Samuel L. Jackson on the lasting impact of the iconic ‘Shaft’
Samuel L. Jackson is as cool as they come — and as long as he has anything to say about it, John Shaft will be, too.
The actor’s second go-round as John Shaft II is more comedic than previous films in the series, which began with the classic 1971 movie starring Richard Roundtree as the badass private eye. But Jackson knows the importance of the franchise that helped spur the so-called Blaxploitation genre, and made it a point in the new film to maintain the edginess of the original.
“He’s kind of iconic in our community and in our mythology,” Jackson, 70, told the Daily News. “He’s one of our heroes, and we don’t want to make him be a buffoon or a fool in any way. … You still need real danger (in the movie) to respect what Richard created or the Harlem that we know as kind of sexy, dark, dangerous and cool.”
The new “Shaft” opens Friday and centers on Jackson’s sharp-shooting, smooth-talking P.I. teaming up with his estranged son JJ (played by Jesse T. Usher) to uncover the truth about a mysterious death in Harlem.
Roundtree, who starred in three “Shaft” flicks in the ’70s plus a 1973 TV show based on the character, plays his original role in the new film as the family patriarch — giving the movie three generations of Shafts working to solve the case.
Brave and cool
Jackson was 22 years old when the first “Shaft” hit theaters and was at the start of an acting career that mostly featured theater productions and TV movies early on. He recalls watching films starring Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte before then, but says there had never been a character quite like Shaft.
“To have a guy like that who was unapologetically black, brave, cool and irreverent was a revelation,” Jackson said. “Like, OK, we’re making different kinds of movies now. By the time the Blaxploitation era hit, people tried to disparage it in an interesting sort of way, but we wanted it. We needed it. I’ve been going to movies all my life, so it was important that I see people who were heroes, who were sticking it to the Man, which is what basically those movies were. It was another way of going to the movies and seeing yourself win, or seeing a hero that looks like you or the hero that you can aspire to be.”
The introduction of the first “Shaft” gave Jackson hope at the time that more movies like it were on the horizon, which would mean more acting opportunities for him. Years later, he was already a huge star when he made his debut in 2000’s “Shaft.”
“It’s really interesting that Shaft is a character that resonates with people still, because their parents played Isaac Hayes’ music, (and) they’ve more than likely seen at least one or two of the movies,” Jackson said. “Even if the first one they saw was mine, somehow they ended up going back (and) watching that other one because their parents had it or their parents recognized Richard as Shaft. Then I come along and they accept me as Shaft, and now hopefully we can bring Jesse into the situation and it will allow those people to embrace him.”
Much of the humor in the new film comes from the contrast between Jackson’s character’s analog, old-school ways and the technology-driven, politically correct approach of his son, who works as a data analyst for the FBI.
Harlem once again plays a central role, as the characters navigate the New York neighborhood trying to figure out the mystery.
Starring as Shaft again was a thrill for Jackson, who relishes the chance to play action heroes at his age.
“It kind of keeps me young because I’ve been doing it all my life, and those are the movies that you’re attracted to when you’re a young kid. You like guns, noise and boys and toys,” Jackson said.
He acknowledges that some actors only choose movies for the chance to win awards, and while Jackson has enjoyed doing serious films, he loves a good popcorn flick.
“I think movies are escape,” Jackson said. “People want to get away from what they do every day. Especially in this world we’re living in right now, we need escapism. I want to forget about all that other crap that’s going on, just kind of go somewhere and lose myself for an hour and a half or two hours and have some fun, and come out and feel good.”
Safe to say, he can dig it.