SUPERFLY (1972) – While unfairly pigeonholed as a blaxploitation movie Superfly is in reality a monumentally overlooked classic of American gangster films.
Some of the blame for the lack of respect accorded this cinematic masterpiece comes from the outrageous movie posters that make it look like standard blaxploitation fare to modern film viewers. In reality Superfly pioneered some of the story elements that other blaxploitation flicks would turn into laughable cliches with their incessant repetition.
Another obstacle to celluloid respectability is the title, which became synonymous with the lead character, played masterfully by Ron O’Neal. Actually, O’Neal’s character is named Youngblood Priest. “Superfly” was the adjective used to describe the high quality of the cocaine Priest pushed to his customers, as in the line of dialogue “Priest, you sell some superfly shit!”
And yes, cocaine is indeed the drug our protagonist deals in his New York ghetto territory, even though it wasn’t until the 1980s that this particular drug became a media darling. Superfly gained notoriety even before its release because of the NAACP pressuring the studio to change the ending to have Youngblood Priest get killed. The organization did not want a cocaine pusher to emerge triumphant at movie’s end, fearing that would send the wrong message. (I’m really tired of political and religious organizations getting in the way of art by obsessing over how people may view it)
The NAACP proved it hadn’t really understood the script. Ron O’Neal’s character was not a one- dimensional figure like the “heroic” pimps of other early blaxploitation films. His Youngblood Priest is a complex, talented man whom the viewer can easily believe would have gravitated to a much more constructive life if not for the wretched poverty and merciless violence of the ghetto environment he was born into. Priest himself clearly finds no romance in his gangster lifestyle. O’Neal’s portrayal convinces us that it was purely a matter of survival for Priest in the usual “eat or be eaten” scenario.
The audience therefore sympathizes with Priest in his obsessive quest for one really big score so he can afford to escape the life he clearly loathes. Significantly, his white girlfriend wants him to continue his criminal ways. She doesn’t really love him, but just gets vicarious thrills from sharing his outlaw lifestyle. His black girlfriend, played by Shiela Frazier, does love him and encourages him to find a way out of the ghetto for both of them, though neither of them delude themselves about the nature of Priest’s business.
Frazier and O’Neal share a wordless scene that will haunt you forever after you see it. Director Gordon Parks frames a shot with the two African Americans’ faces staring longingly at the camera while pressed up against iron bars, invoking images of both slavery and prison, but as the camera pulls back we see that the two aren’t incarcerated. Instead the bars are part of a gate surrounding an expensive house, and in this case the figurative “bars” are blocking the young couple from the finer things in life. I literally cried the first time I saw that scene. It is perfectly rendered and is despairingly beautiful.
Throw in just as much action as The Godfather featured and the iconic soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield and I rest my case that Superfly belongs alongside the greatest American gangster films ever made.
FOR MY REVIEW OF SEVEN MORE SUCH BLAXPLOITATION FILMS CLICK HERE
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