With the recent trailer drop of the new Superfly movie, now is as good of a time as ever to view what has inspired it. Time to step into the Cadillac Eldorado and revisit the original, 1972 offering of Super Fly.
THE STORY: Youngblood Priest (Ron O’Neal) lives large in the Rotten Apple that is New York City. His occupation? Dealing cocaine alongside his partner, Eddie (Carl Lee). They’re quite great at it, amassing fame and all the possessions that aren’t readily available for African-Americans. But deep down, Priest desires to get out, knowing that there’s much more to life than this life. While he doesn’t know exactly what he desires, whatever it is must be more fulfilling than this.
His get out plan is devised. Buy 30 kilos of coke, and flip for one million. Splitting the take with Eddie gives each 500K and the ability to live free. As Priest quickly realizes though, not everyone is accommodating to his wish, be it his lover, his clientele, or even the police. Going to take a Herculean effort to pull this off.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Rather in this case, what to listen for. But we’ll get to that in due time. Directed by Gordon Parks, Jr (son of Shaft director Gordon Parks)., Super Fly holds the groundbreaking distinction of being the first black-centric film not only entirely funded by blacks, but also shot and produced by a non-white crew. There’s the controversy of whether the film truly glorifies cocaine and the lifestyle its main characters enjoy because of it, or if the riches its main characters enjoy are just enslavement in a different form. In 93 minutes, Parks and writer Phillip Fenty do create a story that has significant weight and commentary that stands out amid the occasionally shoddy camerawork and editing (par for the blaxploitation course).
Yes, specific scenes, transitions, and even the length of certain ones are amusing, but by and large, this movie looks as superb as a movie that cost less than $500,000 to make could be. From the first shot, Parks establishes authenticity that gives his street tale heft. This story takes place in New York and there’s no doubt that it was filmed in the Big Apple. As the movie goes on, Parks’ camerawork looks more like a documentary, only without the talking heads. There’s little, if anything, that is Hollywood-ized about Super Fly, and one of the reasons this movie is still hailed highly in its genre. Another is the stellar work of Ron O’Neal as Priest. In a world full of snakes, rats, and scavengers, Priest is far from a good guy, but deep down he possesses a heart and a conscious and having those in this world basically make a person a good one. It would be easy for O’Neal to get caught into his character’s flashiness and glitz and become a caricature, but O’Neal delivers an extremely grounded performance. Not to be forgotten is Carl Lee, his character representing the other side of the coin that Priest wants to get away from.
And with all this said, the best character of Super Fly isn’t represented by a flesh and blood performer. Songwriter Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack is rightfully hailed as one of the greatest soundtracks in cinema history; #6 on Rolling Stone’s 25 greatest soundtracks of all-time. A good amount of Super Fly is told without dialogue with Mayfield’s poignant and powerful lyrics left to tell the story and in essence, give the audience exactly what characters are thinking or feeling via tracks like Little Child Runnin’ Wild, Pusherman, or the eponymous Super Fly. But even tracks that don’t appear proper in the film in Freddie’s Dead and Eddie You Should Know Better give significant context to those who make up this world. Mayfield is a true storyteller and is the real heart of the production.
A GREAT MOMENT: The last 15 minutes that sees Priest use his head, his girl, a briefcase, and some dirt on an official and come out on the other side even as the odds are stacked against him is super crowd-pleasing. It’s punctuated by a back-alley street fight that is as hilariously bad and cheesy in its slo-mo editing as it is supremely great.
THE TALLY: A classic in its genre, Super Fly is as good as blaxploitation gets. Sticking it to the man has never been so much fun. It’s what to watch.
Photo credits go to IMDB.com, thisdistractedglobe.com, en.wikipedia.org, and IMCDB.org.
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