Film Review: SuperFly

Another reimagining of a vintage movie that still stands perfectly well on its own, 'SuperFly' is slick but not cool and has nothing much to say.
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Cool and fundamentally decent cocaine dealer Youngblood Priest (Trevor Jackson)—the kind of name that could only play in these superficially cynical times by being oh-so-retro—lives in a swank Atlanta mansion with his two lady friends, African-American bestie Georgia (Lex Scott Davis) and ballsy Latina second-best Cynthia (Andrea Londo), who are totally cool with their three-way relationship in a soft-core shower-scene kind of way because, you know, girls today.

Priest, who’s been on his own since he was 11, has learned to get by on the use-what-you-have-to-get-what-you-want credo, and so far it’s worked for him. He’s smart, ambitious, has his wits about him and possesses an awesome head of silky good hair. Sure, he loves a fast car, but he’s not getting high on his own supply and he has an exit plan, even if that plan involves the notorious one-last-score that will let him escape with his ladies to one of those tropical paradises where life is cheap until you can no longer pay the bill. (See Jim Thompson’s El Rey, famously name-checked in From Dusk Till Dawn.) In any event, Priest’s plan isn’t fancy—it involves staying out of jail and getting out of Atlanta before his business catches up to him.

Were it not called SuperFly, music-video-trained Director X.’s (Canadian Julien Christian Lutz) feature debut, scripted by Alex Tse and Phillip Fenty and based on Fenty’s ’70s screenplay, would be just another direct-to-streaming/DVD action-crime picture and the odds that it would be getting a theatrical release would have been slim. But the legacy of 1972’s Super Fly Version 1.0 was apparently enough to boost it to theatrical feature status, despite the fact that it’s hard to believe most moviegoers in their 20s have even heard of the original film, let alone seen it, and that stripped of its context the story is just styling bad guys vs. styling worse guys like the rival Snow Patrol gang, with their spiffy all-white ensembles. Super Fly was a film of a time—the economically straitened, politically seething late 1960s and early ’70s—when legacy studios like Columbia Pictures and Warner Bros. were scrambling to keep up with independent studios that were quicker to sense which way the wind was blowing and get timely movies into production.

For all the flaws of ’70s blaxploitation pictures, which featured black actors but were generally produced, written and directed by white men, as a body of work they had a powerful appeal for African-American viewers who didn’t just want to see people who looked like them in socially and/or politically uplifting pictures. They also wanted to see their own faces in horror movies, crime pictures, dumb comedies and thrillers, from the independent and politically radical Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song to the studio-produced Shaft, which opened within months of each other in 1971.

While racial equality in mainstream media is far from a fait accompli in 2018, it’s hard not to look to Jordan Peele’s Get Out or successful TV series like “Atlanta”—especially since SuperFly is set there—and wonder about the rationale for resurrecting a slim shady story about sticking it to the man by dealing drugs and living the fly life.

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