A wolf in pimp’s clothing.
Super Fly is a movie of surprising political bite and emotional nuance, considering it is usually discussed in terms of its outrageously flashy cars and clothes.
The outfits are something – in his patterned, full-length jackets, star Ron O’Neal often looks like he’s wrapped up in a carpet – but this blaxploitation classic is interested in so much more than its props. Super Fly is about the dead-end despair of ghetto life, where the false independence of a criminal enterprise is really just another form of enslavement.
If that nuance was lost on some of the blaxploitation films that followed – not to mention the materialistic, misogynistic gangster rap that would model itself on the movie’s surface elements – that’s not a fault of the film. Directed by Gordon Parks Jr., son of Shaft director Gordon Parks, Super Fly may be dressed for fun, but this is a mournful story. It takes its cues from one of the signature songs on the Curtis Mayfield-composed soundtrack, “Pusherman,” which despite its invigorating bass line is actually a falsetto lament that includes the line “there’s no happiness.”
This tone is also struck by O’Neal’s sorrowful performance as Priest, a New York City cocaine dealer who lives the high life yet walks around with heavy shoulders, as if those jackets weigh 1,000 pounds. It’s not guilt, exactly, that’s bothering him, but a growing realization that the one thing his money hasn’t been able to buy is independence. (In one of the movie’s many introspective conversations, Priest talks about a yearning “just to be free.”) O’Neal infuses his performance with a restless dissatisfaction: he’s distracted during his sexual exploits; he snorts his own product for confidence. The opening sequence – in which he chases down a pair of muggers who have robbed him – sets the tone: despite his material success, Priest still lives like a desperate man with numbered days.
In terms of filmmaking craft, Super Fly is at turns amateurish and exhilarating. Some of the edits and camera placements are clumsy enough to make you cringe. But then you get a burst of inspiration, such as the woozy, bathtub sex scene, which cuts abruptly (and purposefully) to a vicious fistfight in the street. The movie’s bravura moment is a stunning, still-photo sequence (shot by Parks Jr.) that traces the cocaine from its procurement to its packaging to its sale, both in the ghetto and to the upper-class white clients who make up a significant part of Priest’s customer base. It’s like Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic in eight minutes.
Even though it paints the drug game as a doomed enterprise, that doesn’t mean Super Fly is a stringent morality tale (the sort of gangster story 1931’s The Public Enemy pretended to be). The movie’s concerns are larger than that. Super Fly indicts not the lifestyle of Priest alone, but society at large, which has allowed drug dealing to become the most promising venture for America’s black urban youth. “I know it’s a rotten game, ” Priest’s partner (Carl Lee) says at one point, “but it’s the only one the man left us to play.”
Nevertheless, Priest crafts an intricate plan to get out of the business (that the plan involves selling loads more coke points to the film’s moral slipperiness). Priest’s decision to refuse to play by the rules of a rigged game is revolutionary, then, similar to the stance Richard Roundtree’s title character takes in Shaft. Even more so than that film, however, Super Fly angrily cries out in defiance. The movie just happens to look great doing it.