- Director: Gordon Parks, Jr.
- Writers: Phillip Fenty
- Starring: Ron O’Neal, Carl Lee, Julius W. Harris, Sheila Frazier, Charles McGregor, Sig Shore, Polly Niles, Yvonne Delaine, and Curtis Mayfield
- Accolades: 2019 Slate Black Film Canon
- Where to Watch: Free streaming (with ads) on Tubi app, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV
Shaft and Super Fly are probably the two best-known “Blaxploitation” movies today, and the two films share the same director (Gordon Parks, Jr.), the same setting (Harlem), and a lot of similar elements. Yet they are definitely different movies. Shaft casts its hero as a man of action, including literally having him swing through a window on a rope at one point. The drug dealing lead of Super Fly, the awesomely-named Priest Youngblood (Ron O’Neal) just wants out of “the life,” and spends the movie making his way through the Harlem underworld trying to secure this. The movie feels the need to show him practicing karate, so that we know he could beat someone up, if he had to. He’s a thinking person’s blaxploitation hero, if you will.
Super Fly was incredibly profitable on its initial release in 1972, making back well over thirty times its $500,000 initial budget. At the time its popularity was the cause for hand-wringing in some corners of the African-American community, which worried about gangsters and criminals being the only role models put on screen for their kids. However, the movie can also be seen as a subversion of the very thing it was criticized for. Its hero spends the length of the film trying to get out of the business, and being told by most of the people he meets that he should not. Even though it’s clearly dangerous and obviously illegal, it is also seen as one of the only ways for Black men to be successful. Priest’s vision of a quiet house and kids is roundly mocked by everyone involved.
Today Super Fly may be best known for its soundtrack, which is provided by soul musician Curtis Mayfield. You will still hear at least three of Mayfield’s songs today, the title track, “Pusherman,” and “Freddie’s Dead” (which is sort of a spoiler given that there’s a character in this movie named Freddie, played by Charles McGregor). The full album was recently ranked #69 by Rolling Stone on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of all time. Mayfield and his band appear in a crowded bar scene, which feels like a very 90s touch even though this movie is from 1972.
Super Fly’s plot is meandering at best, which means that it is almost entirely an exercise in milieu and style. But it certainly has these elements down. At one point, the movie breaks down entirely into a montage of stills, playing sometimes in as much as quadruple split screen. It works surprisingly well. It uses slang that I wouldn’t have actually thought was in vogue this early, and that it perhaps played a role in popularizing. At one point, Priest admonishes a friend that if he crosses a feared drug lord, he will “bust a cap in his ass.” I didn’t realize that saying was a thing before about 1989. Then there is the seemingly obligatory sex scene, taking place in a soapy tub between Priest and his “Main Squeeze,” Georgia (Sheila Frazier). Parks changes things up by turning down the soundtrack for a moment and shooting most of the scene through a gauzy curtain. What could feel entirely gratuitous ends up one of the sexiest things I’ve seen in any of the movies we’ve looked at for this site.
Another way that Super Fly’s defies expectations in terms of its racial politics is in its productions. Yes, like many movies in the Blaxploitation genre, it started out as a fairly cynical attempt by white producers to part Black audiences from their cash. Interestingly, this movie’s producer, Sig Shore, also plays the villainous, corrupt white police officer who tries to trap Priest in the drug business. Yet Parks had made enough of a name for himself through Shaft to be able to hire a mostly Black crew, highly unusual at the time, and shoot on location in Harlem. Most of his actors were non-mainstream, as well. Carl Lee, who plays Priest’s friend who tries to help him in his schemes, was last seen on this site playing another drug dealer in the highly experiment The Connection. A few years later he would die tragically from a heroin overdose. Charles McGregor, meanwhile, had just been released from a lengthy prison term. He parlayed his supporting role in Super Fly into a gigs as a motivational speaker and also wrote a book called Up from the Walking Dead: The Charles McGregor Story, having apparently completely turned his life around.
I’m not sure if I particularly liked most of Super Fly, but I would say that it’s about the best possible version you could make of this specific movie. As such, despite many attempts by studios to capitalize on its success, that lightning has not been caught in a bottle again. Two direct sequels were made, including the following year’s Super Fly T.N.T., which also starred O’Neal, and the later The Return of Super Fly, which didn’t. In 2018 there was a slick studio remake released, which I honestly completely missed at the time. This remake omitted the space between the words in the title, was set in Atlanta for what seemed like pure budgetary reasons, and was helmed by “Director X” (lol). But if you like fun movies, the original version is probably worth your time.