Screenplay by Richard Price, John Singleton and Shane Salerno (from the story by John Singleton and Shane Salerno, adapted from the novel by Ernest Tidyman)
One aspect of Richard Price’s career that I haven’t talked about much in this blog so far is his script doctoring. In addition to the many films he’s credited on in an official capacity, he’s also worked without any onscreen credit to consult on and punch up the screenplays for movies like Basquiat and American Gangster. I haven’t given such movies their own entries here partly because I don’t usually know how extensive Price’s contributions to them were and partly because I don’t have any complete list of them. (I’ve included the ones I do know of in my “Odds and Ends” post, though.)
I bring this up in relation to the 2000 remake of Shaft because if Price had had his way, this film would’ve been one such uncredited gig; he regarded it as a script doctoring assignment and tried unsuccessfully to have his name taken off of it. The movie’s production was notoriously contentious: Star Samuel L. Jackson clashed with director John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood), but the two also united against producer Scott Rudin’s insistence that they stick to Price’s version of the script, with Jackson even being quoted as saying “I refused to say that white man’s lines” (a surprisingly harsh rebuke from someone who had worked on other Price projects in the past and who would go on to star in another, 2006’s Freedomland, in the future). So Price’s desire to be dissociated with this film is understandable, but it’s also ironic, because while this obviously isn’t the most novelistic or nuanced project he’s worked on, his influence on it is clearly apparent in a variety of ways.
The most prominent of these ways is the characterization of John Shaft himself. The Shaft of the original 1971 blaxploitation classic (and the 1970 novel by Ernest Tidyman, who was himself white) was a lone wolf, a private eye motivated primarily by the cash his clients brought in. But Singleton and co-writer Shane Salerno’s story reimagines the character as a New York City cop, at least initially. About a half hour into the movie he quits the force out of frustration with the legal system, but even from that point on he’s motivated by a thirst for justice rather than pragmatic self-interest. (Richard Roundtree is retained in a small role, more or less playing the original Shaft as new Shaft’s uncle.)
Shaft’s career change was most likely the reason Rudin brought on Price, who’s familiar with cops from the research he did for Sea of Love and Clockers. As such, Jackson’s Shaft comes off as kin to Clockers‘ Andre the Giant and Freedomland‘s Det. Lorenzo Council, two black police characters based partly on actual Jersey City detective Calvin Hart. New Shaft’s loyalties are divided between the streets and the law; like Andre, he brutally beats a local drug dealer to get the guy to steer clear of an impressionable youngster, but, like Lorenzo, his closeness with the people he polices leads a white fellow officer to tell him he has to “pick a color, black or blue!” Shaft’s line about “Nazis with badges” will bring to mind the controversies embroiling the NYPD today, but having him attempt to single-handedly uphold racial equality makes him come off (again, like Lorenzo) as more beleaguered and frustrated than swaggeringly dominant.
There are also other, more specific moments which call back to other Price works, like the scene in which a cop using a special apparatus to break down a door is interrupted by a criminal unwittingly opening the door for him, a gag which originated in Clockers and was later appropriated by The Wire. And the film opens with the racially motivated murder of a young man played by Mekhi Phifer, who starred in Spike Lee’s film adaptation of Clockers; in a nod to that connection, an officer on the scene points to a blunt object and says Phifer’s character was “clocked” with it.
Price’s famous ear for dialogue is present and accounted for as well, particularly as expressed through crime kingpin “Peoples” Hernandez (played with relish and a thick Latino accent by Jeffrey Wright), one of the film’s main villains alongside convincingly loathsome rich kid Walter Wade, Jr. (Christian Bale). Hernandez is gifted with Price’s knack for slippery indirectness and poetically mundane turns of phrase; he bonds with Wade over golf and boats, and describes being offered a contract killing job thusly: “You don’t want to say no, I mean, he’s coming to me, he’s all flattering and shit, but the truth of it is, you know, finding people, that’s not really my, as they say, forte.” (He also says “I go like this on 181, three people die on Riverside,” a variation on a line used by Sean Touhey in Clockers and Harry Fabian in Night and the City.)
Shaft could’ve used more of this kind of off-kilter sensibility, as its main flaw is tending to be too bland and generic. The 1971 version was memorable partly for the novelty of its hero’s self-confident blackness, a quality which (fortunately) wasn’t as shocking in 2000, and partly for Isaac Hayes’s Oscar-winning theme music, which still did sound great in 2000 and which the remake didn’t even try to improve upon. In place of those impossible-to-reproduce elements, the remake can only offer some admirably over-the-top moments, such as when Shaft quits the force by flinging his badge at the camera like a ninja star, or when he quips “It’s Giuliani time!” during a shootout; I don’t know what that was supposed to mean, but it was definitely memorable. And the main plot concludes on a suprisingly tragic note, though the film moves on from that moment and its implications pretty quickly.
One of the qualities most widely commented upon during the remake’s theatrical run was its lack of sex. The love scenes in the 1971 Shaft weren’t particularly gratuitous, but they established the character’s reputation as “a sex machine to all the chicks,” in contrast to earlier, more impotently wholesome black screen icons like Sidney Poitier. This version barely even implies that Shaft has sex at all, apart from a suggestive James Bond-style opening credits sequence and the out-of-place line “It’s my duty to please that booty.” This shift was probably due more to commercialist prudishness in the film industry than any devolution in racial attitudes, as it runs parallel to similar trends in the Bond franchise, which the Shaft films have always modeled themselves after. (The non-Hayes parts of the remake’s soundtrack were composed by David Arnold, who’s been working on Bond movies since 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies.) But it still diminishes the character’s transgressive punch.
In the end, the Shaft remake was interesting and fitfully entertaining but not entirely satisfying, and it’s hard to know if it would have been better off sticking purely to Singleton’s vision, or to Price’s, or if this is in fact as good as it could ever have been. It’s hard to imagine a better director/star combo for the material than Singleton and Jackson, so one is left to conclude that a post-’70s John Shaft may simply be a man out of time. Rumors are circulating about the potential casting of Idris Elba as the next 007; maybe in this millenium a black version of James Bond isn’t enough when an actual black Bond seems within reach.
A few other notes:
• A couple future cast members of The Wire show up here, including Sonja Sohn as Shaft’s main (well, only) love interest and Andre Royo as–guess what–an underworld police informant. IMDb also claims that Deirdre Lovejoy (The Wire‘s Rhonda Pearlman) appears uncredited as a police officer, but I didn’t spot her.
• No Obligatory Richard Price Cameo in the film itself, though Price can be briefly spotted on set in the DVD’s making-of featurette.
Next week: Richard Price brings the archetypical protagonist of his earlier novels to the projects of Dempsy, New Jersey in the 2003 novel Samaritan.