Super Fly 1972
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Priest is a prince of the streets, a charismatic businessman who wants out of cocaine-dealing. But a mysterious kingpin doesn’t want Priest to change his ways. And that triggers murder, revenge and double-crosses that push Priest into a corner — and heat the neighborhood to flash point. Super Fly is one of the more enduring streetwise films of its era, due to the dynamic central performance of Ron O’Neal (Red Dawn, Original Gangstas), the sizzling score by Curtis Mayfield and the gritty direction of the late Gordon Parks, Jr. (Three the Hard Way, Aaron Loves Angela). Super Fly is super entertainment with an indelible message. It’s life on the edge, put together by talents who know just how sharp it can get.
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Super Fly was one of those films where everything seemed to fall into place and everything that would have seemed to work against it became an asset. Sig Shore, the Connecticut-based producer, had previously been an importer of foreign films (including The 400 Blows and Hiroshima Mon Amour) and had never produced a film before. The film's budget was somewhere between "under $100,000" to $500,000 (accounts vary) which should have doomed it from the start. Instead, this gave the film a gritty, almost cinema verite feeling that all the sheen and production money could buy would have lost. The movie was filmed in almost shoot-and-run fashion in the winter of '72, using Harlem's actual streets and people as the location without city permits or hired extras, which gave it a documentary look. Unable to hire well known actors, they lucked into Ron O'Neal, a classically trained actor who had been in theater since the 50's and had recently broken out in New York theater, winning an Obie, Drama Desk and other awards.
Shore and his screenwriter Phillip Fenty then had the inspiration to ask Curtis Mayfield to write the score for the film backstage at a his concert in Lincoln Center. Not only did he say yes to the project, but he found himself highly inspired by the whole thing, turning in a song-score that was one of the great soul albums of the era, Interestingly, Mayfield's lyrics were, like him, essentially anti-drug, which gave the film much more balance. With a purely instrumental score it might have been seen as a glorification of drugs and a criminal lifestyle. In fact it was accused of that anyway, mostly by the more official African-American establishment groups whose aim at the time was to portray black people in positive roles (think Sidney Poitier, with all due respect). The Hollywood chapter of the NAACP wanted a new ending where Priest (Super Fly) died. But the film went out as it was. Freddie's Dead, the film's theme went Top 5 on the billboard charts, sold over a million copies and got tons of airplay, all free advertising for the film. As a final stroke of luck, Shore had used his film industry connections to get Warner Brothers to pick up distribution for his little independent film, giving it a wide opening. The end result was that the film grossed 30 million, a very big number in 1972.
The film is a solid drama, well acted by everyone involved in a way that feels real. Best of all was O'Neal, who gave a considered, layered portrayal of the lead character that makes him come off as a totally authentic person trying to make his way to a better life in a tough situation. Carl Lee is excellent as the feckless Eddie, who sees his enslavement as a cog in a drug ring led by the police as an opportunity rather than a death sentence. Priest, portrayed as a thinking man who even has a chess set built into his coffee table, knows differently. Julius Hatter as Priest's mentor, Scatter, is totally sympathetic as a man pushed against his will into doing something he knows will likely have fatal consequences. His role led to more films including a memorable appearance in Live and Let Die. The only loser in the whole deal was Ron O'Neal, who thereafter became typecast in pimp and dealer roles and was never taken seriously again.
So if you're looking for a laugh try something else. Super Fly is a fine film that is also a real look at America at a particular time and in a particular place.
EXTRA NOTE On PICTURE QUALITY: Amazon's picture is sharp, clear and in sharp detail. By a crazy coincidence when I was about to start this film, what came on a local station but Super Fly! I watched it for a couple minutes. The picture was pale and faded-looking. No compairison. This is the way to see it.
Coincidentally, a few weeks ago, I watched the film for the first time in 43 years when it was shown as part of the Bounce network’s Saturday night blaxploitation slot. Every weekend, the broadcast/basic cable channel devotes four hours to the potent 1970s black melodramas that found a welcome home in the giant downtown urban movie houses that were being abandoned by white audiences.
Sadly, when urban redevelopment claimed most of those theaters in the late 1970s, the genre dried up because there were few places left to book the films and turn a tidy profit.
The Bounce series is a great way to catch up with all of those early Pam Grier vehicles like “Coffy” and “Friday Foster” and funky comedies such as “Cotton Comes to Harlem,” the 1970 hit, directed by Ossie Davis and starring Godfrey Cambridge, that helped launch the genre (after it made a lot more money than United Artists expected).
“Super Fly” stands apart from many of the other films in the genre because of the visual craft Gordon Parks Jr. put into a very low-budget picture and the superior performances of a cast led by Ron O’Neal, who was featured in some of the biggest black stage hits of that period, including “Ceremonies in Dark Old Men” and “No Place to Be Somebody.”superfly3
The commercial interruptions and many obvious cuts in the Bounce showing caused me to check out the original version of the movie via Amazon the other night. It still works very well as an example of high-quality low-budget NYC moviemaking back in the day when film crews could shoot on city streets with a lot less interference.
What seemed like filler to me when I saw the movie in 1972 — the long views of real street life and the attention paid to the details in the production and costume design — is now one of the picture’s greatest strengths. Because the filmmakers couldn’t afford to shoot in studios, “Super Fly” has become a powerful pop culture time capsule (with a potent drug world plot bolstering it). In many scenes, it looks like we are seeing ordinary people on the street rather than extras.
Like his father, Parks was a photographer before he became a filmmaker and his great eye is evident throughout “Super Fly” as he artfully frames and examines material that is technically “background” but which adds to the overwhelming feeling of realism. Right at the start — before the credits come on — we get a striking overhead view of a block in Harlem and follow two characters who turn out to be secondary to the main action.
For a few minutes, the scene is set before we meet the main character, Priest, the cocaine dealer (played by Ron O’Neal) who has grown tired of his dangerous trade — in spite of all the perks — and who plots one last big score that will allow him to move on to another life.
In addition to landing O’Neal, Parks was very lucky to convince Curtis Mayfield to compose a score that lends great energy to nearly every scene. While the movie often looks like a documentary, the soundtrack supplies plenty of drama to simple moments such as Priest driving from one part of the city to another, or a long sequence near the end where we watch the anti-hero making a deal with two mobsters but don’t get to hear a single word.
Parks only made a few more films before he died in a plane crash in 1979 while location scouting in Kenya. “Super Fly” deserves the spot Vanity Fair gave it among the early films of Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese. Who knows where the director might have gone if he had been given more time and money?