Slick flick is more capable than amazing.
In Gordon Parks, Jr.’s 1972 blaxploitation classic Super Fly, Harlem was portrayed as a dingy and lived-in place cluttered with trash and populated with both gentleman criminals and those of the not-so-savory variety. In it, Ron O’Neal played a cocaine dealer named Youngblood Priest who commanded Harlem’s attention with his glowering intensity and, of course, his excellent tweed suits. In 1972, crime was a low-down and dirty activity that involved dirty alleyways, dirty darkened back alley dealings with dirty cops, and brutal karate beatings. It was all punctuated by Curtis Mayfield’s funk/soul music, providing one of the best movie soundtracks in history.
The world of crime in Director X’s 2018 update – now sporting a title that is, like everything else, more streamlined – is a decidedly more posh, comfortable and opulent place. In the post-millennial crime world of the new Superfly, now set in Atlanta, the dangerous gangs wear matching all-white costumes, criminal hangouts have come to resemble strip clubs by way of Cirque du Soleil, and Youngblood Priest is smoother, cooler, better dressed, and more unflappable than ever; a Zen master in pleather. And although the plot of Superfly is a sneeze of loose ends, and some of the film’s basic logic doesn’t add up – Priest is depicted as world-weary and experienced, even though actor Trevor Jackson is only 21 – it still was wise to approach a remake of Super Fly as an exercise in cucumber-cool style. It’s not the sort of film that will blow you away, but you may like hanging out with Priest.
Early in Superfly, Priest is seen standing up to a group of would-be criminal rappers who, it turns out, Priest manages. Priest is a cocaine dealer, yes, but his criminality is played down to the point of being almost nonexistent for the film’s first act. Priest is a gentleman, sir, denoted by his strict code of honor, his Zen-like ability to diffuse fights, and his loving relationship with his capable bisexual girlfriend Georgia (Lex Scott Davis) and his other capable bisexual girlfriend Cynthia (Andrea Londo). He wears badass suits and coats that seem to have gained their souls fighting for their lives inside a volcano, and sports a tall, silky-smooth hairdo that is sexy enough to make a grown man weep.
This may not be the first major release to feature a three-way relationship as a matter of incident – Oliver Stone’s Savages also comes to mind – but it’s still striking. The polyamory is not a plot point, nor is it a way of communicating the male hero’s overwhelming libidinal prowess. It merely is. It would be a progressive depiction, had the film not eventually mistreated the Cynthia character.
Priest longs to exit the drug trade, knowing that he would eventually have to kill someone or be killed in his line of work. This longing leads to a pretty recognizable one-last-job narrative wherein, naturally, everything goes terribly wrong; Priest’s best friends Eddie (Jason Mitchell) and Freddie (Jacob Ming-Trent) each make a few terrible decisions that attract the ire of local crime lord Q (an excellent Big Bank Black) and his hothead underling Juju (Kaalen Rashad Walker). He also runs afoul of a squadron of corrupt, racist cops, led by Jennifer Morrison, and an ambitious drug lord (Esai Morales) under the thumb of his disapproving mother. In between these various plot threads, Superfly finds time to squeeze in several Rabelaisian parties, a relationship with a jiu jitsu sensei (Michael Kenneth Williams), and a shower-bound sex scene so steamy that it elicited applause in the theater where I saw it.
The 2018 Superfly has a lot to live up to. The 1972 original is one of the best-known of all blaxploitation movies, and it helped invent a portrait of visible African-American strength that had previously gone unseen in mainstream cinema. The new Superfly ups the style game considerably, and its soundtrack (by Future) is a good mix of modern trip-hop and classic soul, but the remake loses a lot of the original’s scrappy charms and forthright righteous indignation along the way. Although it does find a cathartic way to briefly address police brutality as well as racism in general; something horrible happens to a Confederate monument during a car chase.
Ultimately, Superfly is diverting and capable – and certainly stylish – but is far too focused on the machinations of its plot for any sort of momentum to hold. By the film’s last 30 minutes, Superfly begins to speed hastily through all of its loose ends, careful to tie them up before the entire film topples over. It stays upright, but it struggles.