clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Alexandra Shipp is not ‘simple’ in latest incarnation of ‘Shaft’ — or in real life

The young actress’ character is a striking departure from the oversexualized portrayal of black women in the blaxploitation genre.

Alexandra Shipp attends a “Dark Phoenix” premiere June 4 in Hollywood.
Rich Fury/Getty Images

Actress Alexandra Shipp, 27, says there’s no way around playing strong female roles because that’s just who she is.

Her portrayals of strong women date back to her breakout role as Aaliyah in a 2014 Lifetime biopic through her portrayal of Kimberly Woodruff in “Straight Outta Compton,” up to the new “Dark Phoenix,” in which she plays the weather-controlling Storm.

Arriving next is the latest “Shaft” movie, a film that tries its hardest to evolve while remaining true to elements from the original in 1971.

As Sasha, the childhood-friend-turned-love-interest of John Shaft III, played by Jessie T. Usher, Shipp gets tangentially involved in solving the murder of a military veteran and recovering drug addict on the verge of starting a new life.

For most of the film, Shipp’s character is a striking departure from the oversexualized portrayal of black women in the now-extinct blaxploitation genre — condemned for its use of negative stereotypes but also applauded for introducing black leads and largely black casts to Hollywood in the 1970s. In the new “Shaft” (opening Thursday), Sasha is independent, intelligent, fearless in expressing her opinions — and covered up.

Shipp said those qualities attracted her to the script.

“I don’t think I would’ve had a lot of respect for myself had I had my boobies out and everybody was like ‘Gimme the [sex],’ which is kind of how these movies have been: very misogynistic,” she said. “We’re saying something different with [this film].”

During a recent interview in Chicago, Shipp said she hopes her character makes women, especially black women, feel seen and heard.

“With every job I try to take on, I really do try and add some socially commentative aspects to it,” Shipp said. “If I’m being real, black women are the most overly sexualized, exploited and targeted people on the planet. And it’s nice that in this movie we are allowed to be queens and be seen as such and treated as such.”

Shipp’s character challenges ideas about romance, loyalty, religion and even gun ownership while also encouraging herself to be her best version. In one of the most relatable scenes in the movie, the youngest John Shaft — or JJ as he’s called — makes a huge crack in a murder case and Sasha must decide whether to make a risky change of plans.

“Don’t be a simple b----,” she tells herself, wrestling with her options.

The term “simple b----” is a spin on a classic in millennial slang: the “basic b----,” defined on as a term “used to condescendingly refer to women who have predictable or unoriginal style, interests, or behavior.”

To be labeled “basic,” is to have sunken to a level of mediocrity so extreme, so oblivious in nature that it warrants pity — or worse, disgust. It’s to be too lazy, too dimwitted or too uninspired to rise to any occasion worthy of your best self, and thus it’s a label to avoid.

“For me,” Shipp said, “I was just like, you know, there’s always the girl who shows up because she thinks she’s going to help ... and she always gets caught.”

Alexandra Shipp plays the love interest of John Shaft III (Jessie T. Usher) in “Shaft.”
New Line Cinema

The “simple b----” line, as it turns out, was an ad lib, she said. It is also an example of Shipp’s strong personality informing the roles she plays.

“Yeah, I have those moments with myself all the time where I’m like, ‘OK, how basic b---- is that going to seem?’ ” she said.

So what are the best ways to circumvent the trappings of a “basic b----”? Shipp breaks it down into three simple steps.

The first is no “f---boys” — another millennial term used to describe immature men who insist on being involved with women (usually several at once, though they’re unlikely to be forthcoming with any details) but refuse to commit, ultimately wasting time and often breaking hearts. Shipp says they’re a big no-no.

“Simple b----es go with f---boys. That’s just the reality of the situation, so that’s No. 1,” she said.

The second way to avoid making yourself seem basic is to think, “because if you have reasons for why you’re doing something, then you ain’t a simple b----,” Shipp said. “You might’ve been wrong, but you thought about it.”

Shipp’s final rule to avoid being basic is to have integrity, something she said is “very rare these days.” It’s a principle she follows while selecting her roles.

“It’s not just, ‘Am I a strong female character?’ But ‘Am I going to be able to change one’s mind?’ That’s something where I can walk away and go. ‘OK, I’m proud of that,’” Shipp said. “And I only want to do things that I’m proud of.”