He is a "Bad Mother*S%@!#": Shaft and contemporary black masculinity.
The essence of masculinity is performance. And the essence of the performance has grown increasingly violent. -Jackson Katz, Tough Guise (1999)
America is currently caught up in an odd nostalgia for the 1970s, and American popular culture is now overflowing with the simulacra of that decade: The music, clothing, hairstyles, and even television shows of the 1970s have all been recycled and commodified in some form in recent years. Among the cultural artifacts being resurrected are the popular blaxploitation films of the era, including the one that many believe launched the blaxploitation cycle, Gordon Parks's Shaft. As is well known, a powerful mythos surrounds this film, based on the popularity--with both black and white audiences--of the title character, as well as the great financial success of the film. These qualities, coupled with the nostalgia for all things '70s, likely prompted executives at Paramount Studios to give a green light to the $46 million budget for director John Singleton's remake--or, rather, his "update"--of Shaft for a new generation. Apparently, it was a wise investment: According to Variety, the film earned $70.3 million domestically and another $32.6 million overseas, for a total of $102.9 million worldwide ("Shaft 2000").
Given the moderate success of the film, particularly here in the U.S., one must ask: What are we to make of the resurgent interest in blaxploitation films in American culture, and how are we to receive this newly erected Shaft? In an article discussing both versions of Shaft and the legacy of blaxploitation films, Richard Maynard offers this caveat: "... before the new Shaft makes us all fondly remember the brief era of the supercool Superflys, we might pause and take a look at what we're celebrating." Indeed, we might. Since representations of black men in American film so often rely upon a particularly overdetermined image of black masculinity--an image now widely on display in American culture--I think it is imperative that we give the issue of masculinity and Singleton's Shaft a close and critical examination.
A particular type of black masculinity--one defined mainly by an urban aesthetic, a nihilistic attitude, and an aggressive posturing--has made its way into the cultural mainstream in the last two decades. Though there are numerous contributing factors, this image of black masculinity has developed largely as a result of the commodification of hip-hop culture, and the ubiquity of rap music and the "videomercials" that sell it. More specifically, it is the result of the popularity of the urban "gangsta" and his embodiment in the "gangsta" rap of artists such as Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Tupak Shakur. In this same time period, we have also seen an increase in the production of African American films, which have often utilized rap or hip-hop music for both aesthetic and thematic purposes. Consequently, some film criticism has focused specifically on the question of black masculinity and how this identity has been reflected on screen, mainly in the so-called "hood" films of the 1990s, such as Boyz N the Hood, New Jack City, Juice, and Menace II Society. However, few essays examining such racial representations in contemporary film seem to relate the problems of black men to a larger "crisis of masculinity" in American culture (Beavers 256-57). But framing a discussion of the dilemma of black men only in terms of race does a disservice to the issue at hand because it minimizes or altogether ignores the influence of class, gender, and sexual preference upon the cultural constructions of masculinity.
In her discussion of masculinity in Singleton's film Boyz N the Hood, Robyn Wiegman astutely notes that the black male is "stranded between the competing--at times overdetermining--logics of race and gender" (174): On the one hand, as a black within a racist social and political hierarchy, he has neither power nor privilege; yet, on the other hand, as a male within a still patriarchal power structure, he has both. I am interested in exploring the logics of race and gender, and the attendant shifts in the way that black masculinity is represented in mainstream cinema, by focusing specifically on the mythic black icon John Shaft. To do so, I want to juxtapose Gordon Parks's Shaft (1971) and John Singleton's Shaft (2000). These two films, produced almost thirty years apart, reveal interesting continuities and discontinuities in American culture regarding both race and gender, and how these have helped delineate the contours of the new black masculinity. Specifically, I wish to consider Singleton's film within the context of the blaxploitation film, as well as against the background of his previous films, in order to examine the ideological implications of contemporary constructions of black masculinity.
I first want to note that I think there has been a slight misrepresentation of the original Shaft as a "blaxploitation" film. In Framing Blackness, Ed Guerrero points out that the blaxploitation films of the early 1970s underscored "Hollywood's insistence on stunting the development of a black political voice and emancipated consciousness" (97). Admittedly, as a Hollywood product, Shaft did function to keep insurgent political thought to a minimum--this film is clearly not the polemic that is Van Peebles' Sweetback. Nonetheless, the politics are not fully erased in Shaft. In the original film, Shaft was an individual trying to navigate a tenuous position between the highly politicized black and white worlds, the one defined by law and the other largely by crime. Though Shaft himself takes an ambiguous place (he does, after all, rescue the drug lord's daughter from the mafia), there is clearly a larger social movement taking place in the culture. We see this most directly with the character of Ben Buford, who is offered as a quasi-revolutionary, concerned with the welfare of the "brothers and sisters in jail," and as the ostensible leader of an army 10,000 strong. Although this is a minor element of the narrative, it is an important acknowledgment of the Black Power Movement that provides a backdrop for much of the film's action.
By contrast, none of this political element is present in Shaft 2000. Even though there are parallels between the films in terms of their racial politics (e.g., questions about social and political power and how racial bias is inherent within these power structures), Singleton's Shaft is ultimately not part of anything larger than his own personal vendetta. Throughout the film, all one hears is a variation on the "vengeance is mine" theme; Shaft's only intention is to find Walter Wade, Jr., and enact a vigilante justice. As Shaft succinctly puts it, "Fuck the job. I'll get him my own way." This striking contrast raises two interesting questions: First, why are we being offered this retrograde image? And, second, why is such an image being so readily embraced by the movie-going public?
The changes that we see between the two Shaft films are attributable, in part, to the cultural shifts that have taken place in America in the intervening thirty years as a result of various social movements. The changes in our perceptions about both gender and sexuality are mainly a consequence of the mid-century women's movement, which increasingly challenged male power and authority in business, the professions, education, and other areas of economic and social life. Although great progress was made by women in the movement, there was at least one negative consequence: the strong conservative push--or, as Susan Faludi has called it, the "backlash"--against women's advancement during the Reagan/Bush era. The factors involved in the development of this backlash are too numerous to recount here. However, for my specific purposes, I think it is important to note the simultaneous change in ideas about--and shift in representations of--masculinity during this period, for this helps to explain how many men participated, however unwittingly, in the backlash against women. Since the early 1980s, there has been a marked increase in American culture in the presentation of the male body--in advertising, television, and film--and in the emphasis upon the "hard body" image. The mass media have increasingly presented men's bodies as bigger, stronger, and more muscular--thus more traditionally "masculine." Concomitant with this change in male body image has been a rise in the level of violent behavior among men. Most recently, for example, there has been a dramatic increase in aggressive masculinity in sports, as seen in the numerous variations on so-called pro-wrestling (e.g., the WWF, the WCW, and the ECW). We have also seen an escalation of the level of violence in video games, television programs, and Hollywood film, all of which have, in recent years, been the subject of great concern and debate--ranging from psychological effects to the necessity of rating such media. In short, we are now seeing two very significant cultural trends: the recourse to biological explanations of gender difference and the return to a traditional equation of physical strength and power with masculinity.
One method of compensating for a perceived loss of power, potency, or manhood is to adopt what Jackson Katz calls the "tough guise," the pose or mask of "hard" masculinity. This "tough guise"--which the mainstream media have been content to exploit in television, video, and film, and to align with black male identity--is increasingly defined within popular culture by urban life, rampant materialism, fatalistic attitudes, physical strength, and the acquisition of respect through violence or the implicit threat of violence. The "tough guise" was by no means absent from the original Shaft film, but I think that Singleton offers us a much harder Shaft--at least in one sense. In reviews of Shaft 2000, there is a common thread emphasizing both the "low sexual quotient" (Ebert) of the film and the high level of violence. Chris Vognar, for example, claims that Shaft "regresses into an orgy of flippant violence and loosely stitched twists." In another review, Douglas Perry claims that "eyes follow ... [Shaft] closely, but in fear, not lust." This emphasis on violence in Singleton's film is odd since Shaft's reputation is built on the legend of his sexual prowess. But Singleton's Shaft prefers action to sex. Perry further notes that the legendary "sex machine" is barely visible, and what takes the place of the sex is an "orgasmic enjoyment of violence." I'm forced to ask: Is this for Shaft or the viewer? Haven't we come to expect just such orgasmic pleasures from Hollywood action films? Singleton's film asks viewers to unquestioningly support the hyper-masculinization of the character, to accept the sexualized nature of the violence, and to advocate a patriarchal mind set that equates masculinity with violence, to give us
Oddly, it is this very violence that Singleton so effectively critiqued in Boyz N the Hood. From the very opening of the film, Singleton asks us to question the easy equation of violence with masculinity and interrogate the consequences this has within the African American community-namely, the level of black-on-black violence and the dim prospects for black men raised in the urban environment. Mainstream Hollywood film repeatedly offers young men in this culture a reification of accepted stereotypes and traditional beliefs regarding masculinity. Contemporarily, such images are quite common, especially among depictions of black men in mainstream media. This is true even among many of the films written, produced, and/or directed by blacks, and which were part of the black filmmaking renaissance of the early 1990s. However, Boyz N the Hood asks the viewer to re-conceive these narrow definitions of black masculinity. Rather than celebrate the "gangsta" persona, the film seeks to condemn both violent masculinity and the routine killing of black men, which is so often a consequence of young black men adopting the "tough guise." As Todd Boyd points out, the film ultimately privileges a critique of "hard" masculinity over the iconography of "gangsta" culture (97).
As noted, this particular version of black masculinity has been popularized by the large-scale commodification of hip-hop culture. Yet this hypermasculine facade is neither unique to hip-hop culture nor particularly new; indeed, as Robyn Wiegman points out, it owes a partial debt to a direct cultural antecedent--the Black Power Movement of the 1960s. Wiegman argues that the members of the Black Power Movement defined the politics of race within "a metaphorics of phallic power," which developed out of male activists' desire to counter cultural articulations of black male inferiority (181), and that this perspective is readily seen in the writings of influential figures such as Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and Amiri Baraka. Wiegman further claims that the phallocentric perspective was also articulated through the macho, hypermasculine characters appearing in the blaxploitation films of the early 1970s.
Certainly a phallocentric perspective is on display in Gordon Parks's Shaft. From the opening lines of Isaac Hayes's theme song, which tell us that Shaft is "the black private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks," to the obvious connotations of his name, we know that Shaft is a film obsessed with the phallus and that John Shaft is a character defined by phallic power. In brief, the locus of power is primarily sexual in Parks's film and largely focused through Shaft's sexual endeavors. This is a striking contrast to the display of phallic power in Singleton's film, which is almost completely desexualized. When we first encounter Shaft in Parks's film, another officer asks him, "Where are you going?" "To get laid," Shaft replies. And, of course, we see him do so, having sex with both his (black) girlfriend and a (white) woman. Masculinity is thus clearly defined by sexual prowess and male conquest at the start of Parks's film. Although Shaft lacks power in the racial sphere, by virtue of being a heterosexual male in a patriarchal system, he still maintains a semblance of power in relation to women. As Herman Beavers has noted, black masculinity is often "emblematic of an intersection of disempowerment and effaceable power," and this is most commonly articulated as power over women and other (often homosexual) men (256).
Although it is clearly a heterosexual prowess on display in the film, Shaft's masculinity is not defined by a typically heterosexist ideology. A small moment in the original Shaft highlights this subtle distinction very well and speaks tellingly of the way that masculinity is defined for Shaft. The scene takes place in a city bar, where Shaft goes to surreptitiously question two mafia men who are tailing him. When Shaft arrives at the bar, he is greeted by the bartender, who is clearly coded as homosexual through his speech, his hand gestures, and his clothing. During their exchange, the bartender casually refers to Shaft as "Johnny" and fondles the lapel of Shaft's leather coat; then, as he is leaving the bar, he pats Shaft on the ass and quips, "Have funsies." Despite the widespread view of Shaft as a character wrapped in a "macho" mystique, Shaft doesn't react to this familiarity at all--or even acknowledge it--which makes for a rather surprising and intriguing moment in the film. It is even more interesting when considering the historical context: The early 1970s were marked by an intense level of homophobia within American culture at large, as well as within the studio system that produced Shaft, the urban black community, and the Black Power Movement that provides a backdrop for the film. How is it that Shaft says or does nothing? And what does this then imply about the relationship between Shaft and the bartender? Is it possible that Shaft's sexual prowess reaches this far? I don't intend to read what is not there in the diegesis. However, from what we do see, I think it is fair to say that this moment is transgressive, disruptive of the dominant narrative, and thus a corrective to the widely accepted belief that the name Shaft is synonymous with heterosexism in addition to violence and "macho" posturing.
It is difficult to imagine such a scene in the more recent Shaft film, for numerous reasons. To begin, Shaft is now played by Samuel Jackson, an actor who has built a reputation by playing tough (and heterosexual) "niggas" in films such as Menace II Society and Pulp Fiction, a film that exploited cultural homophobia to a greater degree than any other in the 1990s. More in line with the focus here, I think it's also hard to imagine because of the current state of masculinity. As noted, we have seen a ratcheting up of "tough" male posturing in the past few decades, and this has increasingly used homophobia as a means to reify traditional notions of masculinity. Sadly, this is a trend notable in both American popular culture in general and in current Hollywood film, both of which operate from a heterosexist perspective. Such is the case, I think, with John Singleton's Shaft.
As is well known, "black images in American films have usually been reflections of the history of race relations in this country" (Maynard). Shaft 2000 is no exception, and it seems at first that Singleton's film has something significant to say about the racism still so prevalent in American culture. The film begins with the overtly racist murder of Trey Howard, a young black man, by Walter Wade, Jr., a wealthy and arrogant young white man. With such an event to put the film in motion, we are set up to see Shaft 2000 as a film about contemporary race relations. The history of these relations is evoked early in the film when Trey enters an upscale midtown bar with a white woman, presumably his date. In order to publicly harass Trey, Walter tosses out gratuitous racial stereotypes of urban blacks--drinking "40s," smoking "chronic," and listening to rap music. The reasons for Waiter's actions remain somewhat ambiguous, but it is clear that Singleton wants us to see this confrontation through a racial lens and perhaps as motivated by a lingering fear of miscegenation. Trey responds in kind, evoking the racist history of (white) America, but with the aim of deflating the situation with humor: He simply places a napkin, cut to look like a Klan hood, on Walter's head. The joke momentarily eases tensions in the bar; however, it only serves to humiliate and anger Walter, who quickly murders Trey in retaliation. At the onset, then, Shaft is an overtly political film, and with the foregrounding of a racially motivated crime, we are prepared to see Singleton use his art, as he had with Boyz N the Hood, to engage in antiracist discourse and to make important social commentary.
A fine example of the movement toward such a focus is an early confrontation between Shaft and Luger, a fellow officer, who casually tosses racial slurs at alleged criminals. Shaft, clearly bothered by the implicit racism, calls Luger out on this behavior. When Luger asks if Shaft has a problem, Shaft retorts, "Yeah. Nazis with badges." Luger makes light of the situation, mockingly suggesting that he should take an "ethnic sensitivity class," thus deriding what he sees as mere political correctness. However, rather than engage the idea as viable or critique Luger's fallacious thinking--in other words, rather than engage the antiracist discourse--Shaft simply falls back upon adolescent language ("Fuck you," he says) and traditionally masculine behavior (he stands prepared to fight). Luger then says, "Pick a color: black or blue." The message, of course, is that Shaft cannot be both at the same time. Shaft himself alludes to this idea later, after deciding that he cannot "fight the good fight" from the inside because, as he tells his uncle, he is "too black for the uniform, too blue for the brothers." Rather that trying to "blacken" the blue, as it were, or to work toward a sense of solidarity with blacks who find his position as a cop a "sell out," Shaft simply gives up. He effectively abandons both paths in order to exact justice on his own. As he says, "No rules, no regulations." Once Shaft resigns his position as a police officer, the film takes an unexpected turn and moves abruptly away from the overtly political agenda with which it began.
In an editorial piece, Jack E. White claims that Singleton has "transformed Shaft into a thug" rather than updating him to fit the "ambiguous racial climate of the new century." In rather harsh terms, White claims "the new Shaft is neither a heroic knight errant nor a sex machine; he's just another ego-tripping homicidal misogynist." It seems to me that White misses the mark somewhat in labeling Shaft a misogynist, since there are few interactions with women in the film, and those that do exist are not overtly cruel. It is more accurate to look at Shaft as a threat to other men, particularly men of color. Indeed, one of the most violent moments in the film centers around Shaft's intimidation of a black dope dealer named Malik, who is using neighborhood kids to sell his drugs. In order to find Diane, the waitress who was the one eyewitness to the murder of Trey, Shaft seeks information from another waitress. However, before she will give Shaft any information, she asks him to do her a favor: namely, to "take care of" Malik, who is posing a daily threat to her twelve-year-old son. Without pause, Shaft walks down the street, identifies Malik, and proceeds to beat him brutally, while threatening his life. What is most interesting about this scene, I think, is that, while Shaft is beating Malik, a cop car with two white officers drives by. In a series of tight shots, we see Shaft's eyes connect with those of the cops, and a slight nod is given by each. It's puzzling to know how to read this scene since Shaft is still on the police force at this point in the film. Is this collusion among the cops or an overt example of racism? In either case, we are left to cheer Shaft's violent actions and see them as both justified and "moral" rather than questioning them and condemning yet another instance of black-on-black violence. As Robyn Weigmen notes, for a black male to kill another black male is tantamount to killing one's self, but it is also "to act out, to its logical extreme, the desire of white supremacy" (183). Although Shaft does not kill the street pusher, his actions nonetheless fulfill the desire of the white majority to limit, if not eliminate, an undesirable element of the black minority.
In his discussion of the "blaxploitation" films of the early 1970s, Richard Maynard notes that the violence enacted by black (heroes) against white (villains) was justified by creating "heroes who were anti-drug crusaders," thus enabling the studios to sell films that featured black-on-white violence to mainstream audiences. Maynard further states that the studios used the anti-drug crusade as the "core of morality" for films with questionable settings, characters, and behaviors. Apparently, this sort of thing still works, though now featuring black-on-black violence. As noted before, Shaft 2000 takes an odd turn away from the initial focus on racial politics, and the film devolves into a convoluted plot about taking down the notorious drug dealer Peoples Hernandez. Shaft's anti-drug crusade now provides a moral core, one that supplants the anti-racist crusade with which the film began. Having resigned his position as a police officer, Shaft is now simply a vigilante. But how is Shaft's vigilantism justified here? His quest to take down Wade had a clear origin and ostensible justification in the critique of white power and privilege and the desire to combat racism. But that is left behind as the anti-drug crusade becomes the moral center of the film. The perversion of the original storyline comes to literal climax in the mano-a-mano confrontation between Shaft and Peoples Hernandez, which amounts to little more than male posturing and another case of hypermasculinized violence offered to the masses in typical Hollywood fashion. What remains unquestioned are the methods of exacting justice and the equation once again of masculinity with violence.
Some refer, perhaps with nostalgia, to the original Shaft as a role model for the black community in his ability to cope with white society at a time when civil rights were a recent memory and racial tensions were high. Others are not quite so forgiving. Mark Reid, for example, argues that Shaft is a product of the (white) studio imagination and merely a "black-skinned replica" of the white action hero commonly found in the detective genre (84). Though I think the criticism a bit harsh, what interests me most is how applicable Reid's comment is to the recent incarnation of Shaft in a film produced (again by the studios) almost thirty years later. What gets articulated in Singleton's film is the importance of exacting "justice" rather than combating racism or interrogating masculinity. In this sense, I think, the new Shaft is a replica of the white "anti-heroes" of films such as Dirty Harry--which appeared the same year as the original Shaft--and Death Wish, both of which offered us images of men operating outside the system and engaging in "justifiable" vigilantism.
Kenneth Chan claims that "filmic images of the frustration resulting from the inability of black males to overcome the system and achieve material success clearly strike a chord in African American audiences" (37). More particularly, I think such images strike a chord in African American male audiences. Singleton's film presents us with a man who is both frustrated with and emasculated by the white power structure, so he circumvents it by operating outside the law--although ostensibly for the purpose of upholding the law. Racism initially forms the "core of morality" in the film, and the viewer is primed to see justice meted out for the reprehensible racial crime. However, the focus of the film shifts so radically that there is shortly no clear etiology for Shaft's anger. Nevertheless, the audience is asked to accept without question Shaft's desire to "see justice done" and his methods for doing so. As the film progresses, race is subtly trumped by gender as normative, and violent masculinity is embraced as a means of enacting the "moral" agendas of the film: combating racism and, subsequently, combating the drug trade. The irony is that this latter agenda results in a subtle form of internalized racism: The "evil" that was embodied by Walter Wade, Jr., has been transferred to Peoples Hernandez, and the violence used to combat this evil is enacted against other people of color.
In the final analysis, Shaft 2000 is a film that re-inscribes Hollywood notions about manhood and masculinity and supports the dominant value system which employs racial hierarchies to deny black men power while at the same time relying upon traditional gender hierarchies to allow black men power. Whereas in independent cinema we often see more complex portraits of males, even those in traditionally masculine roles, Hollywood continues to give us the same tired stereotypes and retrograde ideologies. One can only speculate why Singleton allows himself to be complicit in this. Has the nostalgia for all things '70s, including blaxploitation films, resulted in a simplistic replication of the original exploitation? If Shaft 2000 is any barometer, the answer is yes. In Framing Blackness, Ed Guerrero claims that the blaxploitation films of the 1970s exemplify "dominant cinema's implicit contribution to a destructive shift in the black community away from collective political struggle of the 1960s and toward such individualist, self-indulgent activities as drug consumption and the single-minded pursuit of material gain" (97). I will go so far as to say Singleton's Shaft is a modern-day blaxploitation film, for certainly it stunts the development of a black political voice and is complicit in charting a shift in the black community away from collective political struggle and toward individualist, self-indulgent activities--though this time around it is the single-minded pursuit of vengeance and, consequently, the reification of a very narrowly defined masculinity.
Beavers, Herman. "The Cool Pose: Intersectionality, Masculinity, and Quiescence in the Comedy and Films of Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy." Race and the Subject of Masculinities. Ed. Harry Stecopoulos. Durham: Duke UP, 1997. 253-85.
Boyd, Todd. Am I Black Enough For You?: Popular Culture From the 'Hood and Beyond. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1997.
Chan, Kenneth. "The Construction of Black Male Identity in Black Action Films of the Nineties." Cinema Journal 37.2 (1998): 35-48.
Ebert, Roger. =Shaft." Chicago Sun Times 16 June 2000. Online. 27 June 2000. <http://www.suntimes.com/outout/ebertl/shaft16f.html>
Guerrero, Ed. Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1993.
Katz, Jackson, and Jeremy Earp. Tough Guise. Videotape. Dir. Sut Jhally. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 1999.
Maynard, Richard. "The Birth and Demise of the 'Blaxploitation' Genre." Los Angeles Times 16 June 2009. Online. 27 June 2000. <http://www.calendarlive.com/movies/lat_shaft000616.htm>
Perry, Douglas. "Singleton's Shaft Leaves Original's Dignity Behind." Fort Worth Star Telegram 18 June 2000, Arts: 2.
Reid, Mark. Redefining Black Film. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993. "Shaft 2000." Variety. Cahners Business information. Online. 25 Feb. 2002. <http://www.variety.com/index.asp?layout=film weekly&dept=Film&releaseID= 17195>
Vognar, Chris. "Still the Man." Dallas Morning News 16 June 2000: J1.
White, Jack. "Why We Now Can't Dig Shaft." Time 26 June 2000: 72.
Wiegman, Robyn. =Feminism, 'The Boyz' and Other Matters Regarding the Male." Screening the Male: Exploring MasculiniUes in Hollywood Cinema. Ed. Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark. London: Routledge, 1993. 173-93.
Matthew Henry is currently a faculty member of the English Department at Richland College in Dallas, Texas, where he teaches courses in composition, cultural studies, African American literature, and independent cinema. He has published critical essays in The Griot, Critique, Teaching English in the Two- Year College, Popular Culture Review, and Studies in Popular Culture. His essay on gay identity on The Simpsons appeared in Leaving Springfield: The Simpsons and the Possibility of Oppositional Culture (Wayne State UP, 2004).
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2004|
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