Shaft is back! Jessie T Usher tells us how his 'woke' new character is ushering in a new era for the iconic franchise

Jessie T. Usher, Samuel L. Jackson and Richard Roundtree in 'Shaft'. (Photos supplied: Netflix)
Jessie T. Usher, Samuel L. Jackson and Richard Roundtree in 'Shaft'. (Photos supplied: Netflix)

Channel24's Leandra Engelbrecht spoke to Jessie T. Usher about joining the legendary Shaft franchise in the new film streaming on Netflix.

Cape Town – The suave, cool cat, with his signature polo neck and long coat is back – this time there are three generations of Shaft that are 'hotter than Bond'.

The Shaft franchise, which gave rise to the Blaxploitation film genreis getting a dose of 'wokeness' with Jessie T. Usher, who plays JJ the estranged son of John Shaft II (Samuel L Jackson) in the new reboot on Netflix.

When the first film was released in 1971 Hollywood had never seen anyone like the black, kick-ass private investigator John Shaft played by the eternally cool, Richard Roundtree. Here was a black man who lived life on his own terms something hardly ever seen on the big screen back then.

In an interview with Ebony Samuel L. Jackson , who played John Shaft II in the 2000 film by Jon Singleton, reflected on the importance of the character.

"We didn't have a lot of the iconic, strong, dark, handsome, well-dressed, stuff-talking guys that everybody kind of aspired to be in their fantasy lives from the life on-screen. That made you feel good to be able to watch it, made you feel good to see a guy who lived life on his own terms," said Samuel.

With Jessie, the franchise is ushering in a new era – JJ is unlike any Shaft you have seen before.

During a telephone interview, the 27-year-old described his character as an "entirely new version of a Shaft".

"JJ is as a lot of people say these days, woke. He is very aware of what's happening. He's well educated and, believe it or not, very well rounded. The only thing that he's not is street smart, which is interesting to see for a Shaft character to come in into Harlem and not be street smart. But he has so many other things to offer. And that's what I liked. He's not weak, he's just different," says Jessie.

Jessie T Usher in a scene from 'Shaft'.

The world is a very different place now than it was in the 70s and the early 2000s, so how does a character like Shaft fit in?

For Jessie, Shaft is a refreshing character to watch in today's time.

"Everyone is so polished and clean and appropriate. You know what I mean? For me it's nice to see, especially to see someone like Samuel Jackson, who was the perfect character to play that role.

"This relentless, this bold, daring, un-pc, out of the box character. You know, he can come in and do and say whatever he wants. He's like the perfect person to do it. And it just works. I mean, we have so much of the other things where everyone holding their tongues are oversensitive about too many different things.

"It's nice to have someone like Sam come in and just curse you out. Everyone is reminded to be human and speak your mind and think freely. Honestly, that's what I appreciate about his performance the most," says Jessie.

It is this rawness that Jessie believes makes the character still relevant today.

"I think that everyone can sit back and admire a character as bold as Shaft, who is brave and such a community person. He actually does care about his fellow man, and he wants to uplift his community, and he's always on the right side of the line.

He continues: "He stays very positive, and he's always there for his people, and I think that's something that people can admire and connect with. This is always something that we want to aspire to be, although we can't all kick in the door and lay on the bad guys but Shaft can, and it's fun to watch." 

Samuel L Jackson in a scene from 'Shaft'.


In preparation for his role, Jessie revisited the other films to familiarise himself with the characters he also did martial arts and some gun training for the action scenes.

"I did about two months of capoeira training before going out cause my character, JJ does capoeira in the movie. I didn't need to do too much gun training, although there's a lot of gunplay in the movie. I had done some beforehand, and you know. I feel like it's a prerequisite for being a Shaft, you gotta know how to pull the trigger."

"We had an incredible stunt team on set with us every day. So they were able to coach us through things that may have been a little out of the comfort zone," says Jessie. 

Who better to teach Jessie to become a Shaft than the ones who came before him?

Richard Roundtree and Jessie T Usher in a scene fr

Working alongside Richard and Samuel was an incredible experience for the 27-year-old, it was a masterclass in acting.

"They're so cool. They are extremely professional, very easy to talk to and extremely knowledgeable. They have this acting thing down to a science."

"I was just happy to be there, to sit back and watch and learn and pick up on their energy and how they carry themselves and how they go about their character development."

And if there was a sequel, what would Jessie like to see?

"Well now are three generations of Shaft. Now that they found some common ground I'd like to see them take on more than just Harlem.

"I think it would be interesting to see the three Shafts take on a task larger than what they know and are comfortable with."