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Some contemporary and modern sources list the film's title as Superfly, although the opening title card and copyright records list it as two words. According to some reviews of the film, the term "super fly" was slang for high-quality cocaine, while other reviews stated that it meant the pusher himself, or meant a superlative adjective that could be applied to anything. The first name of actress and former model Sheila Frazier, who made her debut in Super Fly, is spelled "Sheila" in the opening cast credits and "Shiela" in the ending credits. Producer Sig Shore, who plays "Deputy Commissioner Reardon," is billed in the cast credits as Mike Richards. In the middle of the film, a sequence of still photographs, taken by director Gordon Parks, Jr., illustrates how the thirty kilos of cocaine purchased by "Youngblood Priest" and "Eddie" is prepared, distributed and used.
Although a September 1971 Hollywood Reporter article listed Shore's company Plaza Productions as the film's intended production company, Superfly, Ltd. is listed onscreen and by copyright materials. The article also reported that the distribution arm of Shore's company, Plaza Pictures, would distribute Super Fly, but in mid-April 1972, Variety reported that neither Plaza company would be involved with the film. According to a September 17, 1972 New York Times article, the project was initially brought to Shore by first-time screenplay writer Philip Fenty after Fenty and actor Ron O'Neal, a longtime friend, had worked together to develop the story.
As reported by Filmfacts, as well as other contemporary news items and reviews, Super Fly was "the first black-oriented film to be financed entirely by blacks (in this case, a group of businessmen from the Harlem community) as well as the first to use an all-black and/or Puerto Rican technical crew." In mid-April 1972, Variety noted that, because of the black-oriented nature of the screenplay, Fenty and Parks, Jr. directly approached "the Harlem community for financial backing," which they obtained from a consortium of "businessmen, lawyers, dentists et al." The film's pressbook adds that the consortium of eighteen investors included "pimps, madams and drug dealers." In a September 1972 Variety article, Parks, Jr. specifically thanked his father, director Gordon Parks, Sr., and two black dentists, Ed Allen and Connie [Cornelius] Jenkins, for financing the production.
As noted in reviews, the picture was shot completely in New York City, and mostly in Harlem. In mid-April 1972, Variety reported that the film's low-key, successful location shooting in Harlem was due to its being "a non-union effort, thus the lack of production publicity and ease of using all-black technicians." The article added that after raising the required funds, the filmmakers agreed to their backers' request that "as many blacks as possible [be employed] in front and behind the camera," although the financiers agreed to allow white producer Shore oversee the project. The picture reportedly cost less than $500,000 to make and was acquired for distribution by Warner Bros. after its completion. According to modern sources, K. C., who played a pimp in the film, was a pimp in real life and owned the car driven by Priest. K. C.'s only other motion picture appearance was in the 1972 United Artists release Across 110th Street, which was also filmed on location in New York City.
After Super Fly's release, Filmfacts reported that the picture "turned out to be the most commercially successful black film to date-as well as the most controversial." Reviews of the picture were mixed, with some critics praising its authenticity and others decrying it as exploitive and poorly made. Time's reviewer, Jay Cocks, irritated by the picture's stereotypes and lack of technical proficiency, declared: "What makes a crummy little movie like Super Fly worth getting angry about is the implication behind it: that movies made for black audiences have to be, or can easily be, so casually and contemptuously awful." The Hollywood Reporter critic, on the other hand, praised the film as one of "remarkable power" and "a revelation, technically," that realistically captured the "struggle confronting those ghetto denizens who refuse to accept the life to which they have been consigned."
Among the film's many critics was Junius Griffin, the then-president of the Hollywood branch of the NAACP. Griffin, before he resigned his post in August 1972, demanded that Warner Bros. recall prints of the film from distribution and reshoot the ending so that Priest would be killed or otherwise punished for his drug usage and dealing. The National Catholic Office gave the film a "C," or condemned, rating, stating: "This kind of black liberation serves only to deceive the brothers and play upon the fears of black audiences." Many African-American groups and critics targeted the film, asserting that it glorified drug usage, violence, obtaining wealth through crime and sexual stereotypes about black men. One of the groups formed specifically to fight the film and other "similar exploitations films," according to a September 1972 Variety article, called itself Blacks Against Narcotics. The new group charged that Super Fly was "super-genocide" and that it was "the latest Hollywood game being run on black people." A January 28, 1973 Los Angeles Times article, which called the group BANG (Blacks Against Narcotics and Genocide), reported that it had picketed the movie and O'Neal, when he made personal appearances in Washington, D.C. to support the movie, but its efforts "had little apparent impact."
Outcry against the film prompted several groups in Los Angeles, notably the Coalition Against Blaxploitation (CAB) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), to assert that a separate ratings and review board for black films should be set up and overseen by CORE, according to the January 1973 Los Angeles Times article. Roy Innis, the leader of CORE, also proposed that a black review board should "pre-edit" African-American-oriented films before they were theatrically released and that profits from the pictures be turned over to black-dominated communities to advance educational opportunities. Although this plan was much discussed throughout the mid-1970s, it was not implemented.
O'Neal, Shore and Parks, Jr. vehemently defended the film many times, with O'Neal, in an October 1972 LAHExam interview, pointing out that the picture presented "a true slice of Harlem life" and that Priest triumphs at the end by using his wits, not just physical force. In the September 1972 New York Times interview, O'Neal also defended the film by stating that cocaine was not a major drug problem among African Americans, and that not only was it not addictive, it had never caused an overdose. His position was opposed by numerous physicians and medical groups, who also spoke out against the film, according to Filmfacts.
In the January 1973 Los Angeles Times article, Parks, Jr. defended the film by asserting that black audiences, critics and filmgoers needed to support black artists while they attempted to break into the white-dominated motion picture industry, even if their initial efforts were not completely acceptable to all audiences. Parks, Jr. added that he and other black directors wanted to become "a Fellini or a Bergman. But we can't do these things right away. There's a learning process. Remember, blacks just got into films." The article supported his viewpoint, asserting: "Since mid-1970, at least 51 films about blacks have been released. Those released in the previous decade could probably be counted on one hand."
According to an October 1972 Los Angeles Times article, Variety had reported that by September 1972, Super Fly was third behind The Godfather and Play It Again, Sam ( for both) in the list of top-grossing films of 1972. In commenting on the success of Super Fly at the box office, a January 1973 Daily Variety article reported that investors Allen and Jenkins had sold their 22 percent interest in the film "profitably," and that the "principals" involved in the production were "getting handsome payoffs." According to a March 12, 1973 New York Times article, the picture had grossed $20 million in seven months, and modern sources added that despite the film's controversial nature, it went on to gross more than $30 million by 2007.
Additionally, according to the January 1973 Daily Variety report, Curtis Mayfield, the composer of the film's score and hit songs, was estimated to be receiving "about $5,000,000 from performance and royalties" from the more than 2,000,000 albums and singles sold to that point. Mayfield, who made his film scoring debut with Super Fly, received a Grammy nomination for the film's soundtrack.
In January 1973, trade papers reported that although it previously had been announced as under consideration as a nominee, Mayfield's song "Freddie's Dead" had been ruled ineligible for entry in the Best Original Song category because it appeared in the film only as an instrumental. [The soundtrack album did feature the lyrics written for the song by Mayfield.] After the announcement, Warner Bros. issued an apology for its erroneous submission of the song for consideration. Controversy continued to swirl around the Academy's decision to exclude the song, with the executive committee of the music branch convening to discuss the song's ineligibility. According to a February 5, 1973 Daily Variety article, the meeting was held "because of the emotions involved," and the song's exclusion was upheld.
On February 23, 1973, Daily Variety related that Mayfield had filed a letter of complaint with the Academy over its method of selecting nominees. The article noted that Mayfield was not qualified for a nomination for Best Dramatic Score because "five songs needed to be submitted, and Warners only submitted three." Although the article stated that Mayfield's manager was contemplating filing suit against the Academy, the action was not taken. It was also noted that Mayfield had accused the Academy of a racial bias, although he was declining to file suit because the title song from Super Fly had been considered for the Oscar balloting.
Another controversy surrounding Mayfield's score for Super Fly arose from the role of arranger Johnny Pate, who receives onscreen credit as "music conducted by." As reported by a September 1972 Los Angeles Times article, Pate, with whom Mayfield had worked several times before the film's soundtrack, claimed that Mayfield had "merely dictated ideas," while it was Pate who did the actual "arranging, scoring, voicing, or orchestrating." Mayfield disputed Pate's statements that he was unacknowledged, noting that Pate did receive adequate credit for his contributions on the Super Fly soundtrack liner notes.
The picture marked the first feature film directed by Gordon Parks, Jr. (1934-1979), the son of Gordon Parks, Sr., who directed the 1971 picture Shaft, one of the first major blaxploitation films. [According to contemporary sources, O'Neal, the star of Super Fly, had been considered to star in Shaft but was deemed too light-skinned for the role.] Like his father, Parks, Jr. was also a well-known still photographer. The unit publicist on the film, David Parks, was Parks, Jr.'s brother. Parks, Jr. would make only three more films before his death in 1979 in an airplane crash. In addition, the picture marked the first screenplay written by Philip Fenty.
Super Fly also marked the first effort as a motion picture producer for Shore (1919-2006), who went on to produce the two sequels to Super Fly. The first, Super Fly T.N.T., was released in 1973 and was directed by and starred O'Neal, in addition to Frazier, who reprised her role as "Georgia." Shore also directed the second sequel, The Return of Superfly, which was released in 1990 and starred Nathan Purdee as Priest.