Talking about Shaft...

>> Tuesday, March 03, 2009

So I have to make a confession, although it won't surprise anybody who actually pays attention to the "Seen" sidebar. (Does anybody pay attention to the sidebars?) The confession is this: despite being fairly familiar with the movie and having seen bits and pieces of it over the years and having seen the not-very-good Samuel Jackson remake/reboot, it was only last week that I finally saw the original Shaft (1971) start-to-finish, in it's entirety.

I have to admit that the surprise wasn't that Shaft is a good film (though it is surprisingly good), but that it's actually a fairly smart film. I think Shaft has been lumped in the pop culture imagination with the rest of the "blaxploitation" era, which isn't really fair or accurate: the term "blaxploitation" itself sort of implies that a movie is basically a rip-off of a "white" movie, only black, e.g. take 1972's Blackula--it's Dracula, see, only he's (gasp!) black. In the same way, the blaxploitation riff on Shaft would be that it's a kind of run-of-the-mill detective movie, only, see, the detective is (gasp!) black.

It's true that if you strip away the racial side of Shaft it's a thin movie: a detective is hired by a gangster to recover the gangster's daughter, kidnapped by a rival gang looking to exchange the girl for her father's territory. That plot has moss on it, of course, going back even past the obvious antecedents in '30s pulp to--well, hell, it's kinda-sorta the plot (well, a subplot, at least) of Richard III, y'know? There's probably some ancient genetic memory of some story Cro-Magnons told each other about the time Runs-With-Spear stole Cooks-With-Fire's kid so RWS could force CWF to move out of his cave (which was admittedly a pretty nice, bear-free cave with its own stream in the back and a lovely custom decor designed by Draws-On-Walls during his "many hunters/one antelope" period). The problem with that, though, is that race in Shaft is central to the plot and characters without being a gimmick (i.e. Shaft isn't the pulp detective Blackula).

What makes Shaft clever and interesting as a sort of historical window is that underneath the pulp-detective trappings it's really a movie about how dense, diverse, segregated-melting-pot places like New York City produced interesting people who could walk in two completely different worlds that overlapped without entirely touching. Indeed, John Shaft isn't retained by gangster Bumpy Jonas because he's the man "That would risk his neck for his brother man?" (per the famous Isaac Hayes lyrics), but because he has "one foot in whitey's craw." More accurately, Shaft has a semi-counterpart down at the police station, a white detective (Vic Androzzi) who we discover is actually a pretty cool guy who kinda gets it. But Shaft's ability to make it in these two worlds isn't without some cost in both of them: in "white" New York, Shaft has trouble getting a cab and comes this close to justifiably kicking a racist detective's ass; nonetheless, in "black" New York, Shaft is referred to as a "traitor," a "Judas," and I think at one point somebody actually calls him "Tom" (nearly provoking another justified ass-kicking).

It's this dynamic running through the film that makes it interesting, and really more than a curiosity. It's also how the mediocre 2000 remake fails, although it's interesting to ponder why: one might think John Singleton would make a conscious movie, but somehow he actually made a "classic" (in a bad sense) blaxploitation film: the reboot of Shaft is, essentially, a typical contemporary detective-action-adventure movie, only the detective is (gasp!) Samuel Jackson (who is--gasp!--black). So why did Singleton end up with a movie that seems so light? Is it because the original Shaft was essentially an indie picture before MGM picked it up, giving it more freedom to be honest? Is it because we have progressed as a society to the point that being able to weave across racial lines isn't as extraordinary as it was in 1971 (thereby depriving the central character of one of his most interesting traits and removing the spark and friction that we see in 1971, where Shaft has racist cops and gangsters on one side and people accusing him of selling out on the other)? Is it because Gordon Parks is just that much savvier and slier than Mr. Singleton?1 Or that the original benefited from the heady atmosphere of the American New Wave while the reboot was made during the blockbuster era (with a blockbuster star)? Is it that New York just seems to make smarter movies than Hollywood mostly does?

Probably (possibly) some combination of these things; I don't really have an answer, I guess that makes them rhetorical questions.

The inevitable subtext of a piece like this, naturally, is whether the recent election of America's first black President also marks a threshold or turning point that relegates movies like the 1971 Shaft to a sort of curio status. Does Shaft capture a moment in American history that is beyond-gone, a place and time (New York City, 1971) that might as well be Middle-Earth? A couple of weeks ago (because of Jim Wright, actually) I popped Blazing Saddles (1974) into the DVD player, and I couldn't help thinking that the central conceit in Saddles--that there would be no way in hell that a bunch of honkies would accept the leadership of a black man unless something like Mongo showed up to rip the town to pieces with his bare hands--seems a little passé now for obvious reasons. (Or maybe not: it's not exactly hard to imagine George W. Bush confessing he only pawn in game of life. Nonetheless, I think we've made a little progress since 1974. At least I keep telling myself that.) I had to wonder whether anybody born after, I don't know, let's say 1990 can really get Blazing Saddles beyond the fart jokes, get that Saddles is also a vicious satire that's funny and painful because it was true, there really were people like that in 1974, the year the movie is really set. (This is not to say there aren't racists among the younger set, only that I think there's a qualitative and maybe even a quantitative difference, and that despite the racists, nobody can say "they'll never elect a black President," a statement that frankly seemed like it could still be true even well into 2008.) In a similar vein, is the central conceit of Shaft--that there's this guy who has the respect of white detectives and black gangsters (at the expense of a certain amount of contempt from inveterate racists and militants who ultimately just don't get that melanin isn't as important as possessing integrity and being cool)--still meaningful in an era when that premise seems to be taken for granted by a majority of American voters?

Again with the rhetorical questions I can't answer.

Anyway, I'm talking about Shaft. Can you dig it?



1The perils of actually doing a few seconds' research: I got all the way through this piece without one footnote, then went back to add a link for Gordon Parks and discovered something I didn't know that seemed worth mentioning, even in passing: that Mr. Parks began his career as a photographer. Which--and I hate to be knocking John Singleton like this--goes a long way towards explaining why the 1971 Shaft is a better-looking movie than the 2000 Shaft; I mean, I'm not an experienced photographer and have no formal training, but if you look at the '71 film, the shots are just nicely composed and it's noticeable. Some of the street scenes, particularly during the early montage while the hero is running down leads, are just, I don't know, sweet. They'd make cool magazine covers or something. I don't remember anything really impressing me about the way the 2000 version looked; it just looked like a movie as far as I can recall.

Just wanted to say that, and it didn't really fit into the main body up there, unless it also somehow ties into the question about American New Wave.


5 comments:

mattw Tuesday, March 3, 2009 at 8:37:00 AM EST  

Eric, I think you could give Ebert a run for his money.

Random Michelle K Tuesday, March 3, 2009 at 11:21:00 AM EST  

Y'know, I've never seen Shaft (either version) but what you are saying reminds me very much of Hawk, in Robert Parker's Spenser series. Hawk is a bad guy, no doubt about it, but he is also respected by both sides of the aisle, and is far more intelligent and educated than you would expect from a "gangster".

Hawk is one of my favorite reasons to read Spenser books. The other reason being Spenser himself.

Jim Wright Tuesday, March 3, 2009 at 12:40:00 PM EST  

I can dig it.

What Matt said. Jesus, Eric, you should be doing movie reviews for some major news outlet.

I enjoyed the hell out of the original Shaft, never saw the remake. I'm a fan of Sam Jackson, but I just saw no reason for a remake. It's like remaking Dirty Harry or One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. Why?

The early 70's were a weird time for movie making and sometimes a remake is a good idea. Will Smith's remake of I am Legend was a major improvement over Heston's The Omega Man for example, but usually it's not a good idea. I can't imagine how you would improve on Man in the Wilderness or The Wind and the Lion or The Man Who Would be King with a modern remake.

Like you said, Shaft walked the line between worlds that no longer exist in that form. However, those worlds do have modern analogs, imagine a remake with an American black Muslim lead walking the line between post 911 White America and the immigrant radical Muslim community.

John the Scientist Tuesday, March 3, 2009 at 2:30:00 PM EST  

"interesting people who could walk in two completely different worlds that overlapped without entirely touching."

So in that sense, Mr. Moto was a proto-Shaft?

Eric Tuesday, March 3, 2009 at 2:34:00 PM EST  

...imagine a remake with an American black Muslim lead walking the line between post 911 White America and the immigrant radical Muslim community.

Jeebus, Jim--that sounds like a really, really good idea for a movie, especially if you handled it the way Gordon Parks et al. treated Shaft, i.e. you didn't soft-peddle anything. Have a guy who is unapologetically, even aggressively, a Muslim when dealing with government officials or "mainstream" people, but then has to tell serious radicals to come down off it while defending himself against accusations of being a sell-out and a patsy. He navigates those two worlds without compromising who he really is. Don't give it a hokey feelgood character, don't have some kind of "redemptive" scene that implies a character somehow "doesn't really mean it" or is just fronting, don't compromise who the characters are, don't offer any audience member (white or otherwise) an easy out or loophole.

Shit, maybe I need to talk to my buddy Nate about making that movie. Regardless, you'd have to do it outside the Hollywood system, methinks.

Damn. Nobody's going to make a movie like that. They're gonna do some remake that nobody asked for instead. Damn.

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