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Shaft's Second Big Score

Laurence Washington


     Shaft, isn't as much the second coming of blaxploitation, as many fans of the genre might have hoped, as it is an action-filled roller coaster ride.
     Hard-liners, who remember the politically-charged 1971 film which pits Shaft against "The Man," may be disappointed. Sticking it to the power structure isn't chic in Hollywood anymore so today's revival of blaxploitation is reserved for film festivals and home video.
     "The original Shaft started blaxploitation," says new Shaft director John Singleton, who brought legendary director Gordon Parks' pop-culture militant character to this year's big-budget summer arena. "And because it was such a huge success in '71, movies that came after it were imitators. Shaft established the whole mind set of the bad black man looking good, kickin' ass and getting all the ladies."
     Richard Roundtree, the original Shaft who reprises the role in the new movie, says he doesn't know what the term blaxploitation means.
     "It's very difficult for me to put that word into the context of a film when you talk about something that Gordon Parks has directed," Roundtree says.
     "I find that word [blaxploitation] offensive with anything that Gordon Parks has done. Exploitation, and then put black in front of it! That is a very ugly term from where I sit. And the ugliest part about it was the black press started it."
     Singleton agrees, stating blaxploitation is a misused term.
     "Like my Boyz N' The Hood," Singleton says, "the movie was successful and then you had these so called, 'Hood Movies.' It shows that Hollywood only responds to what's been done before. But this Shaft is not blaxploitation."
     The new Shaft, Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Roundtree's nephew, a detective on the New York City police department, says the current film doesn't fall anywhere in the blaxploitation arena for him.
     "All of a sudden when you put a black actor and a black director in a film, it becomes a black movie," Jackson says. "It's like the Negotiator. You put me in it, and even though Kevin Spacey was in it, people ask, 'Was that a black movie?'"
     Jackson says the blaxploitation genre burned itself out, because everybody stopped fighting against "The Man." The villains in the new movie are diverse "Die Hard" comic-book entities who are equal opportunity employers.
     "The Man ceased being the enemy, and all of a sudden there wasn't any place for those movies," Jackson says. "All of a sudden the black dollar got spread out, and they [Hollywood] realized that we'd go to see anything -- not just ourselves on the screen."
     The original John Shaft was the "black" answer to James Bond. He made love and killed in the same afternoon and had a cool theme song. With his militant attitude and black leather trench coat, he flawlessly delivered unprintable one-liners and smooth Bogart comebacks.
     "Shaft was a hero for the 1970s. Hopefully he'll be a hero for the 21st century," Jackson says.
     About the casting for Shaft, Singleton says, "I originally wanted to use a new guy, just like they found Richard Roundtree. We had an open call in Harlem and had 3,000 people read but we just really didn't find anybody."
     Singleton says the film started at MGM but eventually went over to Paramount, which wanted an established star as the lead character.
     "That's because every studio wants to have a huge, huge hit," Singleton says. "So we said, 'Who is the coolest guy at the moment?' And it was Sam -- no question."
Singleton says Jackson is the kind of actor who can talk trash in a way people like and that they go to the movies to see.
     "Every film he's been in; Pulp Fiction, the Negotiator -- whatever -- he's taking trash," Singleton says. "It was just natural for him to end up being Shaft."
     Jackson believes there's a huge anticipation for this film because Shaft has stood the test of time. It is still the standard for the tough, cool hero who can also be a smooth ladies man.
     "Pop culture has embraced all those movies from the [blaxploitation] era. So this movie will have a wide appeal," Jackson says.
     Roundtree says the new Shaft is a fast moving, fast paced film with a lot of action, but he can't fathom why the character of John Shaft doesn't have any sex in this film.
     "It's a reflection of the times," Jackson says. "You can't do that. I discussed it for a hot minute, but then I let it go. I got to shoot people and beat people up instead, to get rid of all my aggression."
     Roundtree calls the new Shaft a throw back to the old fashion films where buy your popcorn and soda then take your seat.
     "Then you go for the ride, come out humming the tune, and telling your friends, 'You gotta see it.'" Roundtree says.