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Super Fly

Super Fly(1972)

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Director Gordon Parks Jr. (1934 - 1979) was preceded in fame by his father, Gordon Parks, who was a LIFE magazine staff photographer of 20 years and whose first foray into genre filmmaking yielded the commercial hit Shaft (1971). Gordon Parks Jr. proved to be more than just a chip-of-the-old-block when he followed up on his father's success with Shaft, the year after, by delving into the same arena of blaxploitation with his own directorial debut of Super Fly (1972) - another commercial success, but one rarified by having its soundtrack (by Curtis Mayfield) financially outperform the film itself. Super Fly is further distinguished by having an anti-hero as a protagonist who is of mixed race. It is also significant that the white power brokers that really run the show are helping control the black population with the addictive white powder that makes everyone's motor run.

Super Fly stars Ron O'Neal as Youngblood Priest, a coke-dealer looking to get out of the game with one last score that is big enough to allow him to move on. His friends don't understand what the rush is all about, after all, he's got beautiful women, nice digs, all the drugs he could want, an eight-track stereo; it's "the American Dream, man." But Priest is restless - will he escape? Will he stick it to The Man? Viewers who simply bump into the film on a lark might miss out on the spark that made this film sing in its era because, when gauged against slick and contemporary fare, Super Fly can come across nowadays as dated and slow. When brought into its proper context as a seminal blaxploitation film, however, the simple visual grammar and subtext of Super Fly reveal a movie whose medium itself was the message. While its distribution by Warner Bros. was clearly made possible, in part, by the success of Shaft, this does not lessen the fact that Super Fly was otherwise a fully independent film that was put together by people working outside the studio system who wanted to tell a clear and yet unconventional story.

While Super Fly made its impressions on the street, it was not without a fight. Of course, even the word "blaxploitation" a clear amalgam of "black exploitation," will conjure debate, but many black actors (who were paid for their work on films and later found less work available) angrily condemn the NAACP and CORE for being the organizations that created the term, rather than the white media. With that in mind, (spoiler ahead) it is interesting to note that the NAACP, uneasy with a black protagonist that they felt reinforced negative stereotypes, asked Warner Bros. to have Priest die at the end of the film. But Gordon Parks Jr. (whose own life would be tragically cut short by a plane crash in Kenya) had something else in mind and he, in his own way, delivered a powerful message of hope to both the disenfranchised people working outside the margins of accepted norm along with the casual viewers of the day who were just happy to get a little countercultural fun.

The Warner Bros. dvd of Super Fly includes a documentary (One Last Deal: A Retrospective), a vintage featurette with Ron O'Neal on the making of Superfly, a brief audio bonus with comments by Curtis Mayfield, a theatrical trailer, and a look at the clothes featured in the film with costume designer Nate Adams titled Behind the Threads.

For more information about Super Fly, visit Warner Video. To order Super Fly, go to TCM Shopping.

by Pablo Kjolseth