Super Fly (1972)

Rating: **(*)
Review Date: 7/15/18
Music: Curtis Mayfield
Cast: Ron O'Neal, Carl Lee, Julius Harris, Sheila Frazier

"I know it's a rotten game, but it's the only one The Man left us to play. That's the stone-cold truth."

Priest (Ron O'Neal) is a tough and successful cocaine dealer in Harlem. He's living a life of luxury, but he wants out before he ends up dead, in jail, or killing someone. He has a plan to make one last epic score and then split with the cash to find a new life, but his friends think he's crazy and The Man certainly isn't going to let his retirement go unchecked. Naturally, his plan starts to fall apart due to chance and circumstance, but Priest is a smart guy who can think on his feet, and he won't go down without a fight.

"Super Fly" is a bleak and gritty portrait of inner city life in the 1970s, and it tackles the plight of young black men who were forced into hustling because they had no other options. Ron O'Neal gives a superb performance as Priest and has a strong screen presence with lots of charisma. He also has a very unique and distinct look, with his straightened hair, pronounced widow's peak, Freddie Mercury moustache, and outrageous sideburns. The fashions are also outrageous, but he and the rest of the cast wear them well. Like many anti-heroes of the 70's, Priest isn't particularly likable, but he's a victim of the system and you want to see him succeed. He's constantly snorting coke and smoking weed, he cheats on his romantic partner, he threatens people and beats them up, and is generally just a mean old alley cat - albeit an intelligent, upwardly mobile, and sharp-dressed one.

The film was made on a miniscule budget, so the rather lean script is padded with lots of filler material and the pacing is excruciatingly slow. Twenty minutes into the film I was wondering if I could make it through the entire thing. Curtis Mayfield's soundtrack is a genuine reflection of the time and place, and in the film's most painfully drawn out scene he plays "Pusher Man" live in Julius Harris's night club. I thought that would never end, and it took considerable willpower to not hit the fast-forward button. The production is definitely scrappy and the filmmakers used whatever shots they were lucky enough to get. The lighting is lackluster, the camera work is weak, and the editing is terrible, which perhaps unintentionally gives the film a more raw, realistic, and documentary aesthetic. That said, it can be hard to watch at times. The optional three-star rating is because it's a culturally important film that approaches its subject with daring seriousness, before blaxploitation became mainstream and overly campy. It also ends on a positive note, which empowered and encouraged black audiences nationwide. Just when the film reaches its darkest and most hopeless point, Priest manages to turn the situation around and come out on top, truly sticking it to The Man. I can only imagine the profound impact that must have had, and how audiences leapt to their feet and cheered.