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.