I’ve seen SUPER FLY a bunch of times, but I guess not since the VHS days. It’s a good looking movie on DVD, a nice document of extravagant ’70s clothing, small but fancy apartments, a white Rolls Royce rolling around dirty New York streets, its shiny hood ornaments leading the charge like a figurehead on a boat headed to the new world. It’s not a plot-heavy movie, it’s full of long scenes showing off the Curtis Mayfield soundtrack, for my money probly the greatest song soundtrack ever made for a movie (though the blaxploitation genre’s got several classics: SHAFT, BLACK CAESAR and COFFY come to mind. And you can’t front on TRUCK TURNER.)
Speaking of SHAFT, it’s weird that SHAFT and SUPER FLY are the two most famous blaxploitation movies, and they’re directed by father and son. Gordon Parks Sr. did SHAFT in ’71, Junior did SUPER FLY in ’72. I don’t know anything about the relationship between father and son, but I noticed Junior gets an opening credit for the still photo sequence. I wonder if that was to make sure nobody thought it was by his famous photographer father?
There’s definitely a different sensibility between the two movies. Shaft was a character who lost faith in the system, but he was a detective, he was on the right side of the law. SUPER FLY comes at the genre like gangsta rap. Our protagonist, Ron O’Neal as Priest, is not a good guy. He’s a big shot in the dope game when we meet him, and it’s clear that he didn’t get here by being nice to people, not even women. In the opening he leaves a naked white girl in bed asking “Will you be back soon?” and he walks out without answering. It makes him a prick in real life, but pretty cool in a movie. All the other characters are bad people too so we can root for him in comparison.
(By the way, Priest’s first name is Youngblood. I didn’t pick up on that from the movie, I thought they were just calling him “youngblood” as a term of endearment like “little brother” or “cuzz” or something. But I think alot of viewers don’t even remember that his name is Priest, they think it’s Super Fly. It’s kind of like how people think Frankenstein’s monster is called Frankenstein. “Super Fly” actually refers to one user’s description of his product. “You always have the super fly shit!”)
I like the pre-requisite ’70s wah-wah foot chase in this one. He gets jumped by some junkies who must not know who they’re fucking with. He chases a guy for blocks and into his apartment, kicks him in the stomach and makes him puke in front of his wife and children. That’s understandable, but I’m not sure how much more mercy he has for his dealers when they’re late with their money. He’s clearly not the cool boss you can go out for a drink with and feel comfortable. He’s not just one of the guys. Luckily they come through with what they owe, but his threats sound serious. He’s not a lovable drug kingpin.
But this story is about him deciding he wants to be an ex-drug kingpin, lovable or not. He comes up with a plan to work more aggressively, get a good deal on 40 keys which he feels he now has enough of an organization to handle, then he’ll profit a million dollars and retire on it. His partner Eddie (Carl Lee) thinks he’s crazy – why would he want to give all this up? – but he goes along with it. His girlfriend (the main one, not the one he left at the beginning) thinks he should just quit without bothering with the one last big score. That he considers crazy. He doesn’t want to do a real job for no money. Which I can relate to. Can’t you?
So it’s kind of a race against time because his man Fat Freddie (Charles McGregor) gets picked up by the cops for fighting, they find a bunch of coke on him, bring him into an interrogation room and beat on him, get him to tearfully inform on Priest. And it seems like they’re gonna bust Priest but SPOILER actually they want to work with him. They offer a deal that makes Eddie forget about the retirement plan and then they tell him he can’t quit. So here he is working for the white man, just like he didn’t want to do. Probly shoulda got a job at Fred Meyer or something.
Priest is a very different type of superman than Shaft. They’re both cocky and good at pleasing the ladies, but Shaft is more down to earth. He wears simple leather jackets and turtlenecks, doesn’t need to call attention to himself. Priest is more of a show off in the Player’s Ball tradition. He wears fur coats, he has long straight hair, he snorts alot of coke. He’s more feminine than Shaft, but he can fight. In fact he has a one-on-one karate instructor. I don’t think Shaft would do that even if he could afford it.
Like Scarface, Priest is a character who has been sort of idolized for his persona and flair, ignoring the moralistic context of the movie. SCARFACE is about a rise and fall, SUPER FLY is about getting out of the game, but people who love those characters tend to love them for their strutting and ruthlessness and their absurd displays of opulence. You take the middle part only and use it as fantasy wish fulfillment. You wish you could be like them and not feel bad about it.
With Priest I guess it’s mostly the fashion that people love. Snoop Dogg, for example, references two different SUPER FLY scenes (the “American Dream” conversation and the bath tub scene) in the intro to his classic debut album Doggystyle, and also heavily imitated Priest’s look (especially his long straight hair) for several years and in the movie BONES.
Alot of the blaxploitation movies have pretty rudimentary filmatism, but not this one. It looks beautiful on DVD, really capturing alot of texture and life in these locations. Here’s the two junkies from the opening:
But you get the idea that any of those guys who they walk past could have their own story going on. In fact, probly do, I don’t know if they even know they’re extras in a movie. They look real. They probly saw the camera and they probly don’t give a shit.
SUPER FLY is stylish, even experimental at times. Most striking is the aforementioned still photo montage, which is set to the entire “Pusher Man” song, like a music video. It’s a great sequence because many of the photos capture a candid sort of look that seems more real than movies. I actually assume some of those guys were real drug dealers re-enacting their daily routines for Parks.
There are two other powerful scenes, the opening and a drug transaction in the diner, where we watch from a distance and don’t hear the dialogue, just the music. But it’s never too artsy for its own good, like I would argue SWEET SWEETBACK and GANJA AND HESS are. And it’s willing to be lowbrow. For example, I believe that one of Park’s artistic goals was to create a powerful tribute to the glory of women’s butts.
We first meet Priest laying in bed with a naked white girl at his side, ass prominently displayed. Later, a bath tub scene with his main girl has a couple audaciously long naked ass closeups, including the loving depiction of him squeezing her ass in slow motion.
Yeah, despite his troubles, Priest’s life is pretty awesome. I think it’s fair to say the movie somewhat glamorizes the lifestyle. We sympathize with him not wanting to work a shit job. We want him to outmaneuver these corrupt cops. We want him to get away with it, and still be a rich guy living his life like he’s always on vacation. But Curtis Mayfield succeeded in adding depth with his songs. If the story seems like it’s asking you to turn a blind eye to the results of Priest’s drugs on the community it doesn’t matter, because we can’t escape Curtis’s righteous voice asking “Why can’t we brothers respect one another / It could be such a beautiful world…”
The whole movie moves to Curtis’s rhythm. It doesn’t matter how many hundreds of times I’ve heard those songs (and they play some of them more than once in the movie), they drive the images. I even found myself nodding my head. Parks wisely lets the songs play out like he’s making music videos. There’s one funny juxtaposition when the funky “Give Me Your Love” music, used initially in a bath tub sex scene, re-appears over a shot of little white kids in their winter hats sledding. What the fuck? Then we see that Priest and Georgia are in their big fur coats taking a romantic walk through the park and talking about their future.
Parks Jr. was not as prolific as his father. His only other three movies were THOMASINE AND BUSHROD, THREE THE HARD WAY and AARON LOVES ANGELA. Unfortunately he died at the age of 44, in a small plane crash in 1979 in Kenya. His dad lived to be 93 and was directing up until 1989.
Without that great soundtrack I’m not sure how much this movie would stand out. But it does have it, and that combined with O’Neal’s unique approach to swagger, the basic premise of trying to get out of the game and the (accidentally?) arty aimlessness of the story is just the right recipe for an iconic blaxploitation gem.