The Archivist #89: Sparring With SUPER FLY (1972) vs SUPERFLY (2018)

Who’s the fly-est of them all?

The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a streaming service, revivals of out-of-print DVDs, and Blu-rays. Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!

This exploration of both Super Fly (1972) and Superfly (2018) will spoil both films with abandon.

Among the early and most sacred films in the Blacksploitation cannon, 1972’s Super Fly is a towering pillar in many circles. The Curtis Mayfield tracks have potentially had even more staying power than the film itself, with very few adults unaware of “Pusher Man”, or the title track. The garish styles and vehicles, played entirely straight and utilized to authentically portray a certain time and place in African-American culture in New York City, have been eternally referenced or played for laughs ever since. Perhaps most significantly, the story it told and the reality it pointed a spotlight towards, was fairly unprecedented and historically relevant. Ron O’Neal’s Priest, himself both a cocaine user and dealer, is the HERO of this story. He’s a man who feels trapped in the game and desperate to do just about anything to get out. His lifestyle is chronicled more so than judged or condemned. And in the end, Priest gets to outsmart The Man, tell him to go to hell, and walk off into the sunset free and clear. It’s as satisfying today as it must have been for audiences in the 1970s, and makes up for a lot of the film’s sloppy direction and clumsy editing by today’s standards.

2018’s Superfly is a much closer adaptation than one might expect when understanding that it’s set in modern times, and in Atlanta at that. But here Trevor Jackson’s Priest goes through many of the same motions; a man on a mission to get out of the game. Director X has dialed his narrative up to eleven, however, and created something with more flash and heightened into super hero territory. Where O’Neal’s Priest spends a little time training in martial arts in one scene, Jackson’s Priest was a star student, and practices his martial arts to battle bad guys and virtually dodge bullets. Where O’Neal must stay one step ahead of those players and corrupt cops who would seek to trap him in the game forever, Jackson has to stay two steps ahead and master the use of crypto-currency or some nonsense. Where O’Neal had to plan a double cross, Jackson must plan a quadruple, outsmarting corrupt cops, the mayor, a rival gang, AND the cartel.

This may sound like a criticism of Superfly, but in all honesty is does the narrative quite a few favors. The super heroic version of this tale mythologizes Youngblood Priest in a new era of chaos in which threats to the black community are more amorphous and multi-faceted than they used to be. Racism is alive and thriving both in more overt ways and in more insidious ones. It feels right for Priest to not only have the best skills, best outfits, and the most strict discipline [here Priest is not a user himself, and while he’s sexually active with multiple women, it’s portrayed as a mutually agreed upon polyamorous relationship as opposed to the 1972 version where Priest just had a white side-piece that felt so terribly needy you aren’t surprised when he leaves her ass for Sheila Frazer’s Georgia], but also to have a mastery over freakin’ crypto-currency. Priest’s quest to transcend the system must take on almost supernatural odds, and in doing so helps the audience feel throughout that he is going to succeed. Rather than take away the tension, our certainty that Priest will come out on top in 2018 gives it a most satisfying and fist-pumping conclusion… complete with a thrown in confederate statue being blown up and Priest beating the shit out of a uniformed cop who had murdered a black man on the job in a most brutal fashion.

Where director Gordon Parks Jr. and writer Phillip Fenty gave us grit and authenticity before sliding both middle fingers up at The Man in 1972, Director X gives us heroic fantasy and flash, offering slick visuals that become political and emotional wish fulfillment. Both films offer up a complex non-traditional hero who we’re expected to root for in spite of their chosen profession as drug kingpin, and both ultimately succeed in delivering righteous anger to the masses.

The Warner Archive’s presentation of Super Fly on Blu-ray is quite pleasing, with an appropriately grainy and natural feel to the high definition scan. Gordon Parks, Jr.’s direction of the film leaves something to be desired, with lots of extraneous shots of people getting in and out of cars or simply walking from one place to the next. There’s a lot of dead space in the original film that contributes to its somewhat languid pace and highlights that although the sum of its parts added up to a film that’s stood the test of time, at least some of the Super Fly phenomenon had to do with being in the right place at the right time, and not necessarily because of the genius of craft on display. And while Superfly ’18 is slick in its own way, similar criticisms could be leveled. There are times when the digital photography feels cheap, and there’s a chase scene that is outright ugly and sloppy. Director X and writer Alex Tse won’t be up for many awards come year’s end, but what they potentially lacked in nuance or craft, they made up for in entertainment factor. And having their fingers on the pulse of a generation who need to see their heroes coming out on top against odds that are stacked as improbably against them as they’re experiencing in their current day to day life.

Maybe I just prefer Superfly ’18 because I’m so personally frustrated by the current political and social climate (not to mention the state of race relations in America today), that the satisfaction factor was simply higher for the modern version. There’s no doubt that O’Neal’s Priest and the original film are more iconic and will stand the test of time even decades from now. It simply birthed too many imitators to ever truly become forgotten. But Director X’s woke and super heroic take on the material hit a sweet spot that I can’t shake, providing both an energetic action film and a barn burner of angry Black youth sentiment.

I highly recommend cinephiles check out both versions. With Warner Archive’s new Blu-ray being packed with bonus features and a great transfer to boot, there’s never been an easier time to be educated on this seminal Blacksploitation classic. And when Director X’s 2018 film hits home video, it really would be a great use of your time to give it a chance. It seems the studio lacked confidence in their film at a time when Black-created and Black-starring work is crossing over into the mainstream like never before, so I’m not sure quite why they didn’t have more confidence in this cathartic gem. Regardless, if you could use a little relief from the constant barrage of our broken systems grinding up and spitting out the least among us, look no further than the adventures of Youngblood Priest; he plays for keeps.

And I’m Out.

Previous post “Oh Jerry. Don’t lets ask for the moon. We have the stars.”
Next post New on 4K Blu: Sam Raimi’s THE QUICK AND THE DEAD (1995)