BAMF Blaxploitation Archive – SUPER FLY

SuperflyBAMF’s Blaxploitation Archive is a collection of reviews originally written in the 1990s that appeared in the pages of BadAzz MoFo. This review and many others have been reprinted and collected in BadAzz MoFo’s Book of Blaxploitation, Volume One, which is now available for purchase.

SUPER FLY 1972 director: Gordon Parks Jr.; starring: Ron O’Neal, Carl Lee, Sheila Frazier, Julius Harris, Charles MacGregor
When you think of the best films of early 70s American cinema, you think of The Godfather and The French Connection. You think Chinatown, Mean Streets, and Five Easy Pieces. You think of all sorts of films, but unfortunately, most people don’t think of Super Fly.

Like all these other seminal films, Super Fly was a groundbreaking, trend setting masterpiece. Directed by Gordon Parks, Jr. and written by Philip Fenty—but partially improvised by the actors—Super Fly frequently feels like a documentary. The gritty camera work, low budget production values and authentic 70s dialogue help to create a cinema verite view of the underbelly of Harlem coke dealers. The performances also help to bring a sense of authenticity to the film, especially the scenes between Ron O’Neal and Carl Lee. Watching the natural chemistry between the two of them it’s hard at times to tell if they’re really acting. At the time, before the film and those involved became the target of political backlash, O’Neal and Lee were considered strong contenders for Oscar nominations. Their performance together is on par with Harvey Keitel and Robert DeNiro in the later Mean Streets, which seems to have drawn some inspiration from Super Fly. Interestingly, producer Roger Corman had wanted Martin Scorsese to make Mean Streets as a blaxploitation flick, but Scorsese didn’t want to go that route, and wound up not working with Corman.

Classically trained stage actor Ron O’Neal was catapulted to stardom as Youngblood Priest, a mid-level cocaine dealer. With a closet full of fly vines, the baddest bitches in his bed, and small empire of dope dealers at his command, Priest is living a version of the American dream. But despite all the material wealth and creature comforts, he is tired of the criminal life. He wants a chance at something more. Something better. He sees his opportunity in one huge score that will leave him with enough money to get out of the hustling business, and allow him to do something legit. The problem is all the outside forces that want to keep Priest in the game, including his partner in crime, Eddie (Lee). “You gonna give all this up?” asks Eddie. “Eight track stereo, color TV in every room, and can snort half a piece of dope every day. That’s the American dream, nigga.”

More than anything, what drives Super Fly and gives it its power, is the soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield. Arguably the greatest soundtrack ever recorded, Mayfield’s songs and music are an integral part of the film, serving as a Greek chorus, and Super Fly the film exists as it does, in large part because of Mayfield’s musical contributions. In that regard, the film is very much like a musical, where the songs serve to explain and comment on what is transpiring on the screen. During one of the film’s most controversial scenes, Mayfield’s “Pusherman” pulsates to a montage that follows the path of a dope shipment—from supplier to dealer to user— demonstrating the rich, interwoven tapestry of music and images that define Super Fly. It was believed Mayfield would get an Oscar nomination for the soundtrack, which considering Isaac Hayes’ win for Shaft the year before, seemed pretty likely. But much like the speculated nominations for O’Neal and Lee, there was no acknowledgement of Mayfield’s work by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

At the time of its release, Super Fly was a critical success, being compared to the likes of such films as Public Enemy and Little Caesar. It was financed by black businessmen for under $150,000, and grossed nearly twenty million during its initial run. But despite the film’s initial success and praise, it has been regulated to cult status, rather than taking its place among other classic films.

Part of the reason for Super Fly’s absence from lists of classic 1970s cinema is the controversy that erupted over the film. This controversy is a crucial part of blaxploitation history, because it was during this critical time that the term blaxploitation itself was coined. Shortly before the release of Super Fly, which was independently produced, but distributed by Warner Brothers, a man named Junius Griffin was trying to land the account to handle publicity on the film. Griffin was a Los Angeles based publicist who also happened to be president of the Beverly Hills chapter of the NAACP. For reasons that remain unclear, Griffin never got the account to handle the publicity for Super Fly (there are rumors that he had a falling out with producer Sig Shore). What is clear is the fact that shortly after the release of Super Fly, Griffin began using his position within the NAACP to make negative comments about the movie. He began calling Super Fly and other films like it “black exploitation,” which quickly morphed into blaxploitation. Both Variety and Hollywood Reporter picked up on the term, and it was just as quickly adopted by the mainstream press in the form of Ebony and Jet (both of which had relationships with Griffin). Within weeks, the term blaxploitation had entered into the popular vernacular of the time, and an ensuing political backlash against most of the films, and Super Fly in particular ensued.

In the wake of all the political backlash surrounding the film, certain critics began blasting Super Fly, charging it glorified the use and abuse of cocaine. Those claims were and remain total bullshit. Super Fly is about someone trying to get out of the world of cocaine. It is no more a glorification of the dope world than Lady Sings the Blues was (which, as many people forget, was about a heroin addict).

Any criticism of Super Fly should be leveled not at the content, but at the execution. The lack of experience by first time director Gordon Parks Jr. is clearly evident. There are times when the direction is flat, the continuity is weak, the lighting poor, and some of the performances lack professionalism. But beyond that, or in spite of that, Super Fly is a beautiful film, with some truly genius moments. Flawed though this film may be, it is flawed perfection at its finest.

Often imitated, but never duplicated, Super Fly became the thematic template for many of the blaxploitation films that followed. Some of the best and worst films of the era used the anti-hero as hero theme set forth in the film, using it with varying degrees of success, and failure, as the case may be. Additionally, the film set off an incredible fashion trend, with people dressing like Priest, and often straightening their hair to look like Ron O’Neal’s. Ironically, O’Neal, who was already balding when the movie was made, wore a hairpiece in the film. Widgets


Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: