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Superfly

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Stayed up too late last night watching Superfly, which along with Shaft are the zenith of 1970s blaxploitation. Not coincidentally, Shaft was directed by Gordon Parks, who was a brilliant still-photographer before becoming a film director, and Superfly by his eponoymously named son, who unfortunately, died in a plane crash in 1979.

Looking back on it thirty years on, Superfly’s photography is often crude, and the acting worse, although Ron O’Neal, Sheila Frazier and Julius Harris acquit themselves nicely. But more typical is Carl Lee, who as O’Neal’s sidekick, seems to have only one facial expression, somewhere between worried and angry, permanently etched on his face throughout the entire film. And film’s action sequences all too frequently consist of little more than men running down city streets.

What makes the film work is the screenplay, which moves along at a nice, and fairly logical clip (with an unexpected interlude for a still-photo montage, brilliantly shot by Gordon Parks Sr.), and…

Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack.

But of course: it’s truly the best part of the film. Clearly working on a limited budget, the filmmakers somehow were precient enough to spend this portion of their funds very, very wisely. Mayfield’s music is part Greek chorus, part counterpoint to the action on the film, some of the best music of the 1970s, and the only sense of morality in the film. I’d love to know at what point Mayfield discovered he would be writing music for a film glorifying drug dealers, and decided to insert his own morals into his lyrics. His music makes an otherwise forgettable movie electrifying. Shaft may have had the bigger budget, and was better directed, but Mayfield’s score, throughout the entire film, far surpasses Isaac Hayes’ soundtrack efforts in Shaft: only Hayes’ theme song can stand on equal footing with all of the music that Mayfield wrote, and Johnny Tate brilliantly arranged, for Superfly.

Unfortunately, to borrow a phrase from Les Paul, it seems like a good chunk of Superfly’s audience “listened with their eyes”, and ignored Mayfield’s warnings: visually, Superfly is ground zero for “gangsta rap”: huge Cadillacs, even bigger lapels and Fedoras, black gangsters “with a plan to stick it to the man”, white policemen pushing drugs themselves (paging Maxine Waters!)–so much of rap culture begins here. (And I can’t help but wonder if O’Neal’s flowing locks were the inspiration for Al Sharpton’s impressively coiffed hair.)

Too bad they didn’t listen to the music–they might have learned something.

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About Ed Driscoll

  • http://ulmann.blogspot.com Cal Ulmann

    I know for a fact that Gordon Parks Jr. although having the title of director did not do much directing of Superfly. Sig Shore in adition to being the producer, was the director for all intensive purposes. (At least that is what he has told me.)

    I would disagree and say that Superfly is in fact very close to gangsat rap. In a large portion of gangsta rap although the bright side of crime is portrayed the negative side of life is also portrayed. As can be seen through the founders of Gangsta Rap: Kool G. Rap and Ice-T for example

  • Ed

    I think pretty much the same way that i thought then about the blk/exploitation movies, and that is that they did nothing more than promote the most negative aspects of the Black reality of the period. For the first time in the history of the African/American community,pimps and whores were depicted as hero’s. Never before in the history of the american culture were the most negative members of an ethnic group hail as hero’s. Even with the GodFather movies the criminals were criminals, and it was understood that the only honor that they had was in the midst of their own little subculture. But when it comes to ‘fly and that crew we still act as if that s— was progressive. When will we grow up and recognize that the junk is what has given rise to the most backward and self destructive aspects of the African/American so-called culture today.

  • http://macaronies.blogspot.com Mac Diva

    O’Neal blamed the movie for ruining his career. But, when I looked at a lot of those movies years after they were made, my take on them was that they often exploited stereotypes to be successful, and, if you do that, it can cut both ways. If Superfly had led to mainstream success for O’Neal, he would not have complained. My greater concern is that more than the parties involved are being harmed by keeping the stereotypes alive. So, in a way, when that sort of thing backfires, it is just deserts.

    In the first significant book about blacks in film, Donald Bogle argued that stereotypic treatment of African-Americans is not so much changed decade by decade, but updated. Though there is a counter-trend, I believe he is largely right.

    (Ed, I don’t think we can blame Sharpton’s greasy process on O’Neal. That was O’Neal’s natural hair.)