Shaft 2019 style – a wasted opportunity

Image result for shaft 2019Four years ago it was announced that New Line had secured the rights from Warner Brothers to make a new Shaft movie. For fans of Ernest Tidyman’s hero and the original 1970s movies this was a welcome surprise. The key question was how would New Line treat the property? Gradually news filtered out that the movie would be a sequel to the Samuel L Jackson 2000 version, itself a sequel to Richard Roundtree’s three 1970s originals. The movie would feature a third generation John Shaft and would concentrate on the relationship between him and his father.  It would also have a comedic tone. That’s when my heart, and no doubt those of many other fans of the original, sank. What we got when the film was finally released in June 2019, nearly a full year after completion, was exactly what had been promised. I sat watching the film with an increasingly sinking feeling that the producers had totally messed things up. Jackson’s character has been turned into a caricature of his 2000 version, whilst Roundtree is trotted out for the finale and is given too little screen time, given he gives easily the most considered performance. My wife lasted half-an-hour, my son an hour, I had to see it through of course.

Related imageIt seems odd that we are to accept in the post-millennial, ultra PC world we currently live in that it is impossible to make a serious crime thriller with a black hero. Why? 1971s Shaft was a hard-hitting crime thriller with a solid plot and a charismatic lead, which also had aspects of social commentary. It resonated with a generation of black Americans and a wider worldwide audience. It was groundbreaking in opening up Hollywood to black filmmakers and actors and as such has massive cultural significance. Yes, the glut of Blaxploitation movies that followed in its wake quickly veered into the territory of the absurd, but there were the occasional gems and, more importantly, it helped give black artists a stronger voice in popular culture.

Ernest Tidyman, Shaft’s creator, was ironically a white man. His goal, on commission from Macmillan’s mystery editor Alan Rinzler, was to create a black hero to give readers of crime fiction something different to the glut of white detectives and Agatha Christie-styled comfy mysteries. Tidyman duly obliged with a private eye in the mould of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe brought up to date and thrown into a decaying New York City with all its financial and social problems and its escalating crime rate. The result was the novel Shaft (1970), a hard-hitting fast read of a thriller that integrates the social issues of life in Harlem into a straight-forward detective story of threatened gang warfare between the Mafia and the Harlem crime lord. Tidyman was a former journalist with the New York Times who had an in-depth knowledge of both the city and its issues.

As written by Tidyman, the character of John  Shaft was a product of poverty in the black community. Orphaned at two-years-old, passed around from foster home to foster home, he ran with the street gangs before being enlisted to fight in Vietnam rather than go to jail. A wounded war hero, hardened by his experience he made his own way in the white man’s world. Setting up his own detective agency and operating from Times Square – not the glitzy location of today, but the sleazy run-down place it had become in the 1970s. He lived in a Greenwich Village Apartment, amongst arty types. He had no time for the black militants, led by his former friend Ben Buford, and admonished Knocks Persons, the Godfather of Harlem for soaking the streets with drugs, prostitutes and for preying on the poverty of the population via the numbers racket. Shaft was a loner, out for himself. A man of few close friends. He had been shaped by his upbringing and his experiences into looking after number 1.

Tidyman cleverly weaved all these strands through that first novel and the result was a sensation that was quickly picked up by the big studios. MGM finally acquired the rights and hired Gordon Parks, a photographer and filmmaker with an affinity and feel for Harlem. Parks put his own stamp on the character in the film adaptation taking Tidyman’s template and fashioning a charismatic performance from newcomer Richard Roundtree. Isaac Hayes’ funky score captured both the character of Shaft and the feel of the streets and provided the icing on the cake. The opening sequence is one of the best in motion picture history at establishing a character in three or four minutes.

Image result for the last shaftLike Tidyman’s novels, the film series became gradually more formulaic as bigger budgets put more emphasis on action and less on character, but they remained thoroughly enjoyable. The failure of Shaft in Africa at the box office signalled a move of the franchise to TV for a short-lived series of 7 TV movies. In 1975, Tidyman killed off the character in his seventh novel The Last Shaft (“He was tired and so was I”)  and the world moved on.

Twenty-five years later, Paramount and John Singleton attempted to relaunch the franchise. They cast Samuel L Jackson as Shaft’s nephew (later to be determined as his son) – also named John Shaft – and put him in a serviceable crime thriller, which lost the hipness and resonance of those 1970s movies, whilst providing an opportunity for Jackson to showcase his considerable charisma. The movie did well at the box office, but no-one was really happy with it.

Nearly a generation later the world is a different place – even from that seen at the turn of the century, but there are worrying elements of an increasing backlash against attitudes of social tolerance: the election of Trump; Brexit in the UK; the increasing narrow-mindedness toward the migrant situation whether it be between the Middle East and Europe or on the US/Mexican border. Issues that could be addressed rather than ignored.

The laudable focus on diversity and sexual equality has rendered some of the wider attitudes seen in 1970s society as objectionable. Questions are being asked about the popular cultural icons of the time. The sexism perceived in characters such as James Bond and John Shaft is now no longer acceptable. Today’s heroes are driven to be whiter than white or they cannot be held up as role models for society.

This thinking is embodied in the character of JJ (John Shaft III) in Tim Story’s new version of Shaft. The scriptwriters (Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow) decided they would pitch post-Millennial attitudes against those of the pre-Millennial through JJs relationship with his father. But instead of taking a serious approach and making a forceful statement, they go for a comedy of manners. In so doing they both undermine their message and end up creating caricatures for comic effect rather than characters of depth.

And none of this has anything to do with Ernest Tidyman’s original creation.

Ernest Tidyman

Tidyman was not going all out to make social and political points in his writing. The issues of the day were presented as a backdrop to the story. Tidyman was creating escapist entertainment and thrills from a plausible detective hero – a character single-mindedly establishing a life for himself despite the things that have conspired against him.  That is the essence of the character of John Shaft. Yes, he has his flaws – his disposable attitude to women, a sense of homophobia – but his heroic qualities of loyalty and resilience and his determination to do things his own way sent a message which resonated with the black population. Ernest Tidyman was recognised for his work on Shaft by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 2000, the original 1971 movie was preserved in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

The question posed by the failure of the new movie is: Does John Shaft carry any relevance in today’s world? The box office numbers for Tim Story’s movie would suggest not. But, is that because the movie is a total misfire that adds nothing to the Shaft legacy and indeed mocks its perceived outdated attitudes? Could a viable Shaft production still be made today? I believe the answer to this question is a definitive YES. As long as the subject is taken seriously and abandons the dilution through generational baton-handing.

In my mind there are two potential ways to go with the franchise:

Image result for shaft a complicated man1.  Go back to the beginning and set it in the period. In 2014 David F Walker persuaded Dynamite Entertainment to obtain the literary rights to the character for a series of comic books and new prose novels. The result was Shaft: A Complicated Man. Set in 1969 this comic book is an “origins” story that explores how Shaft became a private detective having returned from Vietnam. It is effectively a prequel to Tidyman’s novel. It is a character study that deftly uses the 1969 New York setting and explores Shaft’s inner turmoil against the backdrop of him seeking revenge for the death of his girlfriend at the hands of organised crime. As a character study, a crime thriller and a representation of a period in history it works on multiple levels and has an emotional impact.

2. A reboot for the modern day. Bring the character up to date and set him against a backdrop of the social issues of today, whilst retaining his key core characteristics set down in Tidyman’s template. Craft a story that is exciting and challenging and allows these characteristics to be drawn out. Shaft should remain uncompromising, tough, resilient, single-minded. Some of the excesses of his character could be softened, but not removed altogether. Shaft is a flawed character – as are we all as individuals. These flaws are what make him feel human. The essence of that character should be retained.

I fear after the poor returns for Tim Story’s movie that the franchise is now dead on the big screen. However, there may still be opportunities to explore either of the two options I have outlined above on the small screen. If so, TV will likely be the best medium as it allows space for exposition of plot and exploration of social issues whilst giving the characters room to breathe and grow. A Shaft TV series today would be very different to the watered-down version of 1973/4. Warner Brothers need to stay true to a property in which I believe there is still mileage and not farm it out to hacks who have no feel for it. I am hoping there are sympathetic filmmakers out there who can put John Shaft back on the map and make him as relevant today as he was back in 1971.

Warner Archive announces Blu-Ray releases of Shaft’s Big Score! and Shaft in Africa

As expected ahead of the release of the new Shaft movie in June, Warner Archive has announced it will finally be releasing the second and third of Richard Roundtree’s original Shaft films on Blu-Ray. The releases of both Shaft’s Big Score! (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973) will take place on 21 May. Both films will be remastered in HD. As with most Warner Archive releases it is not expected there will be any additional content. There will also be a Triple feature release including Shaft (1971) Warner has shared the following detail:

SHAFT’S BIG SCORE (1972)
NEW 2019 1080p HD MASTER
Run Time 105:00
Subtitles English SDH
Sound Quality DTS HD-Master Audio 2.0 – English
Aspect Ratio ORIGINAL ASPECT RATIO – 2.40:1, 16 X 9 LETTERBOX
Product Color COLOR
Disc Configuration BD 50
You can’t say the mob wasn’t warned about John Shaft. “He’s a bad dude,” a numbers racketeer cautions them. Now, Shaft himself will deliver that message in a way New York City’s wiseguys understand.
Richard Roundtree reunites with the director (Gordon Parks) and screenwriter (Ernest Tidyman) of 1971’s trendsetting Shaft for Shaft’s Big Score!, the second of Roundtree’s three movie portrayals of the street-smart, leather-jacketed private investigator. This time, the blown-to-kingdom-come murder of a client plunges Shaft into a case that bounces him like a pinball between the 133rd Precinct and competing mobs. But the players are about to be played in this “rousing and entertaining thriller” (Newsweek).

SHAFT IN AFRICA (1973)
NEW 2019 1080p HD MASTER
Run Time 112:00
Subtitles English SDH
Sound Quality DTS HD-Master Audio 2.0 – English
Aspect Ratio 16 X 9 LETTERBOX, 2.40:1
Product Color COLOR
Disc Configuration BD 50
Go ahead. Slug, drug, kidnap and leave John Shaft buck naked in a sweltering hellhole. It’s still no deal. If you want to recruit this tough-minded Manhattan detective for an overseas assignment, you’d better use a language he understands. One that offers a fat up-front fee. And a drop-dead-gorgeous accomplice. Richard Roundtree returns as the indomitable Shaft, who poses as a slave, unmasks the leaders of an Africa-to-Europe slavery cartel and, for good measure, mixes his business with amorous pleasure involving a beautiful princess (Vonetta McGee). The cool-fire impact of Roundtree’s performances endures: The actor won the 1993 MTV Movie Award for Lifetime Achievement for his work in the three Shaft thrillers.

When Harlem P.I. John Shaft first appeared on the movie scene, he was a “shut your mouth” detective to reckon with, a fact underscored by Isaac Hayes’ Oscar®-winning* Best Original Song (1971). Richard Roundtree plays the hard-hitting, street-smart title role in these signature “blaxploitation” films, hunting for a kidnap victim in Shaft (1971) and seeking a friend’s murderer in Shaft’s Big Score! – mixing it up with mob thugs each time. Finally, there’s Shaft in Africa (“He’s the Brother Man in the Motherland,” proclaimed ads), with our hero bringing down a slavery cartel. Shaft’s the name. Excitement’s the game!

Shaft’s 2017

Well, here we are again. Another year on and it seems to have gone so quickly. At this time last year I gave a summary of activity in the world of John Shaft. It came at the end of an exciting two years, which saw the publication of two original comic books as well as a new novel, all written by David F Walker, relaunching Ernest Tidyman’s detective in literary form.

Walker had done a superb job at introducing the character to a new audience. His work proved to be a real treat for fans of the original books and films. Despite critical acclaim, these books did not sell in sufficient quantities to satisfy publishers Dynamite Entertainment and a planned reprint of Tidyman’s original novels stalled after the first release. The Italian reprints through SUR, however, did at least continue with the publication of the second book, Shaft Among the Jews, in January (retitled Shaft Tragli Ebrei).

Image result
Tim Story.

Also in January, further news on the proposed new Shaft movie emerged when Tim Story was announced as director. The fact that Story has a string of comedic action tales to his credit added further fuel to the fire that the producers were moving away from the original concept.

In February, Walker’s Shaft: Imitation of Life comic book was nominated for the 2017 Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity. Whilst the book failed to win the award, it was further acknowledgement of Walker’s achievements. The writer would go on to produce high profile work away from Dynamite with a new Luke Cage series for Marvel along with Power Man and Iron Fist and Occupy Avengers and a comic series book series of Planet of the Apes for Boom.

All went quiet in the Shaft world until August, when in an interview Story confirmed, “My Shaft movie is going to be definitely not straight action. We’re going action-comedy or comedy-action, I’m not exactly sure which one comes first. We’re going to definitely make sure the stakes in the world are real, and then you’ve got these characters who are dealing with kind of a father/son situation, we’re going to see them put a family back together.”

Jessie T Usher and Samuel L Jackson

Pre-production was mobilised and casting commenced with Jessie T Usher confirmed as the son of Samuel L Jackson’s John Shaft, who in turn is the nephew of Richard Roundtree’s original. The film, provisionally titled Son of Shaft, is therefore a sequel to John Singleton’s 2000 Shaft, which starred Jackson and was a belated sequel to the original Shaft trilogy from the early 1970s. What modern audiences will make of these nods to the character’s cinematic legacy remains to be seen, but it feels like this is Shaft in name only. Usher’s character is described as being at odds with the old-school methods of detection employed by his father – being a more tech-savvy sleuth working for the FBI. With the tone set for an action-comedy, the result is likely to be far-removed from Tidyman’s gritty novels and Gordon Parks’ iconic 1971 interpretation.

Alexandra Shipp and Regina Hall, the latter as Shaft Jr’s mother, were also added to the cast and shooting commenced in Atlanta in December with a scheduled move to New York planned in early 2018. A June 2019 release date has also been slated and a distribution deal has been agreed by New Line with internet movie provider, Netflix.

Image result for shaft blu-ray hmvSo, with 18 months to wait before we get to see any new Shaft on screen, what else is happening? Well the answer is not much. Whilst the original Shaft was finally released on Blu-ray in the UK in October, we still await BD releases of Shaft’s Big Score! and Shaft in Africa anywhere in the world. My guess is these will be released in 2019 to coincide with the new movie. Whether, Dynamite will follow suit by reprinting the remainder of Tidyman’s novels remains to be seen.

I remain hopeful hype around the movie will bring the Shaft legacy into the public eye once more – despite my reservations about its tone and subject matter.  Dynamite still owns the literary rights, so maybe interest will be rekindled in commissioning more original literary work whether in comic book form or prose, hopefully with Walker on board.

Shaft re-appraised following UK Blu-Ray release

Shaft (hmv Exclusive) - The Premium Collection (Image 1)Gordon Parks’ 1971 adaptation of Ernest Tidyman’s Shaft was released on Blu-Ray in the UK on 2 October via HMV’s “premium Collection”. The release has led to modern viewers and critics re-appraising a film that these days is seemingly better remembered for its theme song.

Casimir Harlow at AVForums had this to say on 19 October: “…a surprisingly low budget, straightforward affair that doesn’t appear anywhere near as flashy and funky as it’s theme song would have you believe, instead riding high not only on Hayes’ lyrics but also on the swagger and sheer screen presence of Richard Roundtree, an underrated star.”

Chris Hick at FilmWerk : “Despite his lack of real acting ability, Roundtree dominates every scene with his sculpted afro, big moustache and cool clothes including raincoat length leather jackets. The action is violent and in your face and shot in a seedy New York virtually unrecognisable today which has an obvious parallel with the superior The French Connection, that was coincidentally made the same year; the pair of films having many similarities with the snowy dirty and cold mean streets of the Big Apple.”

Rob Simpson, writing for TheGeekShow says, “More so than any film, this can be credited for the popularisation of 1970s black cinema with its mix of street culture, social commentary, phenomenal music, action, and crime jam-packed into a massively entertaining and punchy bundle.”

I am hoping Shaft’s Big Score! and Shaft in Africa will follow onto Blu-Ray soon. But the likelihood is if at all the trilogy will be re-released to coincide with New Line’s cinema release of the latest Shaft sequel next year.

Film Review – SHAFT’S BIG SCORE! (1972)

Image result for Shaft's Big score 1972Shaft’s Big Score! (1972; USA; Metrocolor; 105m) ∗∗∗½  d. Gordon Parks; w. Ernest Tidyman; ph. Urs Furrer; m. Gordon Parks.  Cast: Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn, Drew Bundini Brown, Joseph Mascolo, Kathy Imrie, Wally Taylor, Julius W. Harris, Rosalind Miles, Joe Santos, Angelo Nazzo, Don Blakely, Melvin Green Jr., Thomas Anderson, Evelyn Davis, Richard Pittman. Shaft investigates the murder of a friend and gets mixed up in a feud between gangsters. Follow-up to SHAFT benefits from a higher budget, which is notably apparent in the protracted chase finale where Roundtree is pursued by villains by car, boat and helicopter. This set-piece is the highlight of a movie that comes close to matching the original. Most of the same crew returned and the snow-filled winter streets provide some excellent photographic scenes for Parks and his cinematographer Furrer. Roundtree is the epitome of cool as Shaft, whilst Mascolo makes the most of his role as a Mafia boss with a sense of style. Followed by SHAFT IN AFRICA (1973). [15]