Shaft: America’s race politics from Black Power to Black Lives Matter
John Shaft, the African American private eye introduced by Ernest Tidyman in a novel of 1970, has proved surprisingly resilient as a character on the big screen.
You might have thought that Samuel L. Jackson’s second-generation Shaft in 2000 – which followed the three 1970s films – would bring closure to the franchise. But now there’s a third-generation Shaft, set in contemporary New York, which puts at the characters’ disposal computers and smartphones, rather than simply guns and Molotov cocktails.
This latest version, simply called Shaft, reflects current patterns of film exhibition, having had a brief run in US cinemas before being streamed globally by Netflix.
The name “John Shaft” is, on this occasion, no one’s exclusive property, but actually shared by three of the male protagonists.
Jackson appears again, but alongside two namesakes: his father (played by Richard Roundtree, who took the title role in the three films of the early 1970s) and his son (played by Jessie L. Usher and, to minimise confusion, usually referred to on screen as “JJ”).
At the start of the new film, several montages take the viewer through recent decades of African American social and cultural history. Iconic figures and events flicker briefly on screen: OJ Simpson’s trial in 1995 gives way to Barack Obama’s inauguration as US president in 2009, while an image of rapper The Notorious B.I.G. is replaced by one of basketball superstar LeBron James.
The device is principally, of course, an orientation aid for the audience, given the film’s multi-generational plotting. More profoundly, however, the sense of time passing prompts us to ask what Shaft signified for black America in the early 1970s and again in 2000 – and what he might mean in this latest incarnation...
Notes for editors
Press release reference number: 19/95
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