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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Shaft comedy in the works

New Line Cinema has announced they’re planning to do a reboot of the blaxploitation cult classic Shaft.  The original Shaft became a hit as a sort of Black James Bond action flick in the ‘70s and is probably the best iteration of the blaxploitation genre (aside from possibly Blacula.)  The original Shaft was a strong hit, spawning 2 sequels in Shaft’s Big Score and Shaft in Africa.  Since then Shaft was remade in the ‘90s starring Samuel L. Jackson as a slickly produced action flick with a hard R rating.  This new iteration of the character has attracted the creator of Black-ish Kenya Barris as the writer and the studio has stated they’re aiming for a more comedic tone. 
This decision has been met with a pretty wide array of responses, some have voiced apathy at the prospects of a new Shaft film while others have felt downright outraged over this approach to the classic character.  Me?  I’m firmly entrenched in the angry side of the divide, this strikes me as a thoroughly tone deaf approach to the material with very little to redeem it to say nothing of setting a really bad precedent. 

My first impression of this decision is that the producers don’t really understand how important a character Shaft is, and the very unfortunate message their approach to an adaptation sends.  Shaft is one of the most iconic black characters in cinema history, more than that he’s one of the only iconic black heroes of a blockbuster style film as well as the first.  What’s so paramount about the Shaft movies is that despite their exploitation origins they managed to find real purchase in our collective unconciousness.  Even people who don’t overtly know Shaft have encountered in some capacity in our culture, most likely through the iconic theme song.  Shaft is a work of blockbuster fiction where not only is the lead black but almost all the characters are black as well.  That is of huge significance, to the point where aside from the works of Will Smith I’m hard pressed to name any other blockbuster films that boast a black male lead.  There are certainly some crowd pleaser films like the collected schlocky works of Morgan Freeman or Denzel Washington, but as far as honest to God, name value franchise films go Shaft stands pretty much alone but for Men in Black and Independence Day.  

The reason that’s important is about representation in fantasy and wish fulfillment.  Blockbuster movies are all about providing getting the audience to empathize with its lead, to see that character as an extension of ourselves, our power fantasies and our wish fulfillment.  Featuring a black lead actor in a serious blockbuster both gets white audiences to empathize more with a black hero and, more importantly, provides incredibly meaningful representation for black audiences.  It’s a way of showing black audiences that they deserve the same empowerment and same fantasy as any white audience.  And what’s so infuriating is that New Line Cinema and the producers are looking at all of this and saying “wouldn’t it be better if it was silly and made a lot of jokes?”  
Turning Shaft into a comedy robs it of its importance and impact.  Suddenly it’s not an action summer blockbuster featuring a black lead but a quirky comedy where you laugh alongside hero but see no extension of yourself in their actions.  You lose the elements of empowerment and fantasy and instead run the terrible risk of making a film where the audience isn’t laughing WITH the hero, they’re laughing AT him.  

Even putting aside all the racial questions inherent to New Line’s disastrously ill-timed reboot announcement, there’s also the hovering issue of what informed this decision.  Obviously I wasn’t in the room but I feel like this was an executive decision informed by stuff like Black Dynamite and the increasingly large ironic hipster scene.  It’s hard not to imagine a studio executive realizing people nowadays enjoy the affects of the past or low income individuals as a way of mocking the source of that artifice and then deciding to reproduce Shaft as basically a giant in-joke for hipsters to snark over how outdated and cheesy it is.  Again, I don’t know if this is the case but if it is it sets an incredibly bad precedent.  Ironic film making is the bane of film making, as seen throughout the insufferable canon of Syfy self-aware monster movies like Sharknado or Lavalantula.  The entire disaffected ironic ethos is just a horrible ideology to inform a cinematic project because it’s basically a license for the creators to turn in sloppy, heartless work and clean-up on hipsters liking it out of obligation more than actual taste. 

So yeah, between the threat of erasure to black representation in blockbuster power fantasies and wish fulfillment and the horrible idea of a mainstream property trying to chase hipster irony tokens this Shaft announcement sounds terrible.  All of which is made infinitely worse by the fact that David F. Walker already wrote an amazing Shaft comic for Dynamite Comics that reads like a rough draft perfectly ready for filming.  Here’s hoping New Line takes note of the backlash and apathy and revises their plans going forward.
Shaft is slatted for a 2017 release. 

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