Back in Action: Kenya Barris on Keeping Shaft Relevant for Today’s Audiences

Image courtesy: Warner Bros.

Nearly fifty years after the release of Gordon Parks’ Shaft, executive producer and screenwriter Kenya Barris updates the black anti-hero to today’s social context.

Isaac Hayes’ iconic score plays while a shot overlooking Times Square pans across a row of 42nd Street cinemas. The film’s title—in bold, capital letters—comes on the screen just as Richard Roundtree emerges from a subway station. Roundtree immediately proceeds to walk through oncoming traffic, stopping only to flip off a cab. This is how audiences were introduced to Gordon Parks’ Shaft and its iconic title character, a film that helped usher in the Blaxploitation era and inspired a slew of imitators upon its release in 1971.

Shaft’s appeal was singular. While there had been other black protagonists before him, he seemed to straddle the line between an all-out revolutionary figure like Melvin Van Peebles’ in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and the measured, dignified portrayals of Sidney Poitier. In many ways, Shaft was a product of his time: unapologetically sexual and prepared to use violence in an era when those depictions onscreen were few and far between.

A pair of sequels and a short-lived TV series followed, and Shaft’s popularity dwindled alongside the critical and commercial support for Blaxploitation titles—which became increasingly degrading. Representations of African-Americans and black heroes onscreen meanwhile continued to evolve.

In 2000, director John Singleton took the reins on a reboot/sequel for Paramount, also titled Shaft. That film starred Samuel L. Jackson in the title role, and helped modernize the franchise outside of its original post-Civil Rights era context. By the new millennium, nearly 30 years after the original film’s release, a black hero meant something very different to audiences. That isn’t to say they were prevalent. While some African-American actors became established box office draws across genres like action (Wesley Snipes), science-fiction (Will Smith), comedy (Eddie Murphy), and drama (Denzel Washington), there were few active franchises dominated by black protagonists. The evolution of the Shaft character as a rogue black anti-hero evolved with Jackson’s portrayal, and helped modernize the franchise for contemporary audiences.

Despite enjoying modest success at the box office, 2000’s Shaft didn’t immediately create a new franchise. In the intervening years, the depiction of black masculinity would become increasingly nuanced onscreen.

The anti-hero archetype. meanwhile, was still alive and well; Denzel Washington didn’t win the Best Actor Oscar for Malcolm X (1993), but took home the award nearly a decade later playing a corrupt cop in Training Day (2001). But other male black heroes began making their way onscreen in box office hits that launched new franchises, specifically with Ryan Coogler’s Creed (2015) and Black Panther (2018). The depiction of black masculinity in cinema experienced a seminal moment with the release of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016), openly challenging outdated notions and beliefs associated with race and sexuality.

In this context, it can seem daunting to bring a new version of Shaft to the big screen. How can a character like John Shaft be relevant for today’s audiences?

That’s precisely the challenge that Kenya Barris took on as executive producer and screenwriter of the latest iteration of Shaft (2019). “In the things that I do, I always try to make sure that there are different examples of what a black character is, looking at them like people first,” he tells Boxoffice. Barris is the creator of ABC’s “Black-ish,” a television series which takes a similar approach in exploring themes around black identity across generations. His background is ideally suited for this project, which convenes three generations of Shaft men—John Shaft Sr. (Roundtree), John Shaft (Jackson), and JJ Shaft (Jesse T. Usher)—as they work together to solve a case.

Most tellingly, the new Shaft strays in tone from the gritty detective films that preceded it. According to Barris, the project was conceived as a cross-generational action-comedy that could simultaneously riff and expound on the Shaft mythology. While the ultra-sexualized and violent Shaft can, at worst, be seen as an outdated relic of black masculinity’s image, Barris and the filmmakers thought it was crucial to keep all the problematic aspects of the character intact. “We wanted to make sure we kept that misogyny, the guy with a chip on his shoulder that wasn’t going to take shit from anyone,” he says. “It was important to have him be the most pure version of his character.”

That attitude applies to both Roundtree’s and Jackson’s portrayals of Shaft in the film. Barris is quick to note the historical context around both characters—Shaft Sr. having lived through the struggle of the Civil Rights period, and Shaft’s experience seeing the urban blight of the crack epidemic in 1980s New York. “I feel like these characters went through so much, had to go through so many obstacles, had to be unapologetic for so long because they weren’t getting a fair shake. It was so important to show that those characters still live that life today.”

In order to contrast that generation with today’s, Barris and his team decided to depict JJ, the youngest member of the Shaft lineage, as an unabashed millennial. They completely removed JJ from the surroundings Shaft is associated with—he grew up in the suburbs, abhors guns, and stands in stark contrast to his relatives’ casual brazenness.

A newly minted FBI agent, JJ finds himself back in Harlem working a case on his own and decides to draw from the experience of his father. The two, however, seem to have little in common. “We wanted to make sure that Jesse T. Usher’s character stood as a fingerpoint back to Shaft,” explains Barris. “We wanted him to be the person to look at this iconic character and tell him, ‘You can’t do that, you can’t say that.’”

The results are the foundation of the comedy in the new Shaft, which relishes every opportunity to poke fun at the cross-generational differences between the characters. Despite these differences, however, Barris notes that JJ is closer to his father and grandfather than he realizes. “As much as we try, the fruit never really falls that far from the tree,” he says. “Here you have this character whose mother did all she could to take him as far away as possible from that world as she could. Yet he still ends up working for the FBI, back in Harlem for a case, and a guy who can fight and defend himself.”

“All three of these guys are flawed characters, but all three are their own unapologetic archetypes of being black. They question each other throughout the movie and eventually grow from that experience,” adds Barris. “We wanted the audience to walk away knowing there was an alchemy between them.”

For Barris, a major theme in the film is the importance of transcending these archetypes and asserting oneself as an individual. “We are not monolithic as a people. There’s a lot of history behind making us who we are,” he says, referring to the black experience in the U.S. “What we need more of is the honesty to look at one another and say, ‘You’re not going to tell me what version of myself I need to be.’”

Shaft opens in theaters in North America on June 14.

Image courtesy: Warner Bros.

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