Saturday, 29 August 2015

No.50. SUPER FLY (1972)


A signature film in the Blaxploitation canon, this dope-tastic urban crime flick from Warner Bros. is centred around Priest, (Ron O’Neal) a tough coke dealer looking to retire on one last score. We know he’s a bad-ass from the get-go as our first sight of him is snorting the white stuff using his crucifix neck chain as a spoon. Oddly, as a light-skinned brother sporting long straight hair, burners and a Zapata moustache, he resembles a Spanish nobleman or the younger musician Prince more than a black pimp. I’m not the only one to notice this. An associate provokes him with “Answer me, you white-looking-’ before Priest decks him by way of interruption. Somewhat Caucasian he may look, but there’s nothing fraudulent about how he does business.

Ron O’Neal was a Broadway actor itching to portray a cool character like Priest. He is the engine driving the plot and grabs the part by the big leather lapels, working it with gritty intensity.  He punches out key words with relish. “I ain’t givin’ you SHIT!’ he seethes at a low level shake-down artist.

Priest’s drive to make it from crime and run with the proceeds is justified in his view by the iniquity of society in not giving a black ex-con a chance as much as it is by the greed for illegal profit. He tells his girlfriend Georgia (Sheila Frazier) he anticipates making four million from a thirty kilo coke deal because his pride will not stomach “Workin’ a jive job for chump change”. There’s equally a burst of social commentary in an exchange he has with his partner Eddie (Carl Lee) about how black people are marginalised into such work by segregation of work opportunities. Eddie points out “It’s a rotten game but it’s the only one the man left us to play and that’s the stone cold truth”. There’s an attitudinal echo here of Shylock’s position in ‘The Merchant of Venice’. Minority races pushed into less savoury industries see themselves as driven by economic forces and then castigated for serving a social need. (Although here unlike Renaissance Europe, the provider of drugs is selling an illegal service rather than money-lending and these crims do actually have a choice!)

The prospect of making a retirement killing is on the cards but when corrupt cops offer them a direct deal through their protection as an ongoing profitable business for both sides, its’ too tempting for Eddie to accept getting out with just a million.  What they don’t know is that their friend Scatter (Julius Harris, later memorably playing Tee Hee in LIVE AND LET DIE) has been pumped fatally full of heroin to push the police’s scummy scheme forward.

In a winning denouement for crime, when the cops apprehend Priest in the climax, after a Steve Austin style slo-mo fist fight on the docks he brazenly threatens them with a mafia hit contract taken out on them as insurance.  Controversially he gets away with it which is a guilty pleasure for the audience.

Aside from O’Neal’s bravura turn as the central character, SUPER FLY also boasts one of the most famous Blaxploitation music soundtracks courtesy of the groovy falsetto of Curtis Mayfield  - who also does a club performance of the hit song ’Pusher Man’ in the film.

With its trading in coke ‘kees’, grimy cops and hand-held foot chases, the film benefits from the dirty veracity of THE FRENCH CONNECTION. However, the backlash against Blaxploitation began with SUPER FLY’s release. Black groups like the NAACP and spokesmen such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson, sporting an impressive afro and sideburns that would have been strangely well suited to this genre, vilified it as a totally negative depiction of black men. To be fair, the movie’s portrayals are even-handed; whitey comes off no better in the role model stakes, being made up exclusively of crooked cops.  Ironically, SUPER FLY had the dubious honour of being a model, but for the trend of customising cars into ‘Pimpmobiles’ and led many gangsters and pimps into ‘pimping out’ their rides as a result of seeing it.

O’Neal defended the film in the press pointing out ‘Super Fly was made by black people in the ghetto and taken out to the monied affluent people’.

It was successful enough to spawn a sequel SUPER FLY TNT and then inexplicably a belated second sequel in 1990 (RETURN OF THE SUPERFLY) which was resoundingly swatted at the box office.

The original is serious immoral fun and occupies a spot in every fan ‘Best of Blaxploitation’ list you’ll see. 

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