One of the aspects of this new project that has been the most fun to me has been the way that I’m able to completely vacillate between radically different tones and genres, week by week. I’m able to jump between comedy, action, sci-fi, noirs, fantasy, Westerns, and now apparently Blaxploitation. I was honestly pleasantly surprised to see today’s film, the seminal work of Blaxploitation cinema Super Fly show up on my list this week, partly because I’m just kind of stunned that it was included in the list. Not to say anything bad about Super Fly, I actually really enjoyed it, but I was not expecting the writers of 1,001 Movies to See Before You Die to be hip enough to include a movie like this. It really helps cement the idea that I chose the right source for these random movies, because I’m getting to check out a variety of really fascinating pieces of cinema. I’ve generally been a fan of the Blaxploitation subgenre for a while now, partly due to my college-age obsession with cult movies, many of which ended up falling into or adjacent to the Blaxploitation genre. But, I will also admit that a majority of my knowledge of the genre has come second-hand, through movies that were clearly influenced by Blaxploiation rather than the foundational works of the genre itself. Movies like Black Dynamite show the more ridiculous side of the genre, and movies like Jackie Brown helped foster an understanding that the movies were about more than simple insanity, and often had something deeper going on beneath them. And, through an appreciation of these more modern love-letters to the genre, I’ve seen a handful of the classics, things like Coffey or Shaft, that kind of show everything great about the genre, warts and all. But, if there’s one towering figure in the genre that I’ve never seen before, it would have to be Super Fly. It’s a movie whose shadow looms large in the world of Blaxploitation, partly thanks to its incredibly famous soundtrack, but for whatever reason it’s one that I’d never gotten around to. And now, thanks to this weird project, I got to check it out for the first time, and it’s a hell of a thing.
No explanation of Super Fly would be complete without an understanding of the Blaxploitation genre. Hollywood has always been rather uninterested in putting much money or work into making movies that aren’t targeted directly towards white men, but they also are eager to find any way to make more money. So, during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when a rise in lower-budget and more amateur-made films were getting released, and finding success among people, they sought out to find movies that would appeal to demographics that were starved for representation. And, after the one-two punch of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft it became clear that the studios could make some money off of black audiences who were eager to see movies that were largely made for and by their community, even if they were mostly crime films about drug dealers and pimps. The studios still weren’t that interested in spending much money making the films however, and largely bought up independently produced films, including Super Fly, a film directed by Gordon Parks, Jr the son of Shaft’s director Gordon Parks. Parks, Jr was predominately a photographer, but after his father’s successful film helped introduce a new genre he decided to try his hand at bringing a story of the black community to life. Working with a black screenwriter named Phillip Fenty the two started to craft the story of Super Fly, telling the story of one criminal looking to make one last score before he can go straight, surrounded by actual on-location filming in Harlem, real-to-life costuming and set decoration, and a stunning soundtrack from funk icon Curtis Mayfield. And, after getting in business with white producer Sig Shore, the movie was able to be picked up by Warner Bros., who were more than happy to make quite a bit of money off of this low-budget film that was created by a most black cast and crew. The film was a huge hit, especially considering its meager budget, and has gone on to gain a reputation as being one of the best examples of the Blaxploitation gene, despite arguments that its subject matter only helped influence stereotypes of black culture at the time. And, while it’s hard to deny that the movie slides into stereotype quite a bit, it’s still stunning to see a movie like this, made the way that it’s made.
Super Fly tells the story of Priest, a pimp/cocaine dealer living in Harlem, and enjoying the high life. He’s got money, women, drugs, and power, and yet he’s yearning for something more. He’s tired of constantly looking over his shoulder, and dealing with the never-ending grind of making a living through crime, so he decides it’s time to try to get out of the life of crime, and try to live on the straight and narrow. But, to accomplish that he’s going to need money. So, he comes up with a plan that he shares with his partner Eddie. Basically they’re going to go for one last score, take all of the money they have saved up and buy as much cocaine as they can in order to earn $1,000,000 in four months, at which point the can split it and go their separate ways. Eddie doesn’t really seem to be into the idea, enjoying his life of crime, but Priest insists that it’s the way things are going to be, and starts going around town, getting money from everyone who owes him anything, and trying to find a good source of cocaine for their final score. And he thinks he’s found that source in a man known as Scatter, a former dealer who Priest knew back in the day who is ostensibly retired and running a restaurant. Priest and Eddie talk with Scatter, who doesn’t really want to help them, and wants to continue being retired. Eddie’s hothead doesn’t help matters either, but Priest is eventually able to break through to Scatter, who connects with Priest’s desire to leave the life behind, and encourages him to get out while he’s young so he doesn’t end up like himself. So, he agrees to get them the cocaine they need from his supplier.
Priest and Eddie then go to celebrate, ready to embark on this final big score. And, along the way they meet up with a one of their dealers, Freddie, who Priest had already visited in order to demand some stolen money. Freddie pays up, and claims that they’re square now, but things get problematic the next night when Freddie is out fighting. He gets picked up by the NYPD, who begin pressing him for information about his drug connections. And, to save himself, he starts telling them everything about Priest and his big score, even telling them where he and Eddie are set to meet Scatter’s source. Priest obviously knows none of this, having spent the day with his girlfriend Georgia, doing his best to plan a future free from all of his crime and drugs. So, he and Eddie go meet Scatter and get their cocaine, only to immediately be arrested by some corrupt police officers. The lieutenant that’s running the gang reveals that he’s been Scatter’s supplier, and that he now wants to control Priest and Eddie, and have them deal cocaine for him, otherwise he’s going to bust them. He’s going to give them as much cocaine as they need, but they essentially belong to him now.
After this experience Eddie is pretty happy with how things turned out, since he didn’t actually want to get out of the life, but Priest is furious. He still plans on getting out as quickly as possible, so he begins selling the cocaine they got from the cops as efficiently as he can. He’s ready to put the life behind him, and find a quieter, slower-paced way to live, when things get even more complicated. Because Scatter shows up, claiming that the cops are after him now that he’s no longer necessary. He explains that this whole corrupt police gang is ran by Deputy Commissioner Reardon, and even has some blackmail materials to use against Reardon. He gives the blackmail to Priest in exchange for some money to flee the city. However, as he gets ready to flee Scatter is caught by the police and murdered. Priest then realizes he needs to get out now, and gets his half of the money from Eddie, ready to leave the life. Eddie is mad at him though, and ends up calling the cops to come and get Priest. But, he assumed Eddie was going to pull something like this, and managed to slip his money to Georgia before getting picked up by the police. He’s then taken out to the waterfront where he’s confronted by Reardon for the first time, who begins threatening him to do what he’s ordered to do. But, Priest manages to fight several of the cops, before revealing his knowledge of the blackmail, and has hired some killers to murder Reardon’s family if anything ever happens to him. At which point Reardon lets Priest leave, who goes to find Georgia and start his new life.
Blaxploitation movies aren’t going to be for everyone. Hell, they may not even be most crime-film fan’s cup of tea. It’s a very specific genre, capturing a very specific time period. And, at its core, it’s exploitation cinema, something that really doesn’t exist these days, at least to the degree that it did back in the 1970’s. I suppose weird direct to VOD stuff is as close as we can get to these sorts of super low-budget movies that would play in little theaters and drive-ins, and were mostly designed to be short and scandalous so they could program them for profitable double-features. But, if it’s an aesthetic that you can get behind, I really do think that this is probably one of the best examples of the genre. I’ve seen other Blaxploitation movies from this time period which maybe look a little slicker, or feel closer to Hollywood productions, but this is a movie that really encapsulated the genre perfectly. It’s a really gritty film, full of shaky and effective camera-work that captures the reality of early 1970’s New York in a way that manages to feel more authentic than amateurish. It’s a fascinating time-capsule of a film, in terms of the film-making, the aesthetics, and of course the music. Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack has perhaps become more famous than the film itself, and it is a very wonderful soundtrack, but people who look past the film are missing something really interesting.
Because, at the risk of sounding a little too pretentious, Super Fly is kind of the Platonic Ideal of a Blaxploitation movie. It’s everything that the parodies and homages are referencing, while also serving as an excellent example of why this genre was so important. One the one hand, the movie is exatly what you think of when you think of a Blaxploitation movie. It’s got a killer funk soundtrack, it’s a story about a guy who is both a drug dealer and a pimp, it’s about black people trying to survive pitted against some shitty white authority figures, everyone is wearing stereotypical clothes from the era and driving big pimpmobiles, and it even features some karate. But, on the other hand, it’s also a movie that was written and directed by black people, was predominately crewed by black people, and starred almost exclusively black people. It’s a scrappy movie, made on a shoe-string budget, that managed to become a huge financial success, and a massive cultural touchstone. It was an indie movie, in the purest sense of the word. It’s a passion project, something made by people who the studio system largely ignored, telling a story about their world, in their own way. Yeah, unfortunately the constraints of the distribution systems made it so that the only way for such a movie to get released was to focus it on drugs, sex, and violence, but it’s still a way into the world of cinema. It’s a sign that if you have the story to tell, and the audience to pick up on it, you can break through the system and tell a story on your own terms.
So, yes, I would recommend that people check this movie out, and cross it off their own personal Bucket Lists. It’s not going to be for everyone, but if you have any interest in Blaxploitation, even if that solely comes from things like Black Dynamite or Jackie Brown, then I think it’s worth checking out, and seeing where it all comes from, in its purest form.
Super Fly was written by Phillip Fenty, directed by Gordon Parks, Jr, and released by Warner Bros. Pictures, 1972.
Categories: The Bucket LIst