Super Fly – 1972
Director – Gordon Parks Jr.
Starring – Ron O’Neal, Carl Lee, Sheila Frazier and Julius Harris
Films the world over are often products of their environments. The daily input of the culture from which they are borne infuse them with settings, history, and ideals that in equal measure define, inform, and limit them. The Blaxsploitation movement of the 1970’s is a prime example of this juxtaposition. These films often held a mirror up to the audience, mixing entertainment, and catharsis with a frank look at the ills and issues of the African-American communities of the day. Super Fly in particular was a smashing success at the box office, proving that audiences were interested in seeing a confident, self-assured, and strong black presence win in the end, even at the cost of having that presence draped in the somewhat shady trappings of a drug dealer, pimp and murderer.
Priest (Ron O’Neal) is smooth, he’s well dressed, he’s good with the ladies, and he is also a dealer of cocaine, and a bit of a gangster. Constantly confronted with the notion that today might be the day he ends up dead or in jail, Priest finally gives voice to a long brewing need to escape the drug dealing life that he’s built for himself, and move on to something else. Something more positive, and something without the scrutiny and control of “The Man”. To achieve this, he makes the inevitable decision to make one final score (in this case it is a big, one-time buy that will be quickly sold off through many, quick, smaller scores).
Much is made about Priest’s desire to leave the life of dealing drugs, but when it comes down to it, the cocaine affords him a certain comfort and power that is too difficult to escape fully. Even if he decides to give up the dealing aspect, Priest can never really free himself of his relationship with cocaine entirely, because he snorts it far too regularly. It’s dependence at a different, but no less fundamental level for the character.
The system is set up so that it draws him back in. To escape the dealing, he needs more money. To make more money, he needs to sell more drugs. To sell more drugs, he needs to enter into deeper relationships with the corrupt, and greedy cops who want him to deal more drugs, increasing their-own profit and status. He is operating from within a system that wants him to fail. Even his partners and so-called friends question his desire to get out of the life. They tell him that this is the best he can hope for, and that he is a fool to throw all that money and potential away. The quest for freedom, and desire to grow are matched equally by the quest for wealth, and the desire for respect and acceptance. Each side is working at cross purposes to the other, while at the same time fueling the progress of the other as well.
That same conflict echoes itself back and forth throughout the entirety of the film. The cocaine that Priest sells, which gains him the power, money and purpose that he enjoys, wouldn’t be nearly as much of a success if it wasn’t illegal The “man” or “men” that he rages against are the very same people who keep the drug demand high, and essentially keep him employed. Just by virtue of being the hero who’s gonna stick it to the man, he disrupts the system, and is hurting his ability to continue selling drugs, simultaneously freeing himself from the bonds that trap him, and ostensibly putting himself in a situation where they have the ability to exert more power over him. It is a never-ending cycle, and it’s more than Priest can take.
The one bright light in his life, is Georgia (Frazier), the woman who stands by him and actually believes in him. Aside from being someone he goes to for comfort and the occasional night of passion, with Georgia, Priest can finally let his guard down and be something other than the tough, un-caring gangster he is to everyone else. Unfortunately, instead of realizing this and treasuring his relationship with her, he instead continues sleeping around with other women and disregarding her at almost every turn. He turns to her to assume a good deal of risk when he makes his move to escape the clutches of his oppressors, but offers her little in return. It does seem more than a little ironic to me that the simple considerations of freedom from oppression and need for respect that Priest is fighting for in his own life are dismissed by him when it comes to Georgia.
For a movie that seems so concerned with empowering it’s primarily young, primarily black audience, it works very hard to simultaneously hold them back in relation to how they view themselves. For every assertive step forward, Super Fly, takes just as an assertive step backwards as well. While it seems a little disappointing, I guess, I sort of understand it at the same time. I mean I root for Breaking Bad’s Walter White to escape his police pursuers and keep cooking meth, and really is that so different as Priest? Not by much.
In terms of the cinematography, Super Fly is such a 70’s movie! Long tracking shots, zooming in and out of the action. Washed out film stock that bleeds with life despite it’s rather dated look. While not technically great composition, lighting, or editing, I loved watching it nonetheless. Costuming, hairstyles, the music (fun fact: Super Fly is one of the few movies with sales out performed by its soundtrack, thanks in no small part to Curtis Mayfield’s instantly recognizable songs), and the sparse acting, all add up to a period piece that had no idea that it was one. The look and feel of this film, speak to a time that was and never will be quite like this again. This film had quite an impact in terms of style and substance of not only films, but of pop culture as well. This if the film that started the popularity of the “Pimpmobile” after all.
Though it has flaws, some of which were glaring, Super Fly remains an important piece of film history, and as such is deserving of its place on the list. While it certainly isn’t my favorite film on this list, it was pretty fun to watch, and afterwards to think about. I look forward to seeing Shaft, another blaxsploitation film on this list, and a sort of companion piece to this film. The only question is, which soundtrack is more iconic, Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly or Isaac Hayes’ Shaft? More on that once I’ve seen both.