Watching Super Fly, I thought of "The Wire." At its best, David Simon's sprawling HBO cop-and-drug-dealer television saga feels indebted to Gordon Parks Jr., because both "The Wire" and Super Fly take the personal and political struggle of their drug dealer characters seriously. In a world without systemic race and class bias, Priest might've had an opportunity to become a legitimate businessman, spending time in boardrooms and offices instead of dive bars and underground pool halls, but Super Fly leans into the tragedy that a man as principled as he is has to make do with what he's got. At a glance, many might summarize blaxsploitation by pointing to a parody like Undercover Brother or Black Dynamite, but Super Fly's style (largely provided by composer Curtis Mayfield Jr.) is secondary to its examination of a character that wants something better for himself, and quickly realizes how hard he'll have to fight to get it.
In telling this story, Parks' best asset is Ron O'Neal, whose quiet, reserved energy is an unexpectedly strong anchor for the film. His tall, commanding figure fills the screen, and his eyes have a steely determination that grabs the viewer's attention. O'Neal seems keenly aware that less is more, knocking more men out with his hundred-yard stare than the karate moves Priest practices in his spare time. Priest often takes some of his own product using the point on the end of his necklace, and the film introduces him sleeping with a woman other than his main girlfriend, but these feel like tics or reflexes, while a wintertime walk in the park with his main squeeze, talking about their plans for the future, feels sincere and heartfelt. It's also nice to see his friendship and partnership with Eddie, which often comments directly on the social struggles that the two black men face.
The film is loosely plotted, likely stemming from the film's limited budget -- the film was apparently shot guerilla style, using whatever limited resources were available. The pieces are all there for the story to function, but there's not very much urgency in the way Parks puts Phillip Fenty's screenplay on screen. Instead of a ticking-clock exercise in tension, Super Fly plays more like a slow-burn, with side characters and B-stories slowly shifting into position to tighten the chain around Priest's ankles. Priest turns to a retired connection, Scatter (Julius Harris) for his $300 grand worth of kilos, only for a gang of corrupt NYPD officers to come in and put pressure on Scatter to make Priest stick around based on the amount of money he's earning. The literal people in this operation are only half characters, what matters is the scope of the business that Priest has stumbled onto.
Parks' direction is hit-and-miss, with the film's pacing being its biggest weak spot. Although the film's slow-burn style is a reasonable choice, the editing could still stand to be tighter. At one point, Priest sits down in a bar and the film spends almost a minute watching Priest take something out of his pocket that the audience can't even see -- it's little moments like this that could be lopped right out. On the other hand, Parks shows some clever budget-stretching ingenuity with a montage of photographs showing Priest and Eddie doing business all over town (so stylish that Parks gets a second credit for taking the pictures). As mentioned, the movie also gets plenty of mileage out of Curtis Mayfield's music, including the songs "Pusherman" and "Superfly." Mayfield and his band even appear in the film itself performing "Pusherman" on screen, which is a far more acceptable indulgence in the editing room.
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