Friday, February 18, 2011

Superfly (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Super Fly”
Still Flying High

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

They call them blaxploitation films – films that exploit blacks – but black filmmakers frequently made them. And as much as these movies were designed to be commercially exploitive, they did provide role models. Of sorts.
Forget that Super Fly is a drug dealer; he’s still a black man who takes no … guff. As portrayed by Ron O’Neal, this anti-hero named Youngblood Priest is one cool dude – tall and lean, nattily dressed in a dazzling white suit, long hair framing his Zapata mustache. O’Neal became an overnight star.
1973’s “Super Fly” tells the story of a coke dealer who wants to retire from the game, but since the mob doesn’t provide pensions or IRA’s he needs to make a last big score. As he takes on the mob, wiping them out one by one, black audiences felt a vicarious sense of empowerment, seeing on the screen what they couldn’t accomplish in real life.
Typecast as a bad ass, O’Neal spent the post-70s trying to break the image. Before “Super Fly” he’d been a serious actor, appearing in Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre production of “No Place to Be Somebody,” for which he won an Obie. He taught acting in Harlem, did summer stock productions, and performed on Broadway. But as blaxploitation films faded, O’Neal had trouble finding work. A few movie roles, a couple of TV gigs, but he was stuck playing drug-snorting, violence-prone street thugs.
“Super Fly” is Monday night’s classic film at Tropic Cinema. Craig Wanous is presenting it in tribute to February’s Black History Month.
Perhaps “Super Fly” seems like an odd choice for Black History Month, but these blaxploitation films did play an important role in the cinematic evolution that gave us John Singleton and Spike Lee and Lee Daniels and Tyler Perry.
“Super Fly” was directed by Gordon Parks Jr., a man of color. His father, noted Life Magazine photographer Gordon Parks Sr., directed another blaxploitation classic, “Shaft.”
My old friend Melvin Van Peebles is credited with ushering in blaxploitation films in 1971 with “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.“ His daughter Megan used to work for me at Scholastic. His son Mario documented his role pretty well in a biopic titled “Baadasssss.”
Blaxploitation films tend to fall into two categories: Kick-ass black drug dealers standing up to the Man. And revenge films featuring kick-ass black chicks standing up to men.
Ron O’Neal, Richard Roundtree, Fred Williamson, and Jim Brown were among those prototypical urban Mandingoes.
Pam Grier (“Coffee,” “Foxy Brown”) with her generous bosom and aquiline grittiness was the poster girl for the revenge films. She reprised the role for Quentin Tarantino in 1997’s “Jackie Brown.”
This cinematic genre is populated by flashy pimps and curvy hookers, bad cops and dangerous drug dealers, ghetto players surrounded by violence and drugs and sex, all of them shooting and snorting and fornicating, set to the pounding beat of Curtis Mayfield, Willie Hutch, or Isaac Hayes. Throw in a touch of Black Nationalism and an anti-establishment attitude, then you have the framework for a blaxploitation film like “Super Fly.”
Stereotypical? Yes, but largely it was blacks creating their own urban stereotypes. Kinda like why my black friends can use the N word but I can’t.

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