Gordon Parks’s 1971 Shaft is now almost 50 years old. The film didn’t begin the blaxploitation subgenre, but it was certainly its most popular example up until that time — and both the title character and the actor who played him, Richard Roundtree, quickly became icons of Blackness and Black cinema. Shaft is a slow-moving detective film, not a thriller or an action picture, and the character is defined less by his race (in the source novel Shaft is white, as was the novel’s author and film’s screenwriter, Ernest Tidyman) and more by his utter defiance and self-interest. He works for himself, and he despises “The Man.” That the Shaft of the movies is black was a deliberate — maybe even slightly cynical — calculation by producers, who wished mostly to make a broadly-appealing low-budget movie. But Parks’s Shaft becoming a symbol of cinematic Blackness seems inevitable, because he’s just that fucking cool.
This once-great, anti-establishment hero is now the shitty relative nobody wants to invite to Thanksgiving. He’s the daddy in Daddy’s Home, and it’s a complete, embarrassing disgrace.
Samuel L. Jackson (arguably also pretty fucking cool) took up the title role in John Singleton’s 2000 reboot (also named Shaft), which followed Roundtree’s Shaft’s nephew, as he abandoned the police force that betrayed him, and boasted a script by legendary crime novelist and screenwriter Richard Price, who maintained the laid-back pace, sudden outbursts of violence, and, most importantly, a lived-in air of authenticity. But all of that has been completely tarnished by this new Shaft, directed by Tim Story, the studio hack behind such misbegotten garbage as Taxi and the two Ride Alongs. Jackson is back as well, though he’s been retconned as the original Shaft’s son, not nephew, and he’s got his own estranged son now (also named Shaft), whose friend’s murder he helps solve. This legendary character has been reduced to a cornball dad in what is ostensibly a comedy from two sitcom writers. Jackson’s Shaft spends an interminable two hours complaining that millennials are wimps and making endless off-color jokes about chasing girls, his own queasy misogyny and homo- and transphobia, and how a real man is supposed to kickass. Shaft is now a cartoon pussyhound, and the joke is that he’s a hilariously un-woke old coot. This once-great, anti-establishment hero is now the shitty relative nobody wants to invite to Thanksgiving. He’s the daddy in Daddy’s Home, and it’s a complete, embarrassing disgrace.