Saturday 27 August 2016

1,001 Films: "Super Fly" (1972)

For several reasons, we might consider Super Fly Son of Shaft. In 1971, Gordon Parks made the keynote blaxploitation feature about the private dick who reportedly gets all the chicks; the following year, Gordon Parks Jr. directed a film clearly indebted to his father's work (and, no doubt, Shaft's box-office success) yet possessed of the somewhat brattish desire to shock and never compromise in the way Shaft had. The latter film, released by MGM, was very careful to point out its lead character stood firmly on the right side of law and order. As an independent production, Super Fly seems altogether readier to prickle delicate sensibilities, introducing Ron O'Neal's eponymous dealer hero Youngblood Priest snorting coke off a crucifix while in bed with - zut alors! - a naked and willing white chick. Richard Roundtree's Shaft kept his cool, but O'Neal's Priest - a karate nut getting high on his own supply, in possession of a handlebar moustache so vast he could probably smack his enemies upside the head with it - is furious; in his righteous ire, he could be a black brother to the Angry Young Men who'd emerged in the previous decade's British working-class drama - or American cinema's first real attempt at putting something of the growing Black Panther roar on screen.

More interesting today as an artefact than as a movie per se, Super Fly is a far rougher proposition than Shaft, attempting a gritty realism that gets scuppered whenever a character sporting a silly hat or facial hair stumbles into view. Parks fils is more at home watching life pass by on Harlem street corners or through the windows of Priest's thoroughly pimped-out ride than he is having to record any of the dialogue that clues us in on his protagonist's big score (namely to import "the best shit in town... rocks and lumps as big as marble") or making dramatically involving those tryingly long scenes in which the gathered pimps, hustlers and junkies strike the requisite poses. Even approached as a character study, it's still variable, with a few grace notes scattered here and there, chiefly Curtis Mayfield's timelessly funky score - knowing and playing to its strengths, the film stops the action altogether at one point to accommodate a live performance of "Pusher Man" - and a strange, erotic encounter in a bubble bath that provides some brief, temporary relief from the surrounding one-note snapshots of a resolutely grimy, wholly unromantic New York. 

Super Fly is currently unavailable on DVD.

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