Times Change, Even For <i>Shaft</i>

richard roundtree and samuel l. jackson in a scene from shaft
This week CBS News Sunday Morning critic John Leonard reviews Shaft, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Richard Roundtree, directed by John Singleton.
He's back, like Batman, Robin Hood, and the Lone Ranger. Only this time he's wearing a leather jacket from Armani in Milan, and he's got a cool-dude music video.

Isaac Hayes is in the video, of course, and some scenes with Samuel L. Jackson and the rest of the strung-out cast from the brand-new Shaft, plus at least six young women who don't show up in the movie at all.

This worries me. In the movie, Shaft doesn't score much. And he's supposed to be a superstud sex-machine. What's the point of being cool and hip if you can't score?

I should have known back in high school, but it only became clear to me in 1971, when the first Shaft showed up, that I'd never be cool or hip; I'd always be just hot and bothered.

Richard Roundtree, the black private eye in Harlem, had attitude, a big-city vibe of in-your-face. So, of course, does Samuel L Jackson, in the new Shaft.

Sam is supposed to be Roundtree's nephew. He's a New York City cop who throws away his badge when the corrupt system won't prosecute Christian Bale, the bratty son of a billionaire real-estate developer, for the brutal murder of a kid.

There's a witness, the barmaid Toni Colette. But she's so afraid, she runs away. Sam & Busta Rhymes go looking for her. But so does Jeffery Wright, playing a Dominican drug lord named Peoples Hernandez. Wright has been hired by Bale to waste Toni.

The only help Sam has is his ex-partner, Vanessa Williams, and she can't even trust her fellow cops.

The rest is: car chase, payback, slam-bang, and very bad attitude.

The Leonard File
Read past reviews by John Leonard.
There was tension on the set, with a black star and black director on one side and a white producer and white writer on the other. This didn't happen in the '70s with Gordon Parks directing scripts by Ernest Tidyman.

But audiences may not care. What we see is our own nostalgia. What we hear is Isaac Hayes. What we want is Viva Zapata, an avenging angel on the mean streets after the murders of Dr. King and Malcolm X.

Shaft was a longed-for hero before he became a mrketable commodity, a symbol before he became a brand.