A mainstay of Seventies culture, the Blaxploitation film genre officially came to be in 1971, with the release of Melvin Van Peebles' groundbreaking film, "Sweetback's Baadassss Song". Up to that point, black roles in mainstream cinema were mostly limited to train porters, farm laborers, or cooks, and in "Sweetback's Baadassss Song", the characterizations went to the other extreme, in a road movie about a black anti-hero's attempts to evade the white police. His film was at first deemed inaccessible to mainstream (read 'white') audiences, since it was uncompromising in how it portrayed the current state of race relations, thus requiring Van Peebles' to finance the film himself and scramble for theaters that would show it. However, audience response was incredible, and it became the first commercially successful black-theme film showing a black man railing against the establishment. And even though the protagonist was a criminal anti-hero, it was the power over his own destiny and that of others, even if for less than honorable purposes, that struck a chord with black and white audiences alike, and served as a representation of self-assertion in a less-than-hospitable world.
Who's the black private dick,
That's a sex machine to all the chicks? (Shaft!)
However, it would be a studio production later that same year that would cement the Blaxploitation genre into the pantheon of popular culture... "Shaft". According to the MGM Studios press kit, John Shaft (played by Richard Roundtree) was a 'black, muscular, fine-looking' private detective who was equally proficient with the ladies and the bad guys. "Shaft" did for audiences what Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery had been doing for years-- portraying blacks as righteous action heroes, which couldn't have been better timed, given the constant media attention to the militant rhetoric of the Black Panthers of the time. Not surprisingly, "Shaft" went on to score big at the box office, and musician Isaac Hayes won a coveted Oscar for his iconic "Theme from Shaft". In the two years following its debut, "Shaft" begat two sequels, "Shaft's Big Score!" and "Shaft in Africa", as well as a short-lived television series.
Building on the momentum of "Shaft", Blaxploitation films went on to establish a permanent presence in theaters will into the late Seventies, making their stars household names, such as Pam Grier (seen more recently in Tarantino's tribute to Blaxploitation, "Jackie Brown"), Richard Pryor, and Fred Williamson ("Black Caesar"). Though many films were firmly rooted in the 'cops and robbers' elements of its predecessors, such as "Across 110th Street", "Coffy", and "Superfly", a number of films crossed genre boundaries, branching into comedy, science fiction, westerns, romance, horror, and the other cinematic mainstay of the Seventies, martial arts.
Unfortunately, the often-low production values and derivative scripts eventually killed the genre, and Blaxploitation was accused of contributing to the public's erroneous perception of blacks as violent vigilantes, gangsters, drug dealers, thugs, and pimps. But even though the genre virtually disappeared before the end of the Seventies, the core elements eventually migrated into a stream of higher-production-value films, embodying many of the same themes. Filmgoers of the Eighties and Nineties were witness to a number of such films, including the 'crusader against the criminals' movie ("New Jack City", the "Beverly Hills Cop" franchise), the 'social justice through crime' movie ("Set It Off", "Pulp Fiction", "Dead Presidents"), and even the fatalistic 'in the hood' movie ("Boyz 'n the Hood", "Menace to Society", "Fresh"). Blaxploitation influences have also made inroads into the hip hop and rap music scene, where artists (such as Snoop Doggy Dogg) have sampled dialogue from Blaxploitation pics or have been inspired by the outrageous production design for their music videos.
Who is the man,
That would risk his life for his brother man? (Shaft!)
Can you dig it?
Now, in the year 2000, nearly three decades since its initial release, comes the return of Blaxploitation's crown jewel, "Shaft". Given the 'next generation' treatment, this latest film revolves around a new John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson of "Deep Blue Sea"), the streetsmart nephew of the original private dick (Roundtree, reprising his role). And though director John Singleton ("Boyz 'n the Hood", "Rosewood") lovingly pays homage to the original film (including an updated theme from Isaac Hayes), the film's meandering script, with its lack of focus and unsatisfying conclusion, makes for a disappointing effort that will probably only appeal to die-hard fans of the genre.
Who's the cat that won't cop out,
When there's danger all about? (Shaft!)
Unlike his uncle, who was a private detective, the younger Shaft is part of the establishment, a detective on the NYPD. However, he is pushed over the edge and into resignation following the investigation of a racially motivated murder. When Walter Wade Jr. (Christian Bale), the arrogant son of a wealthy real estate developer, kills a black man outside of an upscale downtown bar, he abuses the legal system to get himself out of jail. Frustrated by the inability of the courts to dispense justice, Shaft turns in his badge and begins a one-man crusade to bring Wade down. Though there is a witness, a waitress named Diane (Toni Collette), she is threatened into silence by Wade, and quickly goes into hiding. With a cold-hearted killer roaming loose on the streets and a witness who doesn't want to testify, Shaft certainly has his work cut out for him. Fortunately, he is aided by a comely narcotics officer (Vanessa L. Williams of "Dance with Me"), a gopher named Rasaan (Busta Rhymes), and a fellow cop (Lee Tergesen of HBO's "Oz"). However, the situation becomes even more complicated when Wade forms an unholy alliance with a local drug kingpin named Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright of "Too Tired to Die"), a career criminal who also has it out for Shaft.
They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother...
(Shut your mouth!)
I'm only talkin' 'bout Shaft.
(Then we can dig it!)
Apparently, there were a number of arguments on the set between Jackson and Singleton over the script, with Jackson refusing to utter any lines written by a 'white man'. In addition, both men were not too impressed with the draft that veteran scribe Richard Price ("Ransom") had turned in. Thus, numerous script changes were made during production, and it is reflected in the finished product, which is a hodge-podge of ideas that never get very far. For an action flick, "Shaft" is very talky, and the convoluted plot gets so wound up in its mechanics that it forgets to develop any of the supporting characters. And the film's ending is also a bit of a mystery, since it ends up taking a 180-degree turn from everything that happened before it, robbing its hero of closure with his nemesis.
Fortunately, when the action is focused on Shaft, the film is tolerable. Jackson's version of the titular hero is the epitome of cool, with an unmistakable screen presence and a bag full of terrific one-liners. Fans of the veteran actor will certainly not be disappointed by how the actor carries himself in this film, which exceeds even the level of panache he established in his breakthrough role in "Pulp Fiction". Jackson's suave portrayal is also greatly assisted with the 'wacca-wacca' soundtrack, which choreographs the cinematic Seventies essence that Singleton infuses into the film. If you thought last year's "Payback" was a great homage to Seventies cinema, just you wait until you see "Shaft".
In light of Jackson's protagonist, the rest of the cast is almost invisible. Bale continues his one-dimensional psychopath from "American Psycho", Collette dons her "Sixth Sense" Brooklyn accent to play an uninteresting and unwilling witness, Williams is relegated to sidekick status, and Roundtree occasionally shows up for reasons of nostalgia. However, if there is one standout supporting performance, it would have to be Wright, whose over-the-top villain almost steals the thunder from Jackson in a few key scenes.
He's a complicated man,
But no one understands him like his woman. (John Shaft!)
"Shaft" is a good diversion for true believers of the Blaxploitation era, as well as those who think Samuel L. Jackson is the coolest actor around. Director John Singleton's valentine to a bygone genre of film certainly has all the right elements-- it's just too bad the same attention wasn't paid to the script. Let's just hope he gets it right for the sequel.