Tag Archives: Shaft

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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Black Directors Feature #1 – Shaft (1971)

ShaftShaft (1971)
Directed by: Gordon Parks
Written by: Ernest Tidyman, John D.F. Black (Based on Shaft by Ernest Tidyman)
Starring: Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn, Charles Cioffi, Christopher St. John

Gordon Parks’ Shaft is perhaps one of the most important and revolutionary modern African-American films, regardless of what your personal opinion may be of the film.  Some see it as a goofy example of why the blaxploitation genre was allowed to flourish in 1970’s America, and others see it as the classic and highly influential – but flawed – action-crime film that it is.  Prior to directing an adaptation of Ernest Tidyman’s novel, Gordon Parks had a great many professions.  Parks found his calling in both professional, commercial, and government photography throughout the 1940’s, having enormous success.  His most notable success came with his iconic take on Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting, titled American Gothic, Washington, D.C.  With a number of famous pieces in Life magazine, which detailed everyday struggles for African-Americans in the Southern states during the 1950’s, as well as consulting on a number of Hollywood films throughout the decade, it’s clear that Gordon Parks knew his way around a camera.  After a number of documentaries about black life in America, Parks got his first major break in the form of The Learning Tree, an autobiographical film (and novel) about growing up and dealing with discrimination in rural Kansas.  After the success of The Learning Tree, Parks was ready for the big time.  Sporting one of the most widely recognized movie soundtracks of the era, Shaft came in guns blazing in the summer of 1971.  The film was made on a shoestring budget of just $500,000, and made more than $13 million at the box office by the end of its theater life.  The success of the film spawned six more novels, two sequels, a sequel/reboot in 2000, and a television series.  The film won the Academy Award for Best Original Song for Isaac Hayes’ famed “Theme from Shaft”, and also gave Hayes a nomination for Best Original Score.

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The film starts by immediately introducing our lead character, private detective John Shaft (Richard Roundtree).  Shaft is no-nonsense, tough, cool, and knows the streets like the back of his hand.  After finding out that he’s being looked for by two gangsters, Shaft tracks them down and finds out that Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn), the leader of a famous Harlem crime family, wanted the detective brought to him for a face-to-face meeting.  Without the permission of his superiors, John Shaft arranges to meet alone with Bumpy.  It’s soon revealed that Bumpy’s daughter Marcy (Sherri Brewer) has gone missing, and Bumpy wants to hire the services of detective Shaft in order to track her down and bring her home alive.  After a shootout targeted at John Shaft, the detective learns from Lieutenant Vic Androzzi (Charles Cioffi) about an ongoing conspiracy that could turn into an all-out race war in the streets of Harlem.  After some sleuthing from the wizened P.I., Shaft and Ben Buford (Christopher St. John) track down Marcy Jonas, but rescuing her won’t be easy.  Can John Shaft and his few allies rescue the young girl and return her to her powerful father, or will it all be too much for even the famed detective to overcome?  You’ll have to check out Shaft to find out.  Can you dig it?

Parks’ Shaft is a film I went into with extremely low expectations.  I had seen the attempted reboot a couple of times as a kid, and saw the character parodied countless times over the years.  These things had undoubtedly warped my perception of the film into a fairly negative viewpoint.  To say that I my expectations were far exceeded would be an understated, as Shaft is a film that completely took me by surprise.  Having only some idea of the movie’s reputation before seeing it, I was completely floored with just how “cool” the film felt, even more than forty years after the fact.  This sense is definitely helped by Richard Roundtree’s excellent portrayal of the John Shaft character.  Roundtree is completely unblinking and serious throughout the entire film, almost never showing his weak or comedic side to those around him – even when in the process of cracking wise.  He’s charismatic as hell, can charm any woman into going to bed with him, and can make even the toughest of foes feel small and powerless in his wake.  There’s no wonder why John Shaft quickly became one of the most influential black characters in American film history – the guy is just so damn cool.  He’s somebody that almost anybody out there would like to resemble, even in some small way.  He may not be a perfect picture of a sound set of morals and ethics, but he’s just so cool!  Adding to the film’s groovy atmosphere is Isaac Hayes’ incredible soundtrack, which never feels overbearing and never overstays its welcome.  Every piece of music suits the film’s time period and setting, and sounds meticulously composed and laid out for the film.  Shaft’s general story-line never feels unbelievable or over-the-top, and never falls into the overly complicated pitfalls of some of its contemporaries.  The bad guys are despicable, and you want nothing but for John Shaft and his comrades to give them an ass-whooping they’ll never forget.  It’s everything an action film should be, and I feel like a lot of modern films could learn from its general plot structure.

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Shaft is a terrific piece of African American film making from a period not too far removed from the time of the Malcolm X’s and Martin Luther King’s of 1960’s America.  It’s a triumph for the community, as it never falls into stereotypes or an overly-preachy message.  Gordon Park’s success with the film paved the way for generations of black filmmakers in Hollywood, and Shaft’s influence is still being felt to this very day.  It features an effortlessly charismatic performance by Richard Roundtree, one of cinema’s all-time great scores by Isaac Hayes, some terrific action set pieces, and very resourceful use of its minuscule budget.  Shaft is cool as hell, and I hope everybody reading this gives it a chance.  It’s highly recommended.

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February Theme – Black Directors (An Introduction)

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With February being Black History Month, I’ve decided to go with something of a broad theme to celebrate.  Our theme for this month will cover nine great and/or highly influential films made by black filmmakers, spanning the blaxploitation boom in the 1970’s to the black independent movement of the 1990’s.  I’ve decided not to cover modern day black filmmakers, as I will more than likely revisit the theme in upcoming monthly marathons.

The directors being covered this coming month all made a giant splash in their industry, whether it be the early independent scene in America, the glitz and glamour of Hollywood filmmaking, or the African filmmaking scene in the French-speaking country of Senegal.  The films covered explore themes of racial tension, economic and social struggles faced by the black community through modern history, and create iconic characters whose influence is still being felt today.

Filmmakers being covered include:

  • Senegalese legend Ousmane Sembene, who is considered to be the father of African film.  His career spanned spanned five decades, creating some of the greatest African movies ever made.
  • Gordon Parks, one of the first major African American filmmakers to find success in Hollywood.  He pioneered the “blaxploitation” genre with the Shaft series of films.  His son Gordon Parks Jr., killed tragically at the age of 44, will also be covered.
  • One of America’s most underrated black filmmakers, Charles Burnett.  Burnett’s film Killer of Sheep took decades to be released on a wide scale because of music rights issues.  His influence on black filmmakers is undeniable.
  • The controversial auteur Spike Lee, who broke into the scene in the 1980’s with groundbreaking films like She’s Gotta Have It and Do the Right Thing.  Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X found mainstream critical and commercial success, and propelled Lee to become arguably the most successful African American director in history.
  • The 1990’s saw a sudden spike in original, stylistic, and highly influential African American films like John Singleton’s Oscar-nominated Boyz n the Hood, the Hughes Brothers’ independent hit Menace II Society, and F. Gary Gray’s stoner comedy Friday.

The schedule for February’s Black Directors Marathon is as follows:

#1 – Shaft (1971) (Gordon Parks) (Feb. 2)
#2 – Super Fly (1972) (Gordon Parks Jr.) (Feb. 5)
#3 – Touki Bouki (1973) (Djibril Diop Mambéty) (Feb. 8)
#4 – Xala (1975) (Ousmane Sembene) (Feb. 12)
#5 – Killer of Sheep (1978) (Charles Burnett) (Feb. 15)
#6 – Boyz n the Hood (1991) (John Singleton) (Feb. 19)
#7 – Malcolm X (1992) (Spike Lee) (Feb. 22)
#8 – Menace II Society (1993) (Albert & Allen Hughes) (Feb. 26)
#9 – Friday (1995) (F. Gary Gray) (Feb. 29)

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