Director X’s “Superfly” transplants the 1972 Blaxploitation classic from Harlem streets to suburban Atlanta mansions, flips Curtis Mayfield’s soul score for Future’s hip-hop soundtrack and forsakes the original’s politically charged grit for shallow music-video indulgence.
“He’s got a plan to stick it to the man,” went the ads for Gordon Parks Jr.’s “Super Fly,” with Ron O’Neal as Youngblood Priest, the suave cocaine dealer trying to make one last score. Coming a year after “Shaft” (directed by Parks’ father), “Super Fly” was a post-civil-rights-era time capsule oozing anti-authoritarian fury and ‘70s style.
“The Man” is mostly MIA in this “Superfly,” which takes more after Brian De Palma’s “Scarface” and familiar hip-hop fantasies than anything channeled by the earlier Blaxploitation films. If snorted lines of coke were copious in the original, Director X’s “Superfly” is packed with scenes of slow-motion shaking — imagery the filmmaker is well versed in as the director of (some very good) music videos for Drake, Rihanna, Jay-Z and Kanye West. This Youngblood Priest (Trevor Jackson) is a polished businessman who runs a well-established, clandestine drug business with his partner Eddie (Jason Mitchell). Financially savvy, deeply connected all over town and never rattled by the most lethal interactions, Jackson’s slickly coifed Priest is almost as much superhero as super fly.
Having risen well above the streets, Priest senses his good fortune can’t last. He wants to get out, along with his two girlfriends (Lex Scott Davis, Andrea Londo), before fate comes for him. There are already signs that his even-keeled lifestyle is about to get rocky. A squabble threatens the peace with the rival crew dubbed Snow Patrol, a white-dressed gang of dealers who drive white cars, shoot white guns and pretty much look like the ATL chapter of the Storm Troopers.
With one last score in mind, Priest does what few ready to give up a life of crime would do: He goes to great lengths to prove himself to a powerful Mexican cartel. “Don’t let the pretty hair fool you,” Priest pleads to the cartel boss (Esai Morales) after circumventing his regular supplier and mentor, the karate master Scatter (Michael Kenneth Williams).
Williams’ presence begs the question: Wouldn’t “Superfly” be better — and carry more of a sense of danger, of real threat — if Williams was starring in it? Jackson comfortably carries the film with a smooth panache, but his Priest — like the movie — doesn’t make much of an impression.
Yet “Superfly” is also a generally entertaining movie, with good things in it. Mitchell (“Mudbound”) is predictably excellent as Priest’s less scrupulous partner and friend; he’s the film’s high point. And any movie that casts Big Boi as the mayor of Atlanta has done some things right. (“Superfly” would be better if there was more of him in it.) And Jennifer Morrison, one of the two crooked police detectives in the film, is unexpectedly terrific in a usually stereotypical role.
But it feels like the reason for remaking “Super Fly” got lost along the way. Screenwriter Alex Tse and Director X have glossed up a story that took its power from its era’s reality. “Superfly” lives in a music video dream world driven by extravagance, where women aren’t anything but dancing eye candy or threesome partners. Future’s songs also aren’t especially distinct, though, admittedly, Mayfield’s majestic score — which is heard a few times here — is untouchable.
Comparing the two versions of “Super Fly” — one in two words, the other just one — only illustrates what movies can lose by over-glamourizing themselves. “Superfly” makes one belated stab at relevance in a shakedown scene with a corrupt white cop that speaks to today’s Black Lives Matter protests. (In the 1972 original, it was white cops supplying the cocaine that poisoned the black community.)
But even that moment is a reminder of how much genuine angst and emotion “Super Fly” could have tapped into. For that, we’ll just have to wait. Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” is due out later this summer.
If you go back and watch a vintage blaxploitation film like “Super Fly” (1972), it has a time-capsule quality that only enhances the low-rent documentary scuzziness of its atmosphere. The brightly littered Manhattan streets, the cozy squalor of the bars and drug dens, even the cruddiness of the apartments: All fuse into a bombed-out yet strangely liberated mood that lets you know why the hero would choose the life of a cocaine kingpin, because it’s the only way he has to leave behind the racist prison of “a jive job with chump change, day after day.” The atmosphere told the story, and so did Curtis Mayfield’s music (“I’m a pusher man”), and so did Ron O’Neal’s suavely furious performance. In his flattened long hair and wide collars and designer sideburns, he may have looked like a coke-spoon version of D’Artagnan, but his need to claw his way out — to use the drug game to defeat the man — suffused every scene.
The new “Superfly” transplants the tale to the swank environs of contemporary upscale Atlanta, and it gives its hero the 21st-century equivalent of O’Neal’s processed-pimp look. As Priest, a coke dealer who has built a business while taking great care to remain under the police radar, Trevor Jackson, from “Eureka” and “American Crime,” sports a jutting abundance of luxurious inky silken flat hair, marked by an elegant slice of a part, plus a highly manicured beard, a pirate earring, and a pretty-boy scowl. If George Michael and Mr. T had a baby and dressed him in the sleekest of designer leather, he might look like this guy. Jackson is only 21 (O’Neal, when he played Priest, was 34), but he beats the holy crap out of people, fires pistols with gangsta heartlessness, and at one point even dodges a bullet, never losing his cool. Jackson does cool almost too well. He isn’t a bad actor, but it’s not like he finds many gradations within a young hustler’s survivalist pout.
Most drug dramas are set in New York or L.A. (at this point, a dated cinematic reflex), but what matters is forging a vivid sense of place. The Atlanta locale of “Superfly” seems like the perfect high-low setting, but though Director X exploits a number of colorful locations (a hair salon that turns into a drive-by slaughter, a mansion that looks as big as Versailles), the film has very little visual texture or sense of place. It treats Atlanta the way all those thrillers of the ‘90s treated Toronto, as a big gleaming anonymous generi-city. We get almost no sense of the dailiness of Priest’s existence. When a scene takes place in the budget furniture store he uses as a legit front, it’s news to us, because the setting drops in out of nowhere.
The more Priest tries to wriggle out of the life, the more it wraps its tentacles around him. Yet all the threats and double-crosses are, in a word, standard. They seem to have come straight out of other movies. And that robs “Superfly” of the dramatic flavor a good underworld drama needs. In 1972, at a preview for the original “Super Fly” held in Philadelphia, the theater quickly filled up, and some of the people who were shut out tried to break into a side door. That’s how hungry the audience was for a new screen mythology of African-American manhood. (Agencies)
The blaxploitation films were often criticized by African-Americans for glorifying criminals, yet there’s no denying that the idea of the pusher as underground American capitalist emerged from a world of narrow choices. That mythology helped to fuel the rise of hip-hop, and now, of course, it is everywhere. But it’s also less true than it once was. So maybe it’s heartening, in a way, that “Super Fly” once meant something and that the new “Superfly,” for what it’s worth, means next to nothing. (Agencies)
By Jake Coyle