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David F. Walker
Monthly: June 2018

BadAzz MoFo’s Blaxploitation Archive – SUPER FLY (1972)

SUPER FLY – 1972 director: Gordon Parks Jr.; starring: Ron O’Neal, Carl Lee, Sheila Frazier, Julius Harris, Charles MacGregor

When you think of the best films of early 70s American cinema, you think of THE GODFATHER and THE FRENCH CONNECTION. You think CHINATOWN, MEAN STREETS, and FIVE EASY PIECES. You think of all sorts of films, but unfortunately, most people don’t think of SUPER FLY. In a cinematic era that has been defined by rebellious filmmaking outside of the mainstream, where the anti-hero rose to new levels of prominence, SUPER FLY stands with the best. Unfortunately, the film has been both misunderstood and largely forgotten, leaving it to languish at best in the realm of cult films, as opposed to be lauded as a groundbreaking, trend-setting masterpiece.

Directed by Gordon Parks, Jr. and written by Philip Fenty (but partially improvised by the cast), SUPER FLY frequently feels like a documentary. The gritty camera work, low budget production values and authentic 70s dialogue help to create a cinema verite view of the underbelly of Harlem cocaine dealers. At the center of this world is Youngblood Priest (O’Neal), a mid-level dealer with dreams of making one big score, and then getting out of the business forever. Priest’s ambition is supported by his girlfriend, Georgia (Frazier), scoffed at by his best friend and business partner, Eddie (Lee), and outright opposed by the corrupt police that actually rule the drug trade in New York.

O’Neal, a classically trained stage actor who was coming off a successful, award-winning run in NO PLACE TO BE SOMEBODY, was catapulted to stardom by his performance as Priest. With a closet full of fly vines, the baddest bitches in his bed, and a small empire of dope dealers at his command, Priest is living a twisted, ghettocentric version of the American dream, in which systemic oppression and a low ceiling of opportunities have left enterprising young black men few avenues for chasing the almighty dollar. But despite all the material wealth and creature comforts, he is tired of the criminal life and what he knows will be a life that will either lead to prison or an early death. Priest wants a chance at something more. Something better. He sees his opportunity in one huge score that will leave him with enough money to get out of the hustling business, and allow him to do something legit. The problem is all the outside forces that want to keep Priest in the game, including his partner in crime, Eddie. “You gonna give all this up?” asks Eddie. “Eight track stereo, color TV in every room, and can snort half a piece of dope every day. That’s the American dream, nigga.”

The conflict between Priest and Eddie – one wants out of the life of crime, the other believes it is the only life to live – is the ideological heart and soul that drives the film. SUPER FLY is not so much a film about a dope dealer (though it certainly is about a dope dealer) as it is about those who dare to rise above the circumstances and those who accept the hand life has seemingly dealt them. To its credit, the film is not a condemnation of drug dealers – which is what many people seem to want it to be – rather it is an examination of drug dealers. This simple fact – that the film doesn’t point an accusatory finger at Priest and say, “Shame on you for slingin’ dope” is part of what makes the film so brilliant, while also making it reviled by those that feel the only good crime movie is a crime-doesn’t-pay movie. And to be clear, crime-doesn’t-pay for some people in SUPER FLY, but as in real life, some timed the bad guys get away with the most dastardly of deeds. And to be clear, Priest is a bad guy, or more specifically, he is an anti-hero in the grandest tradition of cinematic anti-heroes. Unlike Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in SCARFACE, Priest has a level of humanity and a moral code (slightly twisted though it may be) that makes him the criminal you want to see get away.

If the conflict between Priest and Eddie is the ideological heart and soul that drives SUPER FLY, it is the performances by O’Neal and Lee that bring it all to life. Without a doubt, O’Neal turns in a captivating performance – the kind of morally corrupt character that years later would earn both Oscar nominations and wins for several black actors. SUPER FLY works because O’Neal makes it work, and because Lee knows how to play off O’Neal. Watching the natural chemistry between the two of them it is easy to forget that these are actors, and not just two drug dealers who happen to be caught on camera. At the time of SUPER FLY’s release, when it was a critical and box office hit, and before the film and those involved became the target of political backlash, O’Neal and Lee were considered strong contenders for Oscar nominations. Their performance together is on par with Harvey Keitel and Robert DeNiro in the later MEAN STREETS, which seems to have drawn at least some inspiration from SUPER FLY. Interestingly, producer Roger Corman had wanted Martin Scorsese to make MEAN STREETS as what would have essentially been a blaxploitation flick, but Scorsese didn’t want to go that route, and wound up not working with Corman.

As much as O’Neal’s performance is the foundation upon which SUPER FLY stands firm, it is the soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield that actually drives the film, giving it a raw power that is the closest thing to a heartbeat that any piece of cinema can possess. Arguably one of the greatest soundtracks ever recorded, Mayfield’s songs and music are an integral part of the film, serving as a Greek chorus that not only gives the film much of its emotional resonance, it also helps to move the narrative along. SUPER FLY the film exists as it does, in large part because of Mayfield’s musical contributions. In that regard, the film is very much like a musical, where the songs serve to explain and comment on what is transpiring on the screen. During one of the film’s most controversial scenes, Mayfield’s “Pusherman” pulsates to a montage that follows the path of a dope shipment — from supplier to dealer to user — demonstrating the rich, interwoven tapestry of music and images that define SUPER FLY. It was believed Mayfield would get an Oscar nomination for the soundtrack, which considering Isaac Hayes’s win for SHAFT the year before, seemed like a realistic possibility.

With incredible performances by O’Neal and Lee, and Mayfield’s seminal soundtrack, SUPER FLY was initially a critical and commercial success when it was released in New York City on August 4, 1972. Roger Greenspun of THE NEW YORK TIMES gave the film a glowing review, audiences lined up to see it, and SUPER FLY quickly surpassed THE GODFATHER on the box office charts. Critics  compared the film to such cinematic classics as PUBLIC ENEMY and LITTLE CAESAR. But despite the critical praise and financial success, the film would suffer from a political backlash that would not only impact the movie itself, but also the career of O’Neal and others involved.

SUPER FLY has gone on to become forever connected to the term blaxploitation, and with that connection has come unfair criticism that the movie was nothing more than a glorification of drug dealers. The reality is far more complex and complicated, as SUPER FLY is actually the film for which the term blaxploitation was coined. In and interview with Ron O’Neal back in 1996, he explained it like this:

“The term blaxploitation was not an accident, and it was not a term  created by white people. Blaxploitation was a term created by a black person. A black press agent, named Junius Griffin, who was at the time the head of the Beverly Hills NAACP. He had tried everything in his power to get the Warner Brothers account to handle the PR for SUPER FLY, and he didn’t get it. There was a big  brouhaha, and he was either fired, or he quit, I’m not certain which…And then, on the heels of that, from the pen of Junius Griffin, came the term blaxploitation. He was very tight with Johnson Publications, and that’s were the term was popularized, through EBONY and JET Magazine. Blaxploitation. Johnson Publications publicized Junius Griffin’s little jingle word – blaxploitation. To the utter damnation of all black films, and black artists, and hopefully to himself, as far as I’m concerned.”

Dogged by a political backlash led by the NAACP, the film became a talking-point of controversy, and an example of all the negative aspects of how Hollywood was depicting the black experience in America. Neither the quality nor the actual message of the film mattered after a point, as the belief that SUPER FLY encouraged and glorified drug dealing became the conversation surrounding the film itself, and the wave of black films that was taking the film industry by storm. As the manufactured controversy around blaxploitation films grew, SUPER FLY continued to be the example everyone used to talk about what was wrong with the black films being released at the time. At the same time, the tremendous success of SUPER FLY at the box office help fuel a string of imitators that focused on crime, while leaving out the character and story elements that made SUPER FLY compelling. Interestingly, the backlash against blaxploitation was actually a political move by key black leaders to earn positions of power in Hollywood – a plan that ultimately backfired, and helped kill of both so-called blaxploitation films, as well as black films in general for many years.

Two lesser known controversies would spring up surrounding SUPER FLY. First, there’s the assertion by producer Sig Shore (a white man), that he actually wrote and directed the film. In an interview shortly before his death in 2006, Shore took all the credit for writing and directing SUPER FLY, claiming that writer Philip Fenty contributed almost nothing to the script, and that first-time director Gordon Parks Jr. didn’t really know what he was doing behind the camera. There is also a long running rumor that Fenty plagiarized his script from a little-known book called DEALER by Richard Woodley. Neither Shore’s claims nor the plagiarism rumors have ever been confirmed, though in the case of the credit Shore gave himself, it seems a bit unlikely. There is no argument that Parks Jr, (son of Gordon Parks Sr., director of SHAFT) was not the best director in the world. In fact, any harsh criticism of SUPER FLY can be more easily leveled at the content than at the execution. The lack of experience by Parks Jr. is clearly evident – there are times when the direction is flat, the lighting poor, and some of the performances lack professionalism. The same problems plagued his other films before his untimely death in 1979, and if you study the works of Park Jr., there’s nothing to indicate he wasn’t the directorial force behind SUPER FLY.

Far from being a perfect film, SUPER FLY is still a great movie, despite its technical shortcomings, or any perceived moral ambiguity within the narrative. Some of cinema’s greatest works of art are steeped in either the moral ambiguity or the moral corruption of Godfathers and Goodellas. And while films like THE GODFATHER are revered, SUPER FLY has been reviled. In terms of the black films of the 1970s, most of which were tales of crime and criminals, shining a spotlight on pushers and pimps, SUPER FLY is not only amongst the best the so-called blaxploitation genre/era had to offer, it is also, quite simply, one of the best films of the 1970s.

Check out my 1996 interview with Ron O’Neal.

T-Shirt Confidential #7

Some people believe you can tell a lot about a person by the shoes they wear. I believe you can tell more about a person by the t-shirts they have worn. This is the story of my life, as told by the t-shirts I have worn.

This week’s shirt features none other than the Reverend Jesse Jackson. This is a shirt from his 1988 presidential campaign. For those of you that don’t remember, 1988 was the tail end of Ronald Reagan’s two-term dictatorship. History has been remarkably kind to Reagan, but I was never a fan of his, and I still refuse to believe any of the bullshit hype that surrounds his mythology. The fact of the matter is that it was during the 1980s that major shifts happened within the American black community that sent it into a downward spiral from which we have yet to recover. Nearly all of these changes—which included the introduction of crack cocaine into the black community—happened under the Reagan administration. I’m still convinced that if you look closely, you can see the 666 on his forehead that was covered with make-up so most people would not recognize his true nature.

Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that I came of age during the Reagan administration, and by the time 1988 rolled around, and I was finally old enough to vote in a presidential election, I was ready to do my thing. Jesse Jackson, or as some people call him, The Rev, was at what the height of his popularity. He was certainly a dynamic speaker, with a pretty sharp sense of humor, and most important, he represented a marked, visible change from everyone else in the political landscape in that he was black. And so, in 1988 I decided to back The Rev in his bid for the White House.

The interesting thing about this shirt is that it reminds me of both how politically idealistic and naive I was back in those days. I was disappointed when Mike Dukakis got the Democratic nomination over Jesse Jackson, and then I actually thought Dukakis could win (that man had no charisma). Looking back, I know that my support of The Rev had nothing to do with his political experience or his potential ability to be president. I supported him simply because he was black. In hindsight I now think Jackson would not have made a very good president.

As I have grown older I now see The Rev in a different way. Yes, the man has done some great things, as well as some really stupid things—which makes him just like many of us. When I was in my teens and early 20s, Jackson was just barely speaking to my generation of black youth. Since that time, he has become even more out of touch with the current generation of young people in the black community. When you stop and think about it, Jackson rose up to be the post-Martin Luther King voice of black America, speaking to my parent’s generation, who were born and came of age during the Civil Rights movement. By the time he ran for president, he was speaking to not only my parents and grandparents, but me and my peers.

I got this shirt when I volunteered to do door-to-door campaigning for The Rev. It was during this afternoon excursion of ringing doorbells in a predominantly white neighborhood in Portland that I learned three valuable lessons. First, no one likes political campaigners coming to their door. Second, some white people really didn’t like Jesse Jackson. And third, door-to-door campaigning was clearly not my thing, and I hated it so much that I never did it again. Still, for a brief moment I got to be part of the political machine, see the ugly face of racism that openly dwells in Portland, and I got a t-shirt that no longer fits after 30 years. That shit is priceless.

BadAzz MoFo’s Film Review Archive – ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN

 

The Shaw Brothers studio in Hong Kong was responsible for producing some of the greatest Wushu (martial arts) films of all time. In the 1970s kung fu flicks flooded American drive-in theaters and grindhouses, and some of the most memorable films came courtesy of Shaw Brothers. But the style and genre of film most Americans associate with Shaw Brothers was relatively new to the studio, part of a new generation Wushu films that was ushered in during the 1960s with titles like the seminal classic One-Armed Swordsman.

Before the 1960s, most martial arts films were more theatrical, drawing influence from the legendary Peking Opera. The action sequences were somewhat unsophisticated, and Hong Kong audiences had grown tired of what was being offered. What was proving to be popular were the gritty Japanese samurai films, which had started to influence Hong Kong filmmaking in the 1960s. Believing that the aesthetic of the samurai films could be merged with the conventions of martial arts films, Shaw Brothers set out to reinvent Hong Kong Cinema.

One of Shaw Brothers’ first forays into what would become the new wave of kung fu flick was King Hu’s tremendously influential 1966 film Come Drink with Me. The following year saw the release of Chang Cheh’s One-Armed Swordsman, which is widely considered by many historians to be the film most responsible for setting the tone and style of the modern martial arts film.

The action begins when evil assassins come to kill the headmaster of a powerful and prestigious school of kung fu. Faithful servant Fang Cheng (Feng Ku) defends the life of his master, and is killed in the process, but not before pleading with his master to look after his son, Fang Gang. Years later, Fang Gang has grown up—played by Jimmy Wang Yu, a former professional swimmer who made the transition to acting in the early 1960s—and is a brooding young man with a chip on his shoulder. Raised amongst the other students, all of whom come from wealthy and affluent families, Gang can’t change the fact that he is little more than a working class charity case, who owes his position in life to the sacrifice his father made. This sense of alienation separates Fang from the other students, including Qi Pei Er (Yin Tze Pan), the daughter of the school’s master, who is a spoiled young woman who lusts after Gang, even though she is simultaneously repulsed by his status as a commoner. During a confrontation between Gang and some other students, including Qi Pei, things get ugly, and she chops Gang’s arm off. Taking the severing of his arm as a cue that he needs to get as far away from the world of martial arts as he can, Gang flees into the countryside, where he is discovered by Hsiao (Chiao Chiao), a beautiful woman who nurses him back to health. Gang wants nothing to do with the world he has left behind, but when the gang of assassins that killed his father years earlier returns to wreak more havoc, our hero is forced to retrain himself and learn to fight with his other arm.

One-Armed Swordsman was a huge hit in Hong Kong as well as the rest of Asia, launching an entire series of films about one-armed fighters—man of them starring Jimmy Wang Yu—as well as a whole subgenre of martial arts flicks about disabled asskickers. But on a much larger scale, the gritty aesthetic and graphic violence that was lifted from Japenese samurai films was so well received that it became part of the new standard of filmmaking at Shaw Brothers.

Not only was director Chang Cheh influenced by Japanese films, he was also a big fan of James Dean and Marlon Brando and the new generation of brooding anti-hero they portrayed in films like Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild One, respectively. Cheh clearly infuses some of the Dean and Brando characteristics in Fang Gang, as Jimmy Wang Yu—not exactly the greatest of Hong Kong actors—does his best to play a tortured working class hero at odds with the upper crust of society. And while Wang Yu is not the greatest actor, he was successful in realizing Fang Gang as an alienated (not to mention broken) member of the working class, which is what led to the film and the character’s enduring popularity.

It is important to realize that One-Armed Swordsman does not look or feel like many of the martial arts films of the 1970s and 80s. This is the film that set standard and laid the ground work for what was to come. This is to martial arts films what The Searchers and Ride the High Country were to morally ambiguous westerns like The Wild Bunch and High Plains Drifter that came along in later years. Some people may be put off by the film’s slower pace, but that is not enough a reason to not watch this film. One-Armed Swordsman is visually beautiful, with a tone and style that is so dynamic you can see within it the decades of other films that followed in its wake, drawing deep from its well of influence.

T-Shirt Confidential #6

Some people believe you can tell a lot about a person by the shoes they wear. I believe you can tell more about a person by the t-shirts they have worn. This is the story of my life, as told by the t-shirts I have worn.

Fishbone is one of the greatest bands of all time. That’s not an opinion, that’s a fact. Now, I know some people would argue that determining the greatest bands of all time is something that’s totally subjective, and that what one person finds to be musical genius another person might find to be crap. And while I agree with that, it doesn’t change the fact that Fishbone is one of the greatest bands of all time.

I was first introduced to Fishbone back in 1987 when I saw them live, playing the middle set in between Murphy’s Law and the Beastie Boys. Although the Beastie Boys were the headliners, and Murphy’s Law put on a great show, it was the insane group of black men from Los Angeles that played the theme to Fat Albert as part of their set who dominated the show. I was instantly converted, but it would take a while for me to truly appreciated Fishbone.

In 1988, Fishbone released their second full-length album, Truth and Soul. The only words to describe Truth and Soul are “fucking” and “brilliant”—there is not one bad song on the entire album. Thirty years later it still stands up as one of the greatest albums of all time, as well as one of the most poignant musical explorations of the black experience in America. In terms of social and political relevance, it ranks up there with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On? and Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.

Most of these shirts date back to the early 1990s, around the time Fishbone released The Reality of My Surroundings, which contained several songs as genius as anything on Truth and Soul. At the same time,  that album also suffered from some flaws. As I was going through my shirt collection, I found a total of six different Fishbone shirts (five of which are pictured here). Not only is that the most shirts I have for any musical act, I don’t even know if I have a combined total of that many shirts from other bands, period. I also have a hoodie, which I just recently purchased.

With the exception of local bands, there is no musical act I have seen more than Fishbone. My guess puts the number of attended shows at close to twenty, in three different states. Over the years I have had the opportunity to get to know several members of the group, and back in 1997, I was briefly talking to bass player Norwood Fisher about doing music for my blaxploitation documentary. At Lollapalooza one year I was hanging out with frontman Angelo Moore, when two white girls walked up to us and began talking about how much they loved our music. It was pretty funny, because they clearly thought I was in Fishbone, when I don’t look like anyone in the group (even back then with a head full of dreadlocks). After they were done telling me and Angelo how great we were, I said, “I think you ladies are mistaken. Yeah, I’m in Fishbone—my name is Angelo Moore, I’m the singer.” Then I pointed to Angelo and said, “But this guy, he’s Lenny Kravitz.” I don’t know if it was sad or funny that they believed me, but when you consider that I don’t look like Angelo, and he doesn’t look like Lenny, it was pretty damn funny.

Several years ago, I was interviewed for the documentary Everyday Sunshine, but my interview didn’t make the final cut. Oh well.

Movie Poster of the Week – FLESH GORDON

Since our last entry in Movie Poster of the Week was Flash Gordon, somehow it seemed appropriate that the follow-up be the “adult” parody Flesh Gordon. This 1974 X-rated movie harkens back to the era when porn movies still played in theaters, and even had movie posters similar to mainstream films. Flesh Gordon was part of a wave of porn flicks like Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Comedy that came out in the 1970s (both were produced by Bill Osco).