It’s as if a half century of progress in racial and gender politics never happened. That’s Shaft for you. In Ride Along director Tim Story’s updated, shamelessly regressive take on the “black private dick who’s a sex machine to all chicks,” three generations of Shafts take center stage. Jessie T. Usher plays JJ, the youngest Shaft, a metrosexual who works as an FBI analyst (he hates guns, loves coconut water!) and is so appalled by the violent, pussy-crazed, homo-hating, un-woke antics of his Harlem-based daddy (Samuel L. Jackson, who played the role for John Singleton in 2000) that he’s thankful his upbringing was left to his enlightened mother Maya (Regina Hall, deserving of way better than this). Granddaddy Shaft, played by Richard Roundtree who originated the role in the Gordon Parks’ 1971 blaxploitation classic, is the block from which his son was chipped. JJ wants nothing to do with either of them. Until he does, that is. JJ’s ex-junkie buddy has been murdered and he needs real men to get to the bottom of the case in a plot that leads the Shafts to a New York mosque and a shady charity for PTSD veterans.
There is potential in the idea hatched by Black-ish creator and Girls Trip co-writer Kenya Barris and Family Guy’s Alex Barnow. The concept allows the past in all its toxic masculinity to push up against modern idea of what is to be a man. There are even times when the comedy works. Jackson makes street poetry out of spinning untold variations on the word muthafucka. He’s also good with pussy, sometimes pronouncing it puss-ay. Don’t accuse this Shaft of not having an arc.
What’s troubling is the way the film decides to take his side. When thugs crash into an elegant restaurant where JJ is dining with his doctor girlfriend Sasha (Alexandra Shipp), the kid finally reaches for a gun and blows the baddies away in an R-rated bloodbath. Cue the closeup on Sasha, near orgasmic with pleasure at seeing her wimp boyfriend turn warrior. Likewise Maya, who previously rejected Shaft’s brutal response to every challenge, comes to see the error of her ways and embrace him as a gun-toting father protector. By the end, when the three Shafts hit the streets in identical long coats like something out of The Matrix, the message is clear. Rough justice is back to stay. Women are out of the picture, except for sex. Dinosaurs again walk the earth with misogynistic and homophobic impunity. These are the laughs, folks. Don’t be surprised if they stick in your throat.