At the beginning of the year, New Line Cinema announced it would rebooting author and screenwriter Ernest Tidyman’s ’70s action hero John Shaft in a brand new film. The project was announced in February, but details remained scarce. Then, at the end of July, New Line announced the creative team behind the film, which included “Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris and “The Goldbergs” producer Alex Barnow.
Given the pedigree of the writers hired for the project, it should probably come as no surprise that the New Line’s plans are to make the “Shaft’ reboot with a “comedic tone” that will “retain its action roots,” per The Hollywood Reporter. (This would be the second reboot, following the 2003 John Singleton film starring Samuel L. Jackson)
But no one has reacted as passionately as David Walker, the comic book writer and filmmaker responsible for the recently-concluded, award-winning, and all-around excellent “Shaft” comic book miniseries with artist Bilquis Everly for Dynamite Entertainment, along with “Shaft’s Revenge“, the first official Shaft novel authorised by creator Ernest Tidyman’s estate since the 1970s.
In a blog post titled “An Open Letter Regarding SHAFT’ Walker published on his pop culture-oriented website BadAzz MoFo, Walker railed against the notion of a “Shaft” comedy, writing:
“Police brutality has reached epidemic proportions, and white supremacists seem intent on pushing this nation toward a violent and deadly racial conflict. Last month, an armed white man walked into a church, and massacred nine black people. Not since the 1960s has there been more of a need for a black action hero — one that can provide a cathartic escape from life’s day-to-day horrors, and deliver the sort of wish fulfillment that cinema is intended to do.”
Walker argues that the character of John Shaft is such a rarity — a black action hero, a character archetype almost entirely missing from modern cinema — that changing him from iconic badass to comedic action hero isn’t just a complete misreading of the character, it’s irresponsible.
“When we look at what happened in the late ’60s and early ’70s, in terms of film and television, what was going on in America with the Civil Rights movement and a lot of the violence that we were seeing across this country, there was this response to it that manifested in the early ’70s,” Walker said in a follow-up interview with Tech Insider. “That’s when ‘Shaft’ came out, and ‘Sweet Sweetbacks Baadasssss Song’. I want to be really careful that I don’t say ‘It’s just like it was back in ’65’ — but there’s a lot of similarities there, and it feels like a lot of the unresolved business of the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s; we’re now facing them 50 years later.”
Hence, Walker’s point about police brutality, and the necessary cathartic release of a black action hero. Of course, this could also take the form in the most popular type of action hero in 2015: The superhero (Walker currently writes the DC Comics series “Cyborg“, which just launched in July). But that doesn’t make it an easy thing to accomplish in our culture right now.
“The challenge is always going to be getting people to look at things they are uncomfortable with,” says Walker. “Our superheroes are modern-day versions of the gods of old mythology. They are there to give us morality tales of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong. We’re living in a time in society right now where we really have to question our notions of who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. And the reality is that when a police officer shoots an unarmed person in the face, we have to question — what are the roles here?” There are still some people who want to believe that the police are absolutely 100% good. We don’t live in a world of moral absolutes, we never have. I really do think we need to address some of this stuff.”
Despite his harsh criticism for the police in light of the sobering number of highly-publicized incidents of police brutality against victims like Eric Garner and Sam Dubose, Walker acknowledges that the problem isn’t so much the police as it is “a racial ideology that diminishes the value of black life.” It’s a subject that Walker believes pop culture needs to address, and that “Shaft” is the ideal response to it — much like it was 40 years ago.
“I’m not opposed to comedy in any context, but I think for black people — we’re either sidekicks, or victims, or the joke tellers. I’m trying to think of a movie in the last several years I’ve seen where, there’s an actual black hero where he’s not a sidekick and there’s not a comedic bent to to him — I think with the exception of Denzel Washington and ‘The Equaliser’ — it’s all been sidekicks or comic relief. He’s just about all we’re given. We get Denzel, we get Will Smith, and we’ve got Jamie Foxx right now — we’re about to get Michael B. Jordan.”
They’re all fantastic actors, notes Walker — but black actors are still terribly underrepresented in lead action roles, which makes the comedic twist to “Shaft” hurt that much more.
“If you’re starving — I don’t care how you feel about fast food,” says Walker. “But if you’re starving, McDonald’s is going to feel like a feast, Burger King is going to feel like a feast. As a culture, and as a people, we’re starving.”
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