Superfly, the remake of the 1972 blaxploitation classic, is tremendously disappointing on multiple levels. It is a misogynistic, long-form rap music video that glorifies racial and ethnic stereotypes. I’m going to take a deep dive trashing this film utterly, because it infuriated me. The original film faced some of the criticism I’m lobbing today, but there is a key difference. Both films have to be analyzed in the context of their era. The original was groundbreaking, a film where a black man beats the system to escape criminality. The 2018 Superfly had a chance to be meaningful and comment on similar issues today. Instead it plays to a ghetto reinforcing mentality with B-movie filmmaking and writing.
Trevor Jackson stars as Priest, an Atlanta cocaine dealer respected for his slick street game. Priest uses his superior intellect to fly below the police radar, but still be a major player in the drug scene. Priest gets into a deadly skirmish with a jealous rival (Kaalan Walker). Realizing the heat that’s coming, he devises one last mega deal to get himself and his girlfriends (Lex Scott Davis, Andrea Londo) out of the drug business. This means going behind the back of his mentor and supplier, Scatter (Michael Kenneth Williams). The plan goes awry, alerting a pair of crooked cops (Jennifer Morrison, Brian F. Durkin) to his existence.
Priest dresses like Prince, drives a fancy sports car, lives in a luxurious mansion, has two girlfriends, and hangs out at a strip club packed with money tossing gangsters. He mingles with Atlanta elites and its cartoonish mayor (Big Boi). Priest does all of this while trying to outwit a vicious Mexican cartel, murderous cops, and a group of all-white wearing gangbangers called Snow Patrol. Yet he’s somehow completely unknown to law enforcement. Let’s table that logic and accept the premise. The script by Alex Tse has Priest as the one-eyed man in the land of the blind. Every other character in this movie is played as a fool. They are depthless, stereotype reinforcing caricatures without a brain cell between them. It kills me, as a black journalist and film critic, to see these types of roles continue to pervade American culture.
So what’s the difference? Wasn’t the 1972 Super Fly guilty of the same kind of cultural denigration? No, and I’ll explain why, but let’s start with a history lesson. Super Fly came on the heels of Shaft, starring Richard Roundtree and directed by Gordon Parks Sr., the most famous black photographer of the day. Super Fly was directed by his son. The elder Parks financed Super Fly as well. These films came after the civil rights movement of the 1960s. They were black EMPOWERMENT films. For the first time, black people, who had been negatively portrayed by Hollywood since day one, were WINNING. They weren’t the servants, slaves, or shucking and jiving minstrels of a segregated, racist country. Ron O’ Neal’s Priest was a drug dealer that wanted to escape crime. He deftly outmaneuvers his adversaries, betrayal, and most importantly, the white police and legal system. Remember, this was the America after Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King Jr.; where black people were lynched for just whistling at a white woman. Super Fly and Shaft weren’t bankers or lawyers, they were representations of a black culture that wasn’t afraid or going to be victimized. They were the heroes of their own stories.
Director X’s Superfly reboot has none of this context behind it. It is the same lowbrow garbage that pollutes entertainment media with zero social relevance. The women in Superfly are sexually objectified and have no input whatsoever. They exist to be the same “bling” that the male characters flaunt like peacocks. Priest is such a “pimp”; he has two girls pleasuring him at will. It’s absolutely disgusting, but no surprise. Superfly is a direct representation of the worst in rap music culture. In a time when Kendrick Lamar wins a Pulitzer for his thoughtful music, Superfly is a reminder of just how deep the gutter still is.
Alright, so what should we have expected from Superfly? And why does the film have reason to be anything more than a crass B-movie filled with sex, drugs, and violence? Simply put, it had a responsibility to try to be as revolutionary as the original. The modern era has racial issues galore. Thousands of young black men are rotting in prison for nonviolent drug crimes. There is incident after incident of police abuse, now recorded or live streamed for the world to see. Sex crime and gender discrimination are front page news daily with the #MeToo movement. Superfly could have tackled these issues head on. The drug dealers could have reflected on their actions and the community. The women could have been true partners, not just soft porn eye-candy. Black on black violence could have been addressed. Superfly chooses to emulate and recreate the salaciousness of the original, without a thought to what made the original groundbreaking. It’s a damn shame.
Sony Pictures and Joel Silver see no cultural responsibility in releasing a film like Superfly. It’s a corporate profit endeavor targeting the “hip hop” audience, no different than a gaudy rap video. Superfly is an ugly film. It reminds me how far we still have to go as a society.