Movies Against Whitey! Super Fly
I don’t want to say that I pick these films at random, but at the same time, I can honestly say that I didn’t plan this. But rather appropriately, today’s MAW comes from Gordon Parks Jr, son of Shaft director Gordon Parks!
Yes, we’re looking at Super Fly.
Coming a year after his father’s film, Super Fly proves to be an interesting blend of the previous films we’ve looked at so far: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft. Anyone white in the film is bad (from the police to Priest’s white girlfriend Cynthia), the setting focuses more on the decaying neighborhoods and there are some montages like in SSBS, while keeping the clear cinematography and New York City setting of his father’s film. Just like in the previous two films we’ve looked at, music is provided by yet another soul legend, this time it’s Curtis Mayfield. But before we dive to deep, let’s get to what’s happenin’…
Priest wants out! After a lifetime of selling cocaine and building his ‘family’ of dealers, he’s looking to break away and go clean…after one last big score. Can he move thirty kilos of coke and pull down a million-dollar haul? Can he break away and go legit? Or will The Man keep him locked into the only life he’s ever known?
The style of film we’re presented with here tends to fall more in line surprisingly with Melvin Van Peeble’s film than that of his own father, but there’s enough of Shaft in here to make this a satisfying blend of the two styles. First off, Super Fly does have more of a raw feel than Shaft’s more refined look. Granted, a big part of this might be from this film’s focus more on the crumbling parts of New York City, staying mainly in Harlem when that area was the epitome of both ghetto and urban decay. Parks Jr does his best to put that on display here. Certainly, we visit some nicer areas as well, but the unflinching look we’re afforded into the poorer sections allows this film grit and some of the rawness we experienced with SSBS. I say unflinching not because we spend all our time in the more decayed areas, as I’ve already said, we don’t, but because the cinematography, like his father’s, is clear. No muddled hues are present to allow some details to escape our view. Instead, we bear witness to the decay…we see the trash in the streets, we see the buildings crumbling from disrepair, we see the squalor that some families are forced to live in. This helps to add to the sharp contrast when we see the environs of those that have means, whether it’s Priest or his partner Eddie’s apartments or the home of his white girlfriend Cynthia. Also adding to this raw feel is the fact that this is Junior’s first film, and thus some shots lack the refined and polished nature of Shaft. However, the still photo montage is a great homage to his father’s earlier work in the Great Depression and WWII all the while echoing what Van Peebles had done in his film.
Another echo of Van Peebles forms the core of the film: there ain’t no good Whitey. Period. And what a web Whitey weaves. While some points are subtle, most of them are, like in SSBS, very, very out in the open. Going back to our synopsis above, the main drive of the film is for Priest to escape his pusher lifestyle and go legit. But that’s not okay with Whitey. In fact, Whitey would prefer that he, and any others like him, make as much as they can in this criminal enterprise…that’s tolerable. But a black man making it in a legit enterprise? Oh, we’ll have none of that, thank you very much. Priest’s mentor, Scatter, ends up being the example we're offered for this principle, as we see him take his earnings from the drug trade and turn them over into a restaurant and a couple city blocks of buildings…but when he tries to get out completely? Scatter ends up being kidnapped and found dead from an OD. Those that know, including Priest, hear the message loud and clear: know your place. And as the stakes increase for Priest and Eddie, being recruited by Scatter’s supplier (don’t worry, we won’t spoil it), this is where we see a rift in the partnership. Eddie ends up being blinded by all the money they can make with this new arrangement, suddenly turning away from any prospects of a legit lifestyle. Priest, however, sees it for what it is and keeps his eyes on the prize. This is where his two girlfriends come in. Georgia, his black girlfriend, is overjoyed at the prospect of getting away from the life they’re in now. Meanwhile, Cynthia berates him, saying how much she likes how things are now and why isn’t he thinking about what she wants. This is one of those not-so-subtle moments where it’s pretty clear which girl is best for him. And then we’ve got The Man himself: the police, doing their level best to ensure either Priest stays right where he is or ends up behind bars. And as the picture progresses, we see Priest get more and more entangled in that web. But hey, it wouldn’t be Blaxploitation if The Man won…and so we see a classic spy movie tactic end up helping Priest to win the day against these otherwise insurmountable odds.
One last similarity between Super Fly and SSBS: both films were independently funded. Sure, this film was picked up by Warner Bros to distribute, but according to Wikipedia, funding largely came from the Harlem Community, Gordon Parks Sr as well as a number of black businesses. Naturally, there was some white funding as well, most notably producer Sig Shore. Naturally, this might also be a factor as to why the film feels a little more raw than his father’s effort just a year before. Also worth noting is the fact that the majority of the technical crew on the film, for example the lighting and sound folks, were non-white, making it the largest such crew at this time, taking the "Community" feel of Super Fly to the next logical level from SSBS.
Of course, we have to talk about the music. I’ll admit, I’ve been listening to this soundtrack ever since college. Back then, my cousin was huge into this movie…and while I never watched it (‘til now), he had Curtis Mayfield’s tunes in regular rotation. And while it doesn’t directly narrate the proceedings, as would be satirized in Black Dynamite, at times it is a little too on the nose in echoing what we’re seeing on screen. [Thinking about this, I can’t help but wonder at the prospect of a Blaxploitation musical. – Ed.] Stand outs from the album include Pusherman, Superfly and Freddie’s Dead (which, surprisingly, does not play when Freddie ends up getting killed. Weird.) but the entire album has been lauded for the socially minded themes contained within, echoing those of the film. And honestly, it’s just some damn good soul music. If you’re down for some good early 70s funk, you’d be hard pressed to do better!
Instead of following in his father’s footsteps, Gordon Parks Jr’s Super Fly is molded more from Melvin Van Peeble’s vision of Blaxploitation and ends up being a far better realization of that vision. While independently funded, there were far more contributors allowing for a bigger budget. Even though the film is still raw, it’s still a little more polished. The color divides are clear and decisive: Black, good…Whitey, bad. Plus a little montage for good measure. Still, he walks in his father’s footsteps keeping the action in NYC, even though he keeps his focus on the more destitute portions. That said, Super Fly sees criticisms for having a main character being a drug dealer, but these hang-ups really only exist on the surface of the film. As you dig deeper, you see a man who knows his life is on the wrong track and feels the burning urgency to get out before it claims him like it has so many others. One can’t help but wonder if the protagonist had been white, we wouldn’t be calling it a feel-good redemption story because in some ways, that’s exactly what this film is. On a personal level, I still prefer Shaft to Super Fly but in terms of Blaxploitation film history, Super Fly is definitely worth a watch.
TLDR: While not perfect and definitely rough around the edges, what Super Fly gets right far outweighs its failings. That alone makes it worth watching, but with a classic soundtrack, there’s a reason it’s on the list of must-see Blaxploitation films. That earns it our Happy Cat rating!