Richard Roundtree & Jesse T Usher Talk Three Generations of 'Shaft,' Working w/ Samuel L. Jackson, & John Singleton's Legacy [Interview]
We spoke to Richard Roundtree and Jessie T. Usher, stars of the new Shaft movie. They talked about working with Samuel L. Jackson, some of the film’s prevalent themes, and the legacy of John Singleton.
It’s been 19 years since Samuel L. Jackson donned those sunglasses and that trenchcoat and played the iconic character Shaft. The legendary actor will again transform into the badass private detective who personifies cool and whose legendary antics have catapulted to larger-than-life hero status. Shaft, directed by Tim Story — of Barbershop and Ride Along fame — comes out on Friday June 14th.
The time around the Shaft family is expanded. The movie will include not only the original Shaft, played by ’70s icon Richard Roundtree, but his wet-behind-the-ears grandson, an FBI data analyst played by Jessie T. Usher. When the youngest Shaft’s best friend is suspiciously murdered, he seeks out his estranged father against the wishes of his mother, played by actress Regina Hall. He ultimately gains the help of the original Shaft to get justice.
Prior to the release, we were able to speak with Roundtree and Usher about working with Samuel L. Jackson, some of the film’s prevalent themes, and the legacy of John Singleton, who directed 2000’s Shaft. Check out the interview below.
What has it been like for each of you being involved in such an iconic movie franchise?
Richard Roundtree: I am proudest of this particular one because of the ground it covers. It’s funny, it transcends all of the earlier ones and [offers] three generations of this character. My grandson, to see him evolve from the nerd that he initially is to owning his last name, is a wonderful thing to see. This was a joy project for me, being a part of it, and I”m glad that I was included in it.
Jessie T. Usher: I didn’t know what to expect. I had heard good things about [Samuel L. Jackson] and how professional he is, but you never really know until you get on set with somebody and like how you’re gonna work with them and how they’re gonna interact with you specifically. You just never know. But, to be honest with you, he was so professional and he was very engaging, and I could tell that he cared about the movie, and that meant the world to me.
This film delivers a strong and poignant message with regards to fatherhood. Reflecting on your own fathers — particularly as we prepare to celebrate Father’s Day — was there any lesson that was shared with you and still resonates powerfully with you to this day?
Usher: Just who my dad is. My dad is not here today, but you honestly wouldn’t know if he was. He’s the most mellow but commanding person that you’ll ever meet. The way he carries himself, he’s a very respectable man, and I just saw that, always. He taught me how to be respectful. He taught me to be a respectable person. He taught me how a man should carry himself, how easy it is to be masculine but still caring and loving and compassionate and all these things that he is. And as clean as he is, he’s still very manly.
You know that every great hero has a great theme song. If you had to choose a tune that would serve as your personal theme song, what would it be?
Roundtree: [Sings] “I don’t believe in sweating and grieving. Why mess around with strife? I never was cut out to step and strut out. Give me the simple life.” [Ella Fitzgerald’s] “Give Me the Simple Life.”
Usher: Geeesh! Oh my God. I love all types of music, but the one type of music that no matter what time of day it is I can always go back to it is always ’90s R&B. I grew up in Maryland and D.C., where that’s big for us. Babyface and all these artists that just meant something to my family and things like that. Earlier today I was listening to some “Whip Appeal” and I was like this is my shit! If “Whip Appeal” cut on every time I walked in a room I’d be happy.
John Singleton directed the 2000 installment of Shaft. Can you take a moment to reflect on his body of work and how it impacted and influenced you both?
Roundtree: He took very simple things and put it before an audience that had not seen that side of our life. And it was raw. It was beautiful. And so full of our beauty. That’s what he was about. I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about that Shaft movie, and I thought that Sam did an incredible job with a minimal script, but [Singleton’s] work prior and after stands by itself. I mean, in his lane he was a genius.
Usher: I was blown away. I was on set. I can’t even remember what I was shooting at the time when I found out that John Singleton had passed. Initially, the first thing that popped in my mind was Boyz n the Hood, and I’m like dang, man. Really? I never even got a chance to meet him. And then, of course, I thought, oh damn, he did Shaft too with Sam. And I’m like, “I wonder how he would’ve felt about watching this Shaft?” I know Sam had talked to him about it. He knew that this film was gonna happen. He knew Tim Story and he trusted Tim with taking it on, but I still wanted him to see it. And I still wanted to meet him. And I’m kind of upset that I never got a chance to, but at least he left us with an empire, you know? An incredible legacy. An incredible body of work and so much to be learned from him.
There’s a term that comes up in the movie “Brothers Watching Brothers” that a few choice jokes are made about, but that also offers food for thought in terms of the idea of Black men supporting each other. How do you think Black men could support each other more?
Roundtree: I think that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that we don’t really get a vote. You don’t have a vote — you’ve got to lift each other up, because in reality we have got to reach out to each other and we don’t. There’s not vote about this. You’ve got to reach out and pull each other up.
Usher: That was something that we were actually pretty concerned about when we got there, because the name that they had initially was not that, and it just wouldn’t work because like you said, there’s two sides to that. We used it as a way to tie the military [storyline] together, which is also a brotherhood, but at the same time this is still a Shaft film, so you know a lot of people will connect the dots and say “OK, this is about the fellow man. This is about the brother man.” This is what we’re talking about. This is what the Shaft theme song talks about. There’s a lot to it… and I’m all for it.
I talk about it all the time when people ask me, “What’s the dream job? What do you want to do?” and I always say well, I got sick and tired of coming up in Hollywood and having people say like, oh, this person, so-and-so is your competition, and this person is who you gotta go up against and this and that. I got sick and tired of hearing that. I’m like, that’s not necessarily true. There’s enough food on the table for us all to eat. If I were to create a project that would be my dream project, it would be something where everyone who is considered to be my competition, we all get together and come out in the same film, and we all get a chance to shine amongst each other. Where I get to play opposite Michael B. Jordan and LaKeith Stanfield, you know what I’m saying? We can all come together and make something dope that no longer has to be considered a competitive thing, and that to me is the real “Brothers Watching Brothers.”
What would you say are the ingredients or attributes of a hero?
Roundtree: Honesty. You don’t have to go further than that. If you’re totally honest, being naked and truthful. With Sam, what you see is what you get with Sam, every second that he’s on screen, and some of that has rubbed off with Jessie. You talk about passing the baton. I’m a happy individual.
Usher: Relatability. I think that what makes a good hero is relatability. There’s something that an old friend of mine was saying when we were talking about heroic characters, but in non-heroic movies, and how powerful of a moment it was when Will Smith in Pursuit of Happiness just got a job. That was the ultimate heroic moment, and all he did was get hired, which happens like every day, and it seems like such a small thing, but it was the heroic moment of the movie. This is a hero that we’re watching, and this is a life-changing thing. I feel like that applies to every good form of storytelling. When the hero is always relatable, no matter what he’s going through. You have to find something within the hero that you can say damn, I’ve been there, or I felt that. So that when you see him prevail, we’re always rooting for him.
Samantha Hunter resides in Westchester, New York and has written entertainment and lifestyle features for BET.com, Essence, SoulBounce, Inspirer, Haute d’ Vie, Black Westchester, DELUX, and VH1.com. Her family and friends say she’s always going somewhere, but you can find her on Instagram at @Sapodillic.