Shaft (2019) reviewed by Jonathan Berk

I’ve never seen any of the previous films about that one bad motha…well, Shaft (2019) was my first foray into the world of Shaft, previously played by Samuel L. Jackson and Richard Roundtree. In fact, Jessie T. Usher is playing the son of Jackson’s character, who is the son of Roundtree’s character. Shaft being considered a founding film of the Blaxploitation genre, this new one pulls from its previous films and genre, all while mocking the politically correct culture we currently find ourselves living in.

Shaft isn’t trying to be PC, and if you can get past that it’s entertaining

John Shaft Junior (Usher), or as he’s more commonly called, “JJ”, is an FBI analyst who is basically nothing like the father who abandoned him. When a friend dies under questionable circumstances, JJ takes on the family tradition of working the case alone – that is, until he needs the help of his father. Shaft (Jackson) and JJ begin working the streets of Harlem, with one in search of answers and the other with plans to settle old vendettas.

Samuel L. Jackson has become an actor that I just love to watch. He is so engaging, even when his character is saying some pretty vile things. While he isn’t in a chunk of the film, as the plot needs him to be out of JJ’s life while we get to know JJ – once he arrives, he takes over, and it was impossible for me not to be entertained. Not to take away from Usher, though, who tries to sandpaper the edges of the Shaft persona by adopting hipster-esque qualities and a more modern sensibility to the character. JJ is a bit of comic relief at first – but slowly, he transitions into a tougher version of himself as he adopts some of his namesake’s qualities.

Therein lies the problem with the movie: it does seem to be at odds with many of the modern sensibilities. While JJ represents a person who believes in much of what modern society deems appropriate, Shaft often mocks it…and while him almost puking after sipping coconut water is harmless, some of the other points he makes that JJ slowly buys into seems problematic. Shaft’s view on what a “man” is and how all women want “manly men” feels archaic and trite. However, the second JJ shows himself to be more macho than he usually demonstrates, his crush and longtime friend, Sasha (Alexandra Shipp), finally takes notice. There are several things like this in the film that could send up red flags for being problematic.

The biggest of these issues has to be the red-herring of the film. This will be a spoiler, so if you don’t want any of the potential mystery revealed, skip to the last paragraph. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!!! Early on while JJ is at work his FBI Supervisor, Special Agent Vietti (Titus Welliver), briefs the analyst on a Mosque that they are watching for potential terrorist activities. At one point, JJ all but proves that the Mosque is involved with illegal activities that appear to be funded by a drug smuggling group and the leader of the Mosque is seen being arrest and escorted out by the military. None of this feels like it is necessary to the plot and that becomes 100% true when it turns out that the guy was innocent as was the Mosque itself. Aside from pushing this very damaging stereotype, all of the images for this part of the plot imply the Mosque are terrorist and there is simply told through the passing of dialogue so quick it would be easy to miss. It is an area that the filmmakers should have a cutout of the script.  

Final thoughts…

Despite its often questionable choices with content, I found Shaft to be rather engaging, largely because of the cast. Regina Hall is given short shrift, but she is impossible not to appreciate when she’s performing. There were many funny moments, and the action was solid. It was definitely one of the more watchable summer films so far. Shaft earns a Decent Watch Rating.

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