This review contains spoilers.
Superfly appears to be superflopping. Released last Wednesday on 2,220 screens nationwide, the Columbia Pictures remake of the 1972 blaxploitation favorite has grossed only $10.7 million to date, a dismal figure for such a wide opening. Industry analysts must be wondering whether the titanic commercial success earlier this year of Disney's African-themed Black Panther—which grossed $292 million in its opening week and now ranks as the fourth-biggest moneymaker of all time at $1.3 billion worldwide—was only a fluke. But anyone comparing the two movies based on the color of their skin overlooks the content of their character: Black Panther offers up a noble comic-book superhero with a proud African lineage, whereas Superfly tells the story of a decadent cocaine dealer who manages to beat all the odds.
Ironically the original Super Fly, released by Warner Bros., played as pivotal a role in the African-American cinema of the 1970s as Black Panther seems to be playing in the modern movie landscape. One of the biggest box-office hits of the blaxploitation era, Super Fly followed in the footsteps of MGM's Shaft (1971) with its strong, resourceful black protagonist, the well-coiffed Youngblood Priest. But the movie also provoked a giant backlash from the middle-class black community, who were incensed by its ghetto stereotypes and glamorization of the drug economy. According to legend, the very term blaxploitation was coined specifically to denigrate Super Fly. Now that Black Panther has exceeded the wildest commercial dreams of those earlier filmmakers, the new Superfly seems even more like an embarrassing throwback.
To comprehend the excitement generated by those first blaxploitation releases, one has to consider the blinding whiteness of American cinema in the postwar years, after the black-oriented "race films" of the silent and early sound eras had died out. Aside from the elegant Sidney Poitier, blacks were nearly invisible in Hollywood movies during the 1950s and early '60s, and stories authentic to the black experience were unheard of. That began to change in the late '60s as the MPAA's new ratings system permitted more adult themes in mainstream movies and the studios, unable to fill the big urban movie houses anymore because of white flight to the suburbs, began to slash production costs and focus more on distributing independent productions. Released by United Artists, Ossie Davis's surprise hit Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) combined the two elements that would come to define blaxploitation: strong black characters and ample location shooting in the urban ghettos that had always been hidden from American moviegoers.
Shaft (1971), starring Richard Roundtree and directed by the great photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks, more or less created the modern African-American screen hero—a man of action, cool, smart, and virile. "We were trying to emulate . . . what white movie stars we admired were doing," remembered actor Ron O'Neal, who played Priest in Super Fly. "Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds. . . . We were trying to show a mature, intelligent black man, operating with all the panache and verve of James Bond." Yet Super Fly, directed by the 38-year-old Gordon Parks Jr., turns this endeavor into a giant provocation. Priest first appears onscreen in bed with a rich white woman who buys coke from him; one outrageous composition shows, in the right background, the nude woman lounging in rumpled sheets and, in the left foreground, a close-up profile of Priest's crotch, his ample package visible through his shorts.
To be fair, Priest is a more ambiguous character than either O'Neal or the movie's detractors might admit. He wants out of the drug business, and the movie follows his efforts to buy 30 kilos, turn them into a million dollars, and retire. "This is a chance, and I want to take it now," he tells his partner, Eddie. "Before I have to kill somebody. Before somebody ices me." Eddie can't believe that Priest wants to leave it all behind: "Eight-track stereo, color TV in every room, and can snort a half a piece of dope every day. That's the American dream!" He seems to know Priest better than anyone else, and his friendly counsel of defeat is the movie's most troubling moment. "You got this fantasy in your head about gettin' out of the life and settin' that other world on its ear. What the fuck are you gonna do except hustle? Maybe this is what you supposed to do, this is what you grown to do."
With a sweet, melodramatic soul score by Curtis Mayfield, Super Fly became a monster hit, playing for weeks in the nation's urban grindhouses (here in Chicago, it screened at the notorious Woods Theatre at Randolph and Dearborn). But the movie was condemned by the NAACP, Operation PUSH, and the Congress of Racial Equality. Conservative TV host Tony Brown called out blaxploitation artists as "race traitors." According to O'Neal, the term blaxploitation was coined not by white journalists but by Junius Griffin, a black press agent in Hollywood who had lost the Super Fly account but won a gig from 20th Century Fox representing its wholesome family drama Sounder. "He was very tight with Johnson Publications, and that's where the term was popularized, through Ebony and Jet Magazine," O'Neal claimed. "To the utter damnation of all black films, and black artists, and hopefully to himself, as far as I'm concerned."
Alarmed by this outcry, the Hollywood studios began backing away from blaxploitation films, though what really killed the genre, along with the whole "New Hollywood" movement of the early 70s, was the blockbuster era initiated by Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Movies like these appealed to black and white audiences alike and eventually turned the business into a clash of the titans, with smaller films of every variety squeezed out by giant movies with giant marketing campaigns. The 1980s and '90s brought Spike Lee and a handful of other independents, but in the brave new world of global entertainment franchises, the prevailing wisdom in Hollywood has always been that "black films don't travel"—until Black Panther, which made almost as much money overseas as it did in the U.S. Sadly, Ron O'Neal died in 2009 and never got to see Chadwick Boseman as the regal T'Challa of Black Panther, operating with all the panache and verve of James Bond.
So where does that leave the new Superfly? Coproduced by the rapper Future and directed by Director X (aka Julien Christian Lutz), the remake runs nearly a half hour longer than the original and moves the action from Harlem to modern-day Atlanta, where the dapper Priest (Trevor Jackson), who's built up a crew of 50 people, competes with another local drug operation called the Snow Patrol. (In their diamonds and white furs, they seem to be a takeoff on the flamboyant Black Mafia Family that ruled Atlanta's cocaine trade in the 90s; for more on this story see the true-crime book BMF by former Reader editor Mara Shalhoup.) True to the blaxploitation tradition, the filmmakers include plenty of location shooting (in the film's funniest shot, a car chase through a public park ends with the bad guy wiping out against a Confederate monument). But Priest's big drug deal also takes him over the border to deal with the fearsome kingpin of a Mexican cartel (Esai Morales).
Priest is the same debonair character O'Neal played in 1972—a stylish dresser, a skilled martial artist, a consummate ladies' man—but of course the leather-clad street dealer is a fairly mundane figure now that stories of the international drug trade are ubiquitous in movies and on TV. (Bored with this film? Next week brings Sicario: Day of the Soldado.) Priest's philosophical debate with Eddie has been eliminated, though echoes of it reverberate through the hero's amoral voice-over narration. By the end of the movie, Priest has triumphed over the Mexican drug lord, the Snow Patrol, and a pair of corrupt Atlanta police detectives, mainly by ratting them out to other parties; the last shot, indulging one of the movies' hoariest cliches, shows him and his lover Georgia (Lex Scott Davis) sipping cocktails on their yacht off the coast of Montenegro. "Yeah, I left America," Priest concludes on the soundtrack. "And I took the dream with me." Black films do travel, we've learned, only some of them travel downward. v