Las Vegas Sun

January 20, 2019

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Shaft! Can you dig it?

When director Gordon Parks made "Shaft" 29 years ago, sexual and political revolutions were in the air. Black audiences embraced Richard Roundtree's smooth private detective as a hero unlike any they had ever seen in a movie theater. Here was a black man who dressed, talked and acted the way they did -- or at least, wished they did in their coolest moments.

"He was doing all those things that John Wayne and Audie Murphy and Errol Flynn did; he was the guy who could walk through a hail of bullets, kill all the bad guys and save the girl," Samuel L. Jackson says. "And that was a revelation. All of a sudden, here was somebody I could emulate instead of look at and not care about."

In the new version of "Shaft," which opens Friday, Jackson is John Shaft, the nephew of the original John Shaft. (Roundtree has a cameo in the movie.) But while Roundtree's character was a sensual magnet to all the women, Jackson's Shaft, a cop, seems to enjoy violence more than he does sex. More on that later.

The new "Shaft" has its share of racial politics, too, but they're nothing compared to the maneuverings that were happening behind the camera. Jackson and director John Singleton ("Boyz N the Hood") clashed with producer Scott Rudin on just about everything -- the screenplay's language, its action sequences and its dearth of love scenes.

"Different times call for a different hero," Jackson says. "Richard was fighting against the Man and the system. This Shaft embraces and enjoys his violent side. Unfortunately, he never seems to sleep, so we can't see him in bed with anybody. I guess we live in more politically correct times these days."

The question then is why make another "Shaft"? Jackson didn't have an answer when Singleton sent him the script two years ago. In fact, the 51-year-old actor couldn't even see himself playing Shaft, whom he pictured as a young, virile man.

"But then, when I look in the mirror these days, I don't see what I thought I would see when I got to be 51 years old," Jackson says. "When my grandfather's brothers were 50, I knew they were 50. Most of my daughter's friends would not look at me and say, 'That man is 50 years old.' "

Singleton saw Jackson as perfect because "Shaft is a (trash) talking character and everyone goes to Sam's movies to hear him talk (trash)."

Jackson also has an aura of cool about him and Singleton believed that attitude is "90 percent" of a "Shaft" film.

"My biggest fear was making a square version of 'Shaft,' " Singleton says. "And that's what most of the big fights between me and the studio were about. I could not afford for this movie to be square. We don't have any big special effects, so it had to be about how cool these characters are."

Problems arose when Rudin (who declined comment for this story) hired novelist/screenwriter Richard Price ("Clockers") to rewrite the script that Singleton had completed with Shane Salerno. Singleton admits that Price helped fleshed out the movie's police story. But the director balked when Rudin told him to shoot the script exactly as it was written, and he had a willing ally in Jackson.

"I told him (Scott) point blank that I refused to say that white man's lines," Jackson says, referring to Price. "I'd do it my way and then poor John would have Scott Rudin breathing in his ear demanding that he make me say the lines they'd paid so much money for."

Singleton adds: "Price didn't have a clue about the attitude of 'Shaft.' He took out all the flavorful dialogue. He just didn't get it. His pop culture references were stuff like 'Bulldog Drummond.' Now what does that have to do with John Shaft?"

Another source of conflict was over Shaft's sexual escapades -- or the surprising lack of such encounters. Roundtree, who made three "Shaft" movies and appeared in a short-lived television series based on the character, says he missed the sensual aspect of Shaft's screen persona and believes the studio made a "mistake" in not developing it.

He's not alone in that regard.

Singleton says: "If it was my choice, he'd be kicking (butt), then he'd have a love scene, then he'd be kicking more (butt) and then he'd be saying, 'C'mon, baby, give me some sugar.' But times have changed. We're living in an even more puritanical society than we were 30 years ago. So it's OK for Shaft to bash somebody's head in, but to show him (having sex), well, that would offend women, I guess."

Jackson lost that battle, but on other clashes he refused to budge. Jackson not only disliked Price's dialogue, but thought his action scenes lacked logic and believability. Rudin wanted the sequences shot the way Price wrote them. Singleton wanted to film the scenes the way he wrote them. Eventually, Rudin asked for a compromise and requested that the scenes be shot both ways. But Jackson wasn't going for that, either.

"If we shot it his way, then his way will end up in the movie and not mine," Jackson says. "I wanted to be faithful to what I think the 'Shaft' movie is, so I'm not going to get bullied or allow whoever else is being bullied into doing something that I don't want to do just to defuse something. I don't have to defuse anything. In the end, I'm the one (who's) up there on the screen. Nobody's going to be saying Scott Rudin really (messed) up this time. They're going to say Sam Jackson did. And I'm not going to let that happen."

Remarkably, both Jackson and Singleton seem interested in the possibility of a "Shaft" sequel, even though that would mean working with Rudin again.

"There were times when I wanted to choke Scott and there were times when I wanted to give him a hug," Singleton says. "Bottom line: He's the best producer in the business, man. He's the Irving Thalberg of our age. I learned a lot -- like always have everything in your contract before the movie starts."

Jackson isn't as complimentary, but he's resigned to the current arrangement, if only because making a sequel would probably mean that he and Roundtree would enjoy much more screen time together.

"The response to him is still amazing, and rightfully so," Jackson says. "It just shows what an impact he had on us. And hopefully there will be somebody who sees this movie (who) will sit up a bit prouder or walk out of that theater with a bigger smile because we were the hero and we won and they can have somebody to relate to. Maybe they'll think, 'I can go out and buy a coat like that and maybe get a girl.'

"Because that's all we wanted to do after we saw 'Shaft,' " Jackson continues. "We wanted to go out and get the girl -- put my Afro out, put my leather on, put my turtleneck on and say, 'Hey baby, how ya doing?' Can you dig it? Right on."