Friday, June 1, 2012

Shaft’s Mis-Education of the Negro

            The movie Shaft promotes a white racist agenda. The narrative arch of both Shaft films promotes African-American self hatred, as well as the superiority of white wealth. The subtlety with which these promotions occur are so nuanced, it’s as if they are designed to stay hidden from unsuspecting viewers. Shaft’s racist undertones are propaganda in the mental war destroying Blacks.

            Many will disagree with my analysis of Shaft, but I hold firm to my position that the Shaft movies embody is a negative fantasy designed to miseducate African-Americans about themselves and the world. Contrary to popular arguments in support of the films, Shaft does not portray a Black man challenging white authority and speaking truth to power. Quite the contrary, John Shaft was, and is, a pawn of the oppressor. Shaft embodies the veneer of a spirit of racial pride and resistance. But his character in no way transcends the inferiority heaped upon him and the masses of poor African-Americans. Nor, in his victory in any of his movies, does John Shaft not continually represent the power structure that he is given credit for subverting. A brief examination of the 1971 version of the movie, and its year 2000 counterpart will shed more light on the meaning of my statements.

In the original film, Shaft is a messiah-like champion, who saves Black people from the evils of whiteness. In this instance, white people, in the form of Italian mobsters, are plotting to push more drugs into the Harlem ghetto. In this version, detective John Shaft gets unwittingly sucked into a war between the Italian mob and the Black mafia, who are both fighting for control of the Harlem drug trade. Each faction in this war metaphorically symbolizes the racial category “white” and “black” respectively. In this drama, John Shaft is the underdog trickster, who through his wit and strength of conviction, winds up beating the white mob to a standstill. Shaft never rids the ghetto of crime itself, but the white criminals are at least put at enough of a loss that they leave Shaft and his friends alone.

In the 70’s, Shaft’s character gave Black movie goers hope that they could fight through the criminal capitalism heaped upon them by white thugs. In this sense, Shaft provided African-Americans with cultural clues about who they are, and how to behave, in order to “make it” in America. (i.e. You’ve got to be “cool,” and “take life as it comes.”) In Black folk lore, Shaft became a signifier of the African-American fight for survival in the United States. The problem with Shaft’s signifying, however, is that the hero narrative that demarcates Shaft’s cultural importance is narrative space that promotes the perpetual servility of African-Americans. Today, Shaft’s image has been co-opted by the status quo media again, and this time, he has been refashioned into a new type of training tool for racial inferiority.

In part, the Shaft movie series is a trick to get Black people to conform to white aesthetic values. By getting African-Americans to buy into the Shaft series, Hollywood studio executives are also getting Blacks to accept stereotypical notions of their selves, laden with negative connotations of what poor Black life truly entails. In essence, African-Americans are subjecting themselves to a subtle, yet negative, cultural training that has the effect of normalizing African-American inferiority. Phrased another way, an hour and a half of “feel-good” entertainment, is the man’s way of programming Black people to be America's continued slaves. Nowhere in the narrative arch of the original Shaft movie, for all of its critical praise, do we find any hope that Black people are actually saved by this so-called “Black hero.” In fact, Shaft actually does more harm to the Black community, inside and outside, of the movie than he does to help it. Rather than viewing Shaft as a champion, look at him for who he truly is: a pawn of the oppressor. Sure, Shaft defeats the mob, but only temporarily. In the process of his “win,” Shaft gets the entire Black liberation army slaughtered; he essentially becomes a hired gun for Black crime; and in the final analysis, none of the fundamental issues surrounding poor Black life in Harlem are resolved by any of Shaft’s actions. Movie goers are forced to settle for the fact that the hero gets a little money for himself and gets to have sex with pretty women. Now ask yourself, is this really a champion of the people? Compare Shaft to a character like Dan Freeman from The Spook Who Sat by the Door and it is easy to see the liberating ethos of Shaft may be a bit undeserved.

Shaft 2K serves pretty much the same purpose as the original. John Shaft is a shadow of a hero; or, rather, a villain in disguise. This latest incarnation is supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek revival of the well-loved 70’s cinematic hero. But the 2000 version of the character does even more to undermine African-American progress than did the first. In this installment of the series, Samuel L. Jackson is the namesake nephew of the legendary private eye originally played by Richard Roundtree. He is assigned to investigate a racially motivated murder case. A black college student played by Mekhi Phifer is killed in front of a restaurant by Walter Williams Jr., played by Christian Bale. Walter Jr. is the son of a wealthy New York construction tycoon, accustomed to white privilege, and unflinching in his abuse of African-Americans. Williams flees the country rather than face prosecution for a crime he does not feel is actually a crime. Of course, Shaft eventually catches up with the bad guy, but true to form for the Shaft series, all of John Shaft’s heroic deeds only serve to reinforce white superiority, rather than nullify it. After catching Williams for a second time, he is freed by a white judge who has to bow down to the Williams' family fortune. When Shaft catches the bad guy for a third time, justice is not really served because an innocent Black mother, who knows the law is not on her side, is forced to exact vigilante justice against Williams in order to make sure he pays for her son's death. Although an act of retribution temporarily provides a feel good moment of release for the audience, the implications of the scene are that white wealth, power, and privilege have turned yet another African-American into a criminal.

One thing that most, if not all, Blacks should know about American society is that the media is not on our side. More pointedly, the U.S. media, in most of its different guises, is in fact the instrument used to mete out the racist education that used to be reserved for the school system and public square. No longer are African-Americans lynched, or fed an intellectual diet of social Darwinism, instead, today, they are bombarded with racist images that quietly creep into their subconscious mind conditioning them to conform to a world predicated on inequality that constantly operates at their expense. A book called Racism and the Press puts it this way:
Groups [Whites] can remain dominant only if they have the resources to reproduce their dominance…Hence, it is essential for the reproduction racism that also the ‘means of ideological production’, such as education and media, are controlled by the white dominant group…this means that white elites control the contents and structures of the system of ideological ethnic representation, which is essentially a form of positive group self-presentation. In other words, through education and the media the white group controls the definition of the ethnic situation…(Van Dijk, 32-33) 
Understood in these terms, Shaft in whatever form he is manifested, becomes the latest weapon in the arsenal used to assault positive African-American identity formation.

            African-Americans should be leery of elevating Shaft to the level of a “cultural hero.” John shaft is not a leader, and should not be emulated or venerated. As Carter G. Woodson warns, leadership of the Shaft type is usually “superimposed” for the purpose of “directing the course of the ostracized group along sane lines” (88). These supervisors of the conduct of African-Americans conduct prevent Black people from learning the truth which might make them “unruly” or ambitious to become free (88).

                                                                                                                       Armondo R. Collins

Works Cited

Parks, Gordon. “Shaft.” Los Angeles: Warner Brothers. 1971.

Singleton, John. “Shaft.” Los Angeles: Warner Brothers. 2000.

Van Dijk, Teun. Racism and the Press. New York: Routledge, 1991. Print.

Woodson, Carter G. Miseducation of the Negro. New York: Clear Web. 5 April 2011.  

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