June 13, 2019 

By Lapacazo Sandoval 

Contributing Writer 

 

“Who's the Black private d***

 

that's a sex machine to all the chicks? (Shaft)

 

You're damn right!

 

Who is the man that would risk his neck for

 

his brother, man? (Shaft)

 

Can ya dig it?

 

Who's the cat that won't cop out when there's danger

 

all about? (Shaft)

 

Right on

 

You see this cat Shaft is a bad mother (Shut your mouth)

 

But I'm talkin' about Shaft (Then we can dig it)

 

 

He's a complicated man but no one understands him but his woman (John Shaft)”

 

Songwriters: Isaac Hayes

 

Theme from “Shaft” lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

 

 

 

There is no getting around the character John Shaft … can you dig it?  The unapologetically Black character is based on the novel by Ernest Tidyman. He first appeared on screen in 1971 with actor Richard Roundtree in the leading role. Roundtree has embodied John Shaft in three other films, “Shaft’s Big Score” (1972), “Shaft in Africa” (1973), “Shaft” (2000), and a television show which actor Roundtree calls “a tremendous and painful disappointment.”

 

Forty-seven years later and John Shaft is back in “Shaft,” directed by

 

Tim Story with screenplay by Kenya Barris (“Girls Trip,” TV’s “Black-ish”) and Alex Barnow. The reboot stars Oscar nominee Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher, Regina Hall, Alexandra Shipp, Matt Lauria, Titus Welliver, Cliff “Method Man” Smith, and Richard Roundtree, the original John Shaft. 

 

In this new installment, JJ, aka John Shaft Jr. (Jessie T. Usher) has grown up without his father and raised by his mother, Maya (Regina Hall), the true love of John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson). She did an amazing job as so many Black single mothers do, with Jr., a graduate of MIT and working with the FBI in cybersecurity.  When his childhood friend is mysteriously murdered, he has to get help from his father the legendary locked-and-loaded John Shaft. 

 

This film, on the surface, might seem like a simple action film because director Tim Story put both of his “proverbial feet” into this installment.  It’s more than just great directing and superlative editing by Peter S. Elliot (“Ride Along 2”), perfect production design by Wynn Thomas (“Hidden Figures”), inspiring costumes designed by Olivia Miles (“Ride Along 2”), or the head-bopping music provided by Christopher Lennertz (“Nobody’s Fool,” “Pitch Perfect 3”) and music supervisors Dave Jordan and Trygge Toven. It was the spirit of John Shaft, I feel, and the generations of the Shaft men that pushed this action-comedy way over the top.

 

Director Tim Story is known for being a very modest man but facts are facts, and the facts are this;, he is one of the highest-grossing African-American directors in the world, with his eight feature films collectively grossing more than $1 billion. He is the first African-American director to cross the $1 billion mark at the box office, to direct a Marvel film and to have seven films open at number one at the box office.

 

The three-day press junket for “Shaft” was held in New York, inside the world Red Rooster owned by Chef Marcus Samuelsson and nestled in the heart of Harlem. It was all hands on deck..

 

To keep it fair and to keep the flow moving, we were all given 15 minutes.  In my case, the wait to speak with actress Regina Hall, who plays Jackson’s romantic lead, Maya and the mother of Shaft Jr. (Jessie T. Usher) was because of Samuel L. Jackson.

 

Somewhere toward 3:00 p.m., the very tall, very regal, very distinctive Jackson sauntered into the Red Rooster, and on spotting Ms. Hall, sitting alone, cozied up for what turned out to be a ten-minute conversation.  From my seat, at the bar, I got to witness just how people react to him when he walks into a room.  Dare I say it; he has the John Shaft impact.  Mr. Jackson turned and in what can only be described as a Mr. John Shaft mixed with Mr. Samuel L. Jackson move, turned and said one word: “what?” before returning to his conversation with Ms. Hall.

 

I’ve had the pleasure of working with Mr. Jackson in the past (“Losing Isaiah”) and felt that I understood his desire to keep the art of making movies separate from the business side of show business.  I did manage to ask the core team if they cared to share their Samuel L. Jackson story because I am confident that they all had one.

 

Here’s what I learned about the making of the new “Shaft” and working with Samuel L. Jackson.   All interviews have been edited for this story.

 

Tim Story (director):  “Shaft was, to a certain degree, our first Black superhero.  From the start, he was a man’s man with style and swagger, who didn’t take any b.s. from anyone.  He had a way of talking to everyone that, being black, I wanted to emulate growing up.  It wasn’t just a movie; it meant so much more.  My Sam [Samuel L. Jackson] story is what everyone wants from Sam and that’s to be called a ‘motherf*****’ at some point and I got mine. I was working and I heard someone say ‘get out of the way’ and I turned and it was Sam. He looked at me and said: ‘Yes, you mother******’ and I was like, ‘yes’.’”

 

Kenya Barris (co-screenwriter): “I am a stalker fan of Samuel L. Jackson. I’m a fan. My Sam story is going to his house to ask him to do this movie.  He has a way; I’m scared of him. I don’t know if you know how big Sam is; he’s like 6’3 or 6’4. He stays in shape.  He has this ivory, chocolate complexion and with this piercing eyes that kind of stare through you.  He looked at me and said ‘I don’t want to do any coon-or-fool shit.  I was like (stuttering), ‘ok’ because the script was already done.  He made it clear that him, as a leading man, that character [John Shaft], this role has to speak to everyone and that helped me shape the story.”

 

 

Richard Roundtree (John Shaft): “Working with Sam is always a dream. It was in 2000 and it was here, with ‘Shaft’ 2019. This film gives new life to a character who’s been around for a very long time, and it’s fun to watch Sam now passing the baton to Jessie, who more than holds his own.  Having the three of us join together to fight the bad guys…it’s all come full circle.”

 

 

 

Jessie T. Usher (Shaft Jr.) “So, Sam has eyes all around his head. So, I was sitting and having a conversation with him. We had just finished our second (and final) take.  He does two takes maybe, maybe, maybe three takes if it’s really, really necessary.  We rehearse a lot before so we are ready. So we’ve done the second take. He’s putting his coat and hat on and Tim [Story] comes over and says ‘Sam, we need to do a third take.’  Now Sam, not stopping what he’s doing; he’s putting his jacket on to leave and he asks [Tim] why? I’m watching the prop guy layout bullet shells, while he’s talking to the director. Sam, without breaking eye contact with Tim says, ‘I know we’re not doing another take for that mother-f*****,’ talking about the guy behind him.  Tim says ‘well, we’re looking at the take and we realize that it’s a shoot out that happens and it’s not enough bullet shells on the ground and it won’t match.’  Sam says, ‘you should be shooting the money [shot] and I’m the money.  If people are paying to look at some God-damn bullet shells, then we fucking failed in this movie,’ and then he just walked off set.”

 

Regina Hall (Maya): “I have several Sam stories.  You know what might surprise people about Sam, is that he’s kind.  I was sitting in the make up trailer one day and he says, ‘hey, I have some chicken [in my trailer]; if you want some come and get it. But then, later, he comes with the chicken and he gives it to us.  That’s Sam, he’s kind.”

 

“Shaft” is now playing in theaters everywhere.

 

Category: Arts & Culture


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