Man of mystery

John Singleton gives us a high-gloss update on a righteous American enigma.

Jun 21, 2000 at 12:00 am

Describing his often tenuous status as a New York City police detective, John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) tells his uncle John (Richard Roundtree, the original Shaft) that he often feels "too black for the uniform, too blue for the brothers." That statement sums up not just his ambivalence, but the conflicting forces at work in this remake-update of the seminal Shaft, which kickstarted the blaxploitation wave in the 1970s and spawned four sequels and a television series.

The first movie incarnation of John Shaft was based on Ernest Tidyman’s novel about a black private detective, an outsider forced to make his own rules in a chaotic world. Shaft is now portrayed as an insider who’s trying to effect change by working within the system. That’s indicative of not just our conformist political climate but the very different status within the film industry of the filmmakers behind the two characters: Gordon Parks, independent renaissance man (photographer-writer-composer-director); and John Singleton, whose debut Boyz N the Hood garnered him two Oscar nominations and built a mainstream career path.

The new Shaft, scripted by Singleton, Shane Salerno and Richard Price, plants our main man in the middle of a viper’s pit where everybody is double-crossing and backstabbing everybody else, and makes the situation seem routine. Even though Shaft is supposed to be immersed in a crisis of conscience (about remaining a cop or going out on his own), there’s nothing but decisive certainty in Jackson’s towering performance.

Here, Shaft is battling racism (embodied by Christian Bale’s contemptible, rich white boy), the lure of ghetto violence (Jeffrey Wright’s blazingly funny and charismatic take as a Dominican drug lord) and police corruption (an underutilized Vanessa Williams is a stalwart good cop), but he barely breaks a sweat conquering them all.

Singleton and company polish Shaft into a glossy, high-energy celebration of cool, where Samuel L. Jackson is larger than life and invincible in his splendid black leather wardrobe. But no one seems interested in looking beyond that gleaming surface. Sure, Shaft may still be the man, but exactly what kind of man remains a tantalizing mystery.

Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].