An Open Letter to New Line Regarding Shaft

Originally posted at BadAzz Mofo

Numerous people have reached out to me about my thoughts on the new Shaft movie, which New Line Cinema recently announced would be more comedic in tone. Here are my thoughts…

Dear New Line Cinema (and producer John Davis),

Let me start by saying that I never expected anyone to get in touch with me about the new Shaft movie. Likewise, I don’t have any interest in getting involved with anyone who doesn’t understand or respect Ernest Tidyman’s character, so even if anyone involved in the new movie got in touch with me, it probably wouldn’t go well. As it is, with the recent announcement that the creator of black-ish has been hired, and that a comedic approach is going to be taken, it is clear to me that New Line is more interested in shitting the bed, than making a good Shaft movie.

When I first reached out to Chris Clark-Tidyman, the widow of Shaft creator Ernest Tidyman, it was because I wanted to see a character that I grew up with, translated into the world of comics. It was important to me to do justice to Tidyman’s creation, and to the character itself. At the risk of bragging, I did just that. I dropped the fuckin’ mic with the award-winning Shaft comic book, and with all humility, I did a pretty solid job on the novel Shaft’s Revenge — the first Shaft novel since Tidyman’s The Last Shaft, published back in 1975. All of this is my way of saying that I care about the character, I understand the character, and as anyone who has read my contribution to the legacy of character can tell you, I got that shit right.

So, please, listen to me when I say, “Don’t make this a comedy. It will suck. It won’t make money. And in doing so, it will ruin the chances of there ever being a decent Shaft movie in the remainder of my lifetime.”

There are several valid reasons to back up the fact that taking the comedic approach is wrong. Let’s start with the reason that means the most in Hollywood — money. While comedies do well, the sort of comedy you’re likely to make does not have a good track record. Low Down Dirty Shame (1994) made $24 million, Undercover Brother (2002) made $39 million, and Bait (2000) made $15 million. There are, of course, exceptions, like the Bad Boys movies, which made just under $400 million collectively, but c’mon… can you really conjure the magic of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, and hope for that kind of hit? I don’t think so.

At best, you’ll likely put out a film like Black Dynamite, a movie that has already done what you’re setting out to do. Black Dynamite, despite its cult status, and the animated show that I love — which again, has already done what you want to do — earned less than a million dollars at the box office. Let that sink in — less than a million dollars. By comparison, The Equalizer earned over $190 million globally, and it was a serious action film, with a black man in the lead role (which is what Shaft needs to be).

As of this writing, in the month of July 2015, more than 100 people in the United States have been killed by the police. That’s not the number for the year-to-date, but just one single month. And that doesn’t include people like Sandra Bland, who died while in custody. 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. Not since Ernest Tidyman created John Shaft back in 1970 has there been more of a need for someone just like him. And yet your solution is to take the most iconic hero in the history of black popular culture — something that is missing from the cinematic landscape right now — and turn him into some kind of comedic figure.

Congratulations for your forward thinking, New Line and Mr. Davis. Because God knows that what black people — as well as the rest of America — need right now is ANOTHER black man cracking jokes to distract us from all that ails us. We can leave the superheroics to the white guys, but the black hero can only be heroic if he is wrapped in a comedic package. I believe I speak for many people when I say, “No thanks, and fuck you.”

It is clear to me that you have no real concept of the John Shaft character, or why he and all the other black action heroes that emerged in the 1970s were so important to so many people — myself included. This new movie, if it goes the way it is headed, will be terrible, and I will do everything in my power to see it fail, because you deserve no less than that for taking something beloved by so many, and making it something it was never meant to be.

I could go on, but I’ve said enough. Other than the very sound advice to not make a comedy, you’ll get no more free advice from me. If you decide you want to make a serious attempt at producing a good Shaft movie — one that makes money and launches a viable franchise — you know how to find me (I work for one of your sibling companies, DC Comics, and the good folks at Dynamite Entertainment, which published Shaft, also have my contact information).

Until then, I will continue to write Shaft comic books and novels that are true to the character, and you can keep taking a shit and trying to tell us all that it is chocolate pudding.

David F. Walker