The original Shaft (directed by Gordon Parks and starring Richard Roundtree) shook up the cinematic scene when it was released in 1971 by demonstrating that blacks too could be action heroes – and smooth-talking lovers – akin to a Connery or an Eastwood. While Shaft fought against the stereotypes blacks had to endure until then, the genre of films it helped herald in eventually drew the tag "blaxploitation". In the process of smashing a few stereotypes, it drew criticism for eventually created some of its own – that blacks were the druggies, the pimps, the gangsters. But in the early days of Shaft, the baddies were still mostly white.
Cut to the year 2000, and John Singleton’s Shaft doesn’t shy away from employing some stereotypes of its own. John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) is a cop in New York who’s called to the scene of a racially motivated murder. With the reluctant help of waitress Diane (Toni Collette), Shaft arrests the right man, the downright distasteful and rich white boy Walter Wade.
Of course, Wade gets off on bail and skips to Switzerland. Fast forward two years, and Shaft gets a tip-off that Wade is arriving back. It looks like he has his man: but the justice system lets him down again, and with bail easily met Wade’s back on the mean New York streets.
Shaft throws in his towel in disgust and becomes a vigilante, seeking justice on his own terms. With the assistance of his old partner Carmen (Vanessa Williams), and the unintentional help of drug lord Peoples (Jeffrey Wright) and various other crooked characters, the noose around Wade’s neck is drawn tighter. But in the end, the one who draws it closed is a total surprise – thanks to a convenient plot twist that let’s the writers off the hook rather easily.
Samuel L. Jackson is let down by a plot that’s weak and dialogue that could have been oh-so-sharper. Moments of humour are scarce, but they cry out to be written into the script. Instead, the writers seem to have had fun inserting all the gun battles they could, turning the latter part of the film into an orgy of pointless and very uninteresting violence. Shaft’s assistant Vanessa Williams fails to impress, while Toni Collette’s amazing screen presence only demonstrates that she needs to play bigger roles than mere bit parts. Jeffrey Wright’s performance stands out, if only for his exceptional street-wise patois.
Shaft is supposed to be a violent creature, but he’s also supposed to be a sharp-talking and smooth-talking – depending on the situation – role model for those seeking justice. Singleton’s film ups the violence at the expense of the sexy, leaving discerning audiences unsated.
Perhaps the one thing the film has remained true to is its attempt at highlighting racism; Wade’s attitude towards blacks might appear dated, but the sad truth is that it’s a demonstration of the sort of abuse blacks still face in US society today.
And at least the funky theme celebrating the wah-wah pedal is still the same. Just remember, you don’t have to sit through to the end to hear it.