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A year after Shaft, Super Fly, independently produced by Sig Shore and directed by Gordon Parks, Jr., appeared. Within two months, it made $11 million. Within the African American community, however, many were outraged by the glorification of its hero, a cocaine dealer named Priest (Ron O'Neal). It has to be admitted that hero Priest, dressed like an urban prima ballerina in long, sweeping coats and large wide-brimmed hats, is a romanticized version of the Harlem pimp.
Super Fly looks authentic: the Harlem settings, the streets and alleyways, the bars, and the tenements all paint an overriding bleak vision of urban decay, new terrain and a new kind of social realism for commercial cinema. It's a war zone with corrupt drug kingpins and their pushers. Priest has risen to power by standing outside the law. The law itself, so the picture reveals, is perverted and corrupt. The film ends with Priest defeating his white opponents (including the drug boss) and leaving the cocaine business with a hefty bankroll to boot.
At heart, Super Fly sends out mixed messages. At one point when a disgruntled Priest announces he wants to get out of the drug trade, his friend Eddie (Carl Lee) dismisses such thoughts. After all, so Eddie reasons, Priest has much that America is taught to value: "Eight track stereo, color TV in every room, and you can snort half a piece of dope every day. That's the American Dream." Priest himself knows he has the big car, the fine vines (clothes), and even the gorgeous women that are part of the package. Fundamentally, the film tells audiences that the American dream of success has become polluted and perverted into a nightmare of cold, hard materialism. Priest, however, is no political rebel with an agenda of political alternatives. This grand-style individualist just wants out. Yet he plans to take with him his material acquisitions and comforts (represented by the cache of money we know that he holds onto at the end of the film).
Audiences, however, chose to overlook the contradictions, enthusiastically accepting the wish-fulfillment ending. No one wanted to see a black hero defeated. Thus the main point again was that here was a black man living on his own terms.
Like Shaft, Priest was also, you might say, sexually audacious. Curiously enough, the big sex scene in Super Fly (it's a bathtub sequence with lots of suds covering some vital areas) like the sex scenes in other black films---Melinda, Slaughter, and Shaft---frequently was more graphic and lingering than those seen in most white movies of the time and looked as if it had been inserted to play on the legend of blacks' high-powered sexuality. While the movies now assiduously sought to avoid the stereotype of the asexual tom, they fell, interestingly enough, into the trap of presenting the hyper sexual man. Rarely was there a mature male view of sex as depicted in a movie like Nothing But A Man. Then, too, the women are rarely defined in any way other than as the hero's love interest. As in Shaft, Priest also has two women: one white (Polly Niles), the other black (Sheila Frazier). Again the idea is that the white woman---once placed on a pedestal in D. W. Griffith's The Birth of A Nation---is hardly virginal or pure; indeed she can be had. The black woman, who helps Priest make his triumph, is depicted at least as trying to reach the hero emotionally, to figure out what motivates him and to understand indeed who he is. Otherwise we know nothing else about her.
Technically, Super Fly was adequate. Some of its drive could be attributed to the musical score of Curtis Mayfield (who makes a brief appearance in the film). There was also actor Ron O'Neal's performance---or perhaps his perceptive lack of one. O'Neal presented an arrogant, enigmatic hustler who was careful not to reveal too much. In 1973, a fairly terrible sequel, Super Fly T.N.T, appeared, starring and directed by O'Neal with a script by Alex Haley. In 1990, there was a sorry attempt to revive Super Fly in The Return of Super Fly.
Producer: Sig Shore
Director: Gordon Parks, Jr.
Screenplay: Phillip Fenty
Cinematography: James Signorelli
Film Editing: Bob Brady
Music: Curtis Mayfield
Cast: Ron O'Neal (Youngblood Priest), Carl Lee (Eddie), Shelia Frazier (Georgia), Julius Harris (Scatter), Charles McGregor (Fat Freddie), Nate Adams (Dealer).
C-92m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.