He remembers reading that Boogie Nights star Don Cheadle might play the part. He also recalls talk of Wesley Snipes. But when a script for a new take on the 1971 blaxploitation hit Shaft first crossed his desk in late 1998, Samuel L. Jackson — the man who’s so far made his biggest box office scores by partnering with flinty white costars (including John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, Bruce Willis in Die Hard With a Vengeance, and Tommy Lee Jones in Rules of Engagement) — says it didn’t occur to him that this might be his shot at solo, above-the-title billing on a major summer movie.
”Well, what character do they want me to read for?” Jackson recalls thinking.
He conjures the moment as he cocks his head and leans his six-foot-three frame back into an overstuffed chair in a sunny Paramount Pictures screening-room annex. Decked out in a resplendent black suit, lavender shirt, and slightly lighter lavender silk tie, his skin smooth and glowy enough to make Cate Blanchett look epidermally challenged, the 51-year-old star radiates so much charisma that it’s hard to take his aw-shucks declaration completely seriously. And as Jackson warms to the subject of how he went on to help shape Shaft, he soon sounds a lot less self-effacing and a lot more ticked off. It takes only a few minutes’ conversation to see why: The picture went through so many rethinks, rewrites, multiple-option takes, and rerecorded lines of dialogue — upon each of which Jackson cast a cold, critical eye before agreeing to them — it could have been called Shift.
”I’m reading it,” says Jackson of the initial script he saw, which was in good part the work of novelist and screenwriter Richard Price. ”And I’m sitting there going, Oh, well, this is not happening. ‘Cause this John Shaft is a cop. He’s on the police force. And I’m goin’, What part of that song do they not understand? Song says, ‘Black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks.’ Script says he’s a cop. And there’s no sex. I was like, What’s wrong with this picture?”
That’s a question Jackson kept asking himself — and his collaborators — straight through the production, according to lots of folks involved in giving the detective an update. The star constantly questioned the dialogue, the plot permutations, and the editing decisions in the $50 million-range action flick (a modest sticker price by current summer-movie standards, but high by comparison with the original Shaft‘s indie origins). And Jackson wasn’t the only one raising hackles. Conflicting visions about how multiculturally, politically, and sexually correct this Shaft should be began to surface from the first exploratory meetings.
Typically, the sides were split by race. In one corner, there was Jackson and his 32-year-old director, John Singleton, who’d made Boyz N the Hood at 22 and become the youngest Oscar-nominated helmer in history. In the other stood producer Scott Rudin (the manic mind behind The First Wives Club, In & Out, Clueless, and the Addams Family flicks, among dozens of other credits) and primary scriptwriter Price (best known for his novel Clockers and the script for Sea of Love, in which Jackson had a bit part a decade ago). Despite a variety of beefs and bouts, the disagreements often shared a thrust: Where does a white producer employing a white scriptwriter get off telling two brothers how to angle a story about John Shaft?