Sunday, February 17, 2008
SuperFly: Get Your Hustle On
I was in New York recently, riding around town with my good friend, Vincent Davis, from the Boogie-Down Bronx. Vincent is a successful businessman, having launched the career of Keith Sweat, Silk among others, and founder of his own entertainment company, Vintertainment (yes, he's modest).
Vincent is currently producing his first film as a filmmaker, a penetrating look at all facets of the popular music industry.
As you can imagine, coming from the Bronx, Vince has a lot opinions and predictions that he's only to happy to share, whether you want to hear it or not. In our case, it always makes for lively conversation, whether I'm goading him about his hatred of Vince Carter, or he's berating me for my affection for the revisionist western, 'Tombstone'.
As we rode through Manhattan in his Cadillac pick-up truck, he popped in Curtis Mayfield's classic soundtrack to 'SuperFly', starring Ron O'Neal and directed by the late Gordon Parks Jr. Vince proceeded to tell me that the soundtrack was better than Isaac Hayes' Oscar winning score to 'Shaft' and that musically it was competitive with Rodgers and Hart. I agreed that it was better than most soundtracks that have been released, and competitive with other giants of the field. However, 'Shaft' has always held a soft spot in my musical heart, along with John Barry's score to 'Goldfinger'.
But listening to the music made me think about how fond I always have been of 'SuperFly' the movie. The story of a New York dope pusher looking to get out of the life and start over is a story that's been told before, but never from the point of view of a young, Black, intelligent protagonist. The gritty streets of Harlem, the tricked out car and unbelievable wardrobe, straight out of an Eleganza ad (If you don't know what Eleganza is, you don't know what you missed in the pages of Ebony in the 70s). Mayfield's score was perfect, his lyrics told the inner life of Youngblood Priest, the hustler in question.
Shot for $250,000, Superfly was funded by Warner Bros. but looks and feels like an indie film. Big, bold and fly, 'Superfly' had no precedent but many imitators. None ever really got it.
Topping it all of was the incendiary performance of Cleveland born Ron O'Neal. As Priest, he was handsome, cool, edgy, tough and introspective. It was also the first time that a light skinned Black actor had a chance to be a bad ass onscreen. As a high yellow brother myself, it really had an impact on me.
Ron O'Neal and his family lived around the corner from my parent's corner store in the inner city of Cleveland. I used to see Ron running by on his way to the Karamu theater where he was a mainstay for years. Shakespearean trained, O'Neal brought a level of depth and pathos to his role that few other actors would have been able to manage. His mother was a registered nurse and used to come in the store a few times a week. He had a sister, Kathy who taught school at Kent State. She was so beautiful I could barely look at her. She looked like a statuesque Egyptian queen.
Years later, I went to a Blaxploitation film festival at the Nuart Theater in Santa Monica. As I was heading towards the theater, Ron was coming out. I stopped him and told him who I was and he couldn't believe it, since I was about 12 years old, the last time he saw me. Kind and gracious, we had a nice chat and I was really happy to run into him.
Finally in 2004, Warner Bros. released 'Superfly' on DVD. Ron O'Neal passed away two days later.
To their credit, Warner Bros. did a nice job on the DVD. There are several featurettes, a vintage piece on Ron O'Neal, an audio commentary by a USC media professor and an audio interview with Curtis Mayfield.
There was a horrific sequel directed by Ron O'Neal, co-written by Alex Haley of 'Roots' fame, called 'Superfly TNT' ('taint nothin' to it). It picks up the story of Priest in Africa attempting to help a revolutionary overthrow an evil government. The less said about it the better.
Fortunately, bad sequels don't eliminate classic originals. If you haven't seen it, but you want an example of the real excitement and energy of the rawest flicks of the 70s, 'Superfly' has got you covered.
For my money, there are only five Blaxploitation movies that really stand the test of time and stand up next to films of other genres: Shaft, Coffy, Black Caesar, The Mack and of course, Superfly.
Okay Vince, do your worst.