The best line in Shaft happens 46 minutes in. (I’m talking about the movie version of Shaft that came out in 2000.) (The one that starred Samuel L. Jackson as Shaft, a role he is reprising in the latest Shaft movie, out this Friday.) (And also starred Christian Bale as Walter Wade Jr., the entitled and racist son of a wealthy New York real estate developer.) (And Jeffrey Wright as a Dominican drug lord named Peoples Hernandez.) (It wasn’t that great of a movie.) (But Jeffrey Wright is incredible as Peoples.) (He’s funny and intimidating and likable and abrasive and charming, somehow all at once.) (He’s the one who has the line I mentioned.) (Let’s jump back in right there…)
The best line in Shaft happens 46 minutes in. Walter Wade Jr., days away from going to trial for a murder charge hanging over his head, decides he wants to make his way across town to ask Peoples to find and kill the only witness who poses any real threat to him walking out of the courtroom a free man. Rather than wear one of his usual suits for the trek, though, Wade decides to try and blend in by putting on something a little more casual. He settles on a pair of tan khakis, an unbuttoned plaid shirt, a tan khaki jacket, and a tan hat. Peoples sees him, smiles, points at him real quick, smiles some more, laughs a tiny laugh to himself, then says, “You … you dressing down to blend in or something? You look like a fucking duck hunter.” He laughs some more, then looks around the room to make sure that everyone heard his very good joke as Wade, completely self-conscious now and definitely embarrassed, takes his hat off as he realizes what a dork he looks like.
Peoples also has the second-best line in the movie (he walks up on two detectives sitting in a car, leans in toward them, then, in an extremely police-like manner, says, “Step out of the car, please”) and the single best moment in the movie (his younger brother gets killed and he goes all the way nuts, screaming at Shaft, “You best kill me, motherfucker!” over and over again while stabbing himself repeatedly in the chest with an ice pick to show how fucking mad he is).
Consider this, then, a Peoples Hernandez appreciation.
Or, more accurately, consider this a Jeffrey Wright appreciation.
Because I really enjoy Jeffrey Wright.
And I especially enjoy him as Peoples Hernandez. (A quick note about Shaft as a movie character: He’s excellent, and his mythology—a takes-no-shit private eye who is only interested in doing cool things and saying cool things—is excellent too, and rooting around through the history of his place in pop culture makes it clear why we’ve now gotten five separate John Shaft movies.)
Jeffrey Wright has exhibited, for just about all of his career, a very certain and very thorough kind of measured intensity. It’s what made him believable as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Boycott. And it’s what made him so funny as Agent Henderson in Game Night. (I laugh every time I see him break character to ask about food allergies.) And it’s what made him so poignant as Belize in Angels in America. (Watching him rein in a drugged-up Al Pacino during the scene when they talk about heaven is something special.) And it’s what made him so mesmerizing as Valentin Narcisse in Boardwalk Empire. And it’s what made him so powerful as Louis in O.G. And it’s what made him so great as Bernard in Westworld. (This role was probably my favorite to watch because, as he’d done several times before, he played an extremely smart, extremely in-the-know character, which is something he excels at. Except this time it turned out that it was a false front and actually he was one of the people/robots being duped. I will, for many years, remember the “HOLY FUCKING SHIT” feeling I had during his “Doesn’t look like anything to me” reveal.) And it’s what made him such a neat bit player in Lady in the Water (I saw this in the theater the weekend it came out, because I will see every M. Night Shyamalan movie in the theater the weekend it comes out).
And, listen: Yes, he carries that same weight in his chest as Peoples in Shaft, because every character Jeffrey Wright plays will have that, because Jeffrey Wright has that, because Jeffrey Wright is special. But he does it differently with Peoples. He takes all of his gravity and, rather than use it to ground a character in seriousness, he turns it inside out, using it to make Peoples feel wildly charismatic. That’s why his duck hunter joke is so funny, as is the line where he pickles the police detectives, as is the line where he points out the thread count of his expensive shirt to Shaft and says “It’s like half of your shitty-ass paycheck,” as is the part where he sits in a jail cell with Walter Wade Jr. and tries to make small talk about golf and boats. Let’s end this article by watching that one:
His Dominican accent here is so good. I really enjoy the way he lets the last couple letters of whatever word it is that he’s ending a sentence with wander off into nothingness. (More or leh instead of “more or less,” Tiger Woo instead of “Tiger Woods,” etc.) I watch the scene, and I watch the movie, and I know that Peoples is a murderer and a bad person and is causing a great deal of harm to his community, but it doesn’t matter. I still want to hang out with him, same as I want to hang out with Tony Montana any time that I rewatch Scarface or Nino Brown any time that I rewatch New Jack City. All three of those guys are very charming drug dealers. Peoples belongs in that conversation; the Charming Movie Drug Dealers conversation, if that’s even a thing.