Black Directors Feature #2 – Super Fly (1972)

Superfly_posterSuper Fly (1972)
Directed by: Gordon Parks Jr.
Written by: Phillip Fenty
Starring: Ron O’Neal, Sheila Frazier, Julius Harris, Charles McGregor, Carl Lee

If nothing else, 1972’s Super Fly shows off the great amount of potential and passion in director Gordon Parks Jr.  Taking a page out of his father’s book after the massive success of Shaft, Gordon Jr. immediately jumped into the growing blaxploitation sub-genre that was blossoming in the years following.  With Super Fly, Gordon Parks Jr. attempts to make a name for himself, while also staying true to the formula established by his father’s highly-influential style and formula.  Coming just one year after Shaft, Super Fly’s most notable elements were its highly acclaimed and successful soul soundtrack, its drug dealing protagonist (becoming almost the antithesis of Shaft’s mostly law-abiding private detective), and the film’s mostly serious look at the drug underworld of 1970’s New York City.  Though the film didn’t fare quite as well critically or at the box office as his father’s movie did, Super Fly accomplished just as much.  It’s budget was a meager $58,000, and yet it managed to make more than $6 million at the box office and in later video rentals.  Its soundtrack was even more successful than the actual film, out-grossing the film in sales and going on to live as its own separate entity.  Soul and funk artist Curtis Mayfield wrote, composed, and performed every track on the film’s soundtrack, creating multiple legendary funk songs like “Pusherman”, “Freddie’s Dead”, and the titular “Superfly”.  Super Fly’s soundtrack sat at the top of the United State’s pop charts for four weeks straight, and even charted two of its singles on pop and black music charts.  Both the album and the film were praised for their critical look at the poverty and drug abuse situations that many black New Yorkers were facing at the time, and have both gone on to live in the minds of audiences and critics decades later.  Unfortunately, director Gordon Parks Jr. was tragically killed at age 44 after an airplane crash in Kenya, just seven years after the release of Super Fly.  He directed three relatively successful blaxploitation films before his passing – Three the Hard Way featuring stars Jim Kelly, Jim Brown, and Fred Williamson, a crime film in the vain of Bonnie & Clyde titled Thomasine & Bushrod, and a soul film called Aaron Loves Angela – and was working on a fifth film at the time of his death.  The film’s success spawned two sequels, one in 1973, and one much later in 1990.

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Super Fly tells the story of a young New York City coke dealer called Youngblood Priest (played by Ron O’Neal).  After being jumped and mugged by junkies, he pursues them and beats them both up until they return the money that was stolen from him.  This seems like a regular occurrence for Youngblood, as he quickly shakes it off and goes about his daily business.  Priest collects money from his dealers, sells cocaine to high-ticket clients, and does business with colleagues Fat Freddie (Charles McGregor), Scatter (Julius Harris) and Eddie (Carl Lee).  Youngblood’s plan is to execute one last large scale drug deal and to retire early.  He’s become jaded to the ways of drug pushing in the streets, and looks to get out while the going’s good.  After the murder of his close friend and business partner, Priest gets involved with the local mafia to eliminate the detectives responsible.  Youngblood suspects a police conspiracy taking place to benefit directly from his and Eddie’s operations, and looks to solve the problem once and for all.  Can Priest get out of the game safely and stick it to the man, or are the forces working against him and his small empire going to prove too much to handle?  Find out in Gordon Parks Jr.’s groovy Super Fly.

It’s impossible not to compare Gordon Parks Jr.’s Super Fly to his father’s breakout film Shaft.  Both were made on incredibly low budgets and made the best of what little they had to work with, both were breakout successes critically and commercially, both films feature the underworld of 1970’s New York, and the soundtracks for both films went on to achieve as much fame and success as the actual films themselves.  That being said, I have to acknowledge here and now that Super Fly unfortunately isn’t half the film that Shaft is.  While I can understand its cultural influence and the pretty groundbreaking nature of its drug dealing elements, as well as the idea of crooked cops looking to make a quick penny on the side, but it just feels minor once it’s all said and done.  The film looks and feels lower in budget than Shaft, which sometimes works to its benefit and achieves an underground “grungy” atmosphere.  At the same time, much of Super Fly’s script feels too disconnected and unnecessary.  Large portions of the film do nothing to move the film ahead, and instead serve only as pretty cool, but pointless, set pieces.  The biggest offender is the awkward bathtub sex scene in the film’s first half, running far longer than it had to and doing nothing to come off as provocative, interesting, or sexy in any way.  The editing in many scenes is jarring and clumsy, making some pretty dramatic scenes look almost comedic because of how quickly they jump to and fro.  Fortunately, there are some really great elements to Parks Jr.’s film.  The action scenes are hard hitting and effective, the film’s antagonists are perfectly scummy and never too over-the-top or hammy, and Ron O’Neal’s Youngblood Priest is surprisingly cool and easy to sympathize with.  While there’s no doubt that he’s doing his best impression of Richard Roundtree’s John Shaft, O’Neal does enough to set himself apart from that character in the film’s heavier moments.  He really does come across as a desperate man who wants to get out, but knows no life other than the drug-pushing one he’s been living for so long.  The editing isn’t all bad, as the film features a montage of still images of Youngblood and company pushing coke in the streets.  It’s ambitious, unique, and gets the point across while remaining interesting and pushing the film’s plot along.  The film’s soundtrack is undeniably great, especially the uses of Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman” and “Freddie’s Dead”, both of which I’ve been whistling and humming the entire time it’s taken me to write this review.  I appreciated the moral grey areas found throughout Super Fly’s story, and really liked that Parks Jr. and writer Phillip Fenty ensured that both their protagonists and antagonists were often playing in the same proverbial ballpark.  Nobody in Super Fly is perfect or even enviable in their moral ambiguity, and it helps the film feel like a genuine portrait of real life issues.

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While it may not be perfect, Super Fly is a very charming early blaxploitation flick that did its best to capitalize on the success of Shaft.  The low-budget film-making is evident in many areas, but it still does its best to feel genuine in its themes of poverty, drug addiction, and corruption.  Ron O’Neals portrayal of Youngblood Priest is impressive in its moral complexity, and the film’s soundtrack is incredible and groundbreaking for the soul genre.  It may be best for new viewers to see it before they move on to films like Shaft, otherwise they run the risk of directly comparing the two admittedly very similar films.  Super Fly definitely proves that Gordon Parks Jr. had a great deal of talent behind the camera, and a very ambitious eye for editing and atmosphere.  I wish he had lived long enough to make a truly great film, but there are far worse things than having Super Fly as his legacy.  When his film is good, it’s really good, and when it’s bad, it’s usually a result of its micro-sized budget.  Despite this, there’s a lot to like about the little film that could.  Super Fly is recommended.

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