d hoped for a little more of that sex-symbol status. He got just one famously cheesy line.
"The best they could give me was, ’It’s my duty to please that booty,’" he said with a twinkle in his eye on a recent afternoon in West Hollywood. Across from him in an air-conditioned trailer sat Roundtree, the original Shaft, a smile spreading across his face.
"You never saw me in bed with anybody or in the bathtub," Jackson, 70, grinned at Roundtree, 76. "The cool [stuff] that you got to do when you were doing it!"
Now, nearly 50 years after Roundtree first blasted his way into cinema history in 1971’s "Shaft" and two decades after the 2000 John Singleton-helmed reboot that brought the character back to the big screen, the actors reunite in a new Warner Bros. sequel penned by "black-ish" creator Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow.
And they’re not alone. Jessie T. Usher ("Survivor’s Remorse," "Independence Day: Resurgence"), 27, brings new dimension to the family name as JJ, the estranged son who reluctantly turns to his dad for help when his best friend, a Muslim American veteran (Avan Jogia), is murdered.
Together the Shafts navigate their intergenerational conflicts while uncovering a mystery and rappelling through skyscraper windows. And director Tim Story ("Barbershop," "Ride Along") steers the iconic Harlem private-eye franchise into previously uncharted territory - fatherhood.
Three Shafts, one sequel. The tagline says it all while telegraphing the franchise’s shift into action-comedy: "More Shaft than you can handle."
It’s an unusual genre evolution from the gritty neo-noir origins of the character introduced by director Gordon Parks in 1971’s "Shaft," adapted by Ernest Tidyman and John D.F. Black from Tidyman’s novel, and well known to generations of fans since.
"You found your dad’s long coat and put it on and acted like you were Shaft," said Story. "Just as much as I wanted to play Batman, I wanted to play Shaft."
The film’s central frictions emerge between Jackson’s old-school Shaft, a politically incorrect ladies man who shoots first and asks questions later, and Usher’s horrified millennial JJ, a nerdy FBI analyst who shuns guns and whose Pottery Barn-perfect apartment draws an endless stream of insults from his dad.
Pitched as a more comedic return to "Shaft," Jackson had reservations. "I read the script, they were going straight wild comedy and I was like, ’We can’t do that because we owe a certain reverence to the character that you created,’" he said to Roundtree.
"It means something in terms of black mythology," he continued. "We only have so many cinematic heroes in that way. He can be funny and he can be sarcastic, he can be all these other things -- but he can’t be a buffoon."
But dropping Shaft into a comedy -- and into 2019 -- invites a modern consideration of the private eye, who hasn't changed much over the years. Rather than make Shaft's outdated attitudes merely the joke, the film creates a conversation out of his generational clashes with his son, one of few people in the world unimpressed with him, while revealing that Shaft is more conscious of his own foibles than he might seem.
"I tried to make them aware that, even if we make gay jokes, the gay jokes have to have a context," said Jackson. "Somebody's going to be offended by it, but it's not one of those things where we're trashing the LGBT community or saying, 'You can't be that if you're going to be Shaft.’ I’m sure there is a way for Shaft to be gay. But not in this movie ... just yet."
In another scene, Shaft and JJ burst into the office of a local business owner played by Luna Lauren Velez, only to argue over whether or not it's sexist to not hit a female assailant because of her gender. "Somebody somewhere's going to go, 'It was misogynistic!'" Jackson predicts. "People are sensitive. I get it, but if you’re doing comedy everybody isn’t going to be happy. Everything’s not funny to everybody."
The last truly funny movie Jackson can remember watching was one of his own: Pixar's "The Incredibles 2." He specifically recalls the scene in which baby Jack-Jack physically fights a raccoon.
"I was totally shocked that people weren't appalled at the violence of that scene, because it was straight out of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, the things we used to watch where people used to hit each other with big hammers or ran off a cliff and got snapped in a rat trap," he said. "Straight out of that old-school slapstick comedy."
Roundtree had his own reservations when he first heard they were rebooting the character that made his career. He became a movie star after 1971's "Shaft," going on to star in two sequels, 1972's "Shaft’s Big Score!" and 1973's "Shaft in Africa," in quick succession.
It led to other movies, like the Civil War-set "Charley One-Eye" and star-studded disaster drama "Earthquake." But by 1975, he told film critic Roger Ebert in an interview for his film "Man Friday," a Cannes competition entry that flipped the perspective on Robinson Crusoe lore, he was done playing John Shaft.
Roundtree walked away from a 12-picture deal with MGM and wouldn't reprise his most recognizable role until decades later, when Jackson was poised to star in the Scott Rudin-produced 2000 "Shaft."
"Damn!" said Jackson, turning to Roundtree. "They did a 12-picture deal back then? That’s some Marvel [stuff]." "Mmm-hmm," Roundtree nodded. He paused. "No, not actually," he laughed.
Walking away from Shaft all those years ago "wasn't a hard decision at all," he explained. "It would have been fine with me to end it, especially after the TV series. I mean, that was painful and I was done. But it didn’t work out that way." He smiled at Jackson.
"I'm sorry!" Jackson laughed. "You and Daniel Craig. 'I'm done with James Bond!'"
Despite their 6-year age difference, Roundtree was an icon of success to the younger Jackson coming up in the early 1970s. (An improvised Jackson quip in the new film handily explains why Roundtree's character was introduced as Shaft's uncle in the 2000 film but is now firmly recanonized as his father.)
The seminal "Shaft," which was nominated for two Oscars and won one, for Isaac Hayes' funk-soul theme, earned the New York native a Golden Globe nomination and instantly established him as a beacon of cool, confident masculinity for an audience hungry for cathartic representation.
"You created a whole level of cool, that's the mother... I need to be," said Jackson. "Everybody wanted to be you for a very long time. I didn't want to be [Youngblood] Priest. I didn't want to be The Mack. I didn’t want to be Leon Isaac Kennedy in 'Penitentiary.' You defined what cool was -- you had the look, the walk, the attitude."
He couldn't have known that at the time to Roundtree, success was a double-edged sword. "I wanted to be this actor," said Roundtree with winking, dramatic emphasis. "It pigeonholes you. I remember having a conversation with my dad in '74. I said, 'Dad, it's really tough 24-7 ...' I didn’t use that term back then, but - '24-7, Shaft, Shaft, Shaft ...'
"And he said to me, 'Son, let me tell you something,'" Roundtree said. "'A lot of people leave this Earth not being known for nothing. Shut up!'" He burst out laughing.
"There you have it!" answered Jackson. "Well, it does not matter how many times you hear somebody say, 'Do you know what they call a quarter-pounder with cheese in France? Say what again!'" he smiled.
"Can you imagine how many people have worked in this business 50 years and nobody can quote one ... line they'd ever said? So, yeah, I'm the T-shirt line guy. I'm OK with that, and if I wanted to be something else, I'd be something else.'"
Roundtree nodded. "Sometimes it's much easier to ride the horse in the direction that it’s going."
He still vividly remembers the interview with director Parks that changed his career, from modeling for the Ebony Fashion Fair to being the guy everyone wanted to be. "I was sitting in his office and he's saying, 'We're kind of looking for a guy who looks like this,’" said Roundtree. "And I look over, and it's an ad that I had done. 'That's me!'"
To find the next generation's Shaft - a new star who can potentially carry the franchise forward - the filmmakers knew they'd need a young actor who could hold his own opposite both Roundtree and Jackson.
"I wanted somebody who could stand up to Shaft and also gave me the innocence that you could see him turning around and becoming stronger," said Story. "For JJ this is a coming-of-age story; he grows up onscreen."
JJ has been raised by his single mother Maya (Regina Hall), who leaves Shaft in a '90s-set prologue after realizing his street-justice lifestyle isn’t exactly baby-friendly.
Much like Maya is the only woman who calls Shaft out on his behavior, JJ wants to be nothing like his father. And as a tech-savvy millennial who respects women and hates guns, he is a modern redefinition of masculinity within the world of "Shaft."
"I like that he's a fish out of water and I like that he’s going to discover how to swim in the movie," said Usher by phone from New York, describing the relationship between Jackson's Shaft and his character as a bridge between the original trilogy and the future. "There is a point in time where JJ gets it, and he starts to understand what it means to be a Shaft, in Harlem, and he can take the aspects that he likes and make them work for him."
Like Roundtree, Usher also vividly remembers the phone call he received letting him know he got the role - because it came from his own mother. "The first call that came to me was my mom because my agents didn't call me, they called her," laughed Usher. "And she hangs up with them and calls me like, 'Guess what!?'"
He wasn't born when the original "Shaft" movies came out, but even Usher grew up aware of the character and his significance to the greater culture.
"In my family when I speak with my grandparents I hear how they talk about 'Shaft,'" he said. "It means something more to them than any other project that I've done. Because there was a time when they were proudest of those films, they were proudest of those moments when these were their heroes."
"They don't say, 'I used to love watching that movie,'" he said. "They say, 'I wanted to be that person.'"
Jackson's favorite moment making the new "Shaft" arrived in a scene that didn't make it into the movie. "We were all outside and Jessie was standing there, me telling him, 'Look, it's OK to be afraid. This is dangerous, somebody might die, we’ve been through this before but this is new for you. If you want to leave right now, it won't be a thing,'" he described.
"And he's like, 'No. I'm a Shaft.' And I look at Richard, and Richard looks at me, and we look at him, and we go in and do it. For some reason they took that out!" he laughed.
"I have had so much respect for Richard for so long," he added, glancing at Roundtree. "And then bringing Jessie into this whole thing . [it was] a moment that cements the legacy of these three guys where you can see them, you can see that there’s not just toughness and coolness in there - there's real, genuine, male, familial love that’s stronger than all the other [stuff] that's gonna happen."