Super Fly, the blaxploitation film that inspired generations of filmmakers: NPR

Super Fly, lobbycard, from left: Sheila Frazier, Ron O’Neill, 1972.

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Super Fly, lobbycard, from left: Sheila Frazier, Ron O’Neill, 1972.

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It’s been 50 years since Sheila Frazier made her big screen debut as Georgia, the girlfriend of drug dealer Youngblood Priest, in the blaxploitation film classic. Super Fly,

And Frazier estimates that not a single week has passed in his life since the premiere without anyone mentioning the film.

“It amazes me that it’s been 50 years and people are still talking about it,” says Frazier, who initially took the job thinking that starring in a movie with Ron O’Neill was too much. Would be nice, who played the priest. “Maybe it still reflects what some of our communities are dealing with.”

even those who haven’t seen Super Fly Identify its theme song: A groundbreaking, funky hit written by R&B star Curtis Mayfield, which became one of the most successful movie themes of the blaxploitation era. The soundtrack helped turn the film into one of the most profitable films of its time. earning millions in a nutshell Saint As the top film of 1972.

Since then, the film’s gritty, authentic portrayal of street life and its flamboyant main character – a sharp-dressing, karate-kicking drug dealer looking for one last, big score before leaving the sport – have helped create such ideals. who has inspired legions of future storytellers and musicians

Consider Wesley Snipes’ charming gangster Nino Brown from the 1991 film new jack city, Or Idris Elba’s brutal drug kingpin Stringer Bell, who wants to spare the criminal Life on HBO’s Series and Convert Wrongfully Earned Money into a Legitimate Business Wire,

Even Prince’s soft-spoken, unmistakable performance as The Kid purple Rain It looks like it’s O’Neill’s debt to the priest in some sort of intense, mysterious way.

In music, Mary J. everything from blizz i am the only woman For the version of Fishbone Freddy’s Dead Either samples or copies of the legendary hit Mayfield created to enhance the story of the film as a whole.

Super Fly, Poster, Ron O’Neill, 1972.

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A film inspired by the streets of Harlem

Still, there’s a lot that some people don’t know about the film. Super FlyIncluding the meaning of the title – which describes the high quality of cocaine the priest puts on the street.

“Fly was the word at the time,” says Philip Fenty, who wrote the script for it. Super Fly, “I just put super in it and made super fly…I could hear it somewhere and it stuck because it’s cool.”

At the time, Fenty knew about the success of ratchet — another blaxploitation classic that was released just a year earlier — and was inspired by a growing, Black-focused independent film and theater movement in New York. As an executive at a Black-owned advertising agency, Fenty wanted to use the skills he had developed in commercials to write his own film.

He saw the cover story of 1971 New York magazine about a budding black drug dealer named golden nose man, And then a friend brought a drug dealer to Fenty’s house in New York with a warning.

“He said, ‘Boy don’t you square up on me,'” Fenty says, using a slang term for the act, which eventually ended up in the film. “It was, in fact, one of the most incredible evenings I’ve ever had in my entire life.”

The friend who brought up the drug dealer was Nate Adams, who grew up with Fenty in Cleveland. According to Adams, when Fenty originally suggested that they develop a film together, he had a sarcastic reply.

“Sorry my French, I said ‘n—-not doing any movies,” Adams noted with a laugh. “We ain’t got no shot at doing a movie.”

But Adams eventually went along, ditching the clothing himself and developing the characters’ signature look: flashy trenchcoats and bold hats for Priest, plush fur coats for Georgia. Adams got the tricked-out car Priest drives – a Cadillac Eldorado with a Custom Rolls Royce-style grille and special headlights – operated by a man at a local shoeshine parlor.

Fenty collaborated with producer Sig Shor to help raise funds; The author says he had three credit cards and Shor had two. He says he also got money from two black dentists and that director Gordon Parks Jr. eventually had to ask his famous father – famed photographer/director Gordon Parks, who directed. ratchet – For money. Adams said a lack of permits and money meant he was often running around New York City, dodging the Teamsters union and police like guerrilla filmmakers.

“Money was always an issue, all the way through the shoot,” Adams says. “We used to go out in the street during the night shoots and they were harnessing the electricity from the lampposts, from the street (lights) to do this work.”

Adams says that he and Fenty took a walk around their Harlem neighborhood to soak up the atmosphere of pimps, drug dealers, and sex workers in street life. And he cast another friend from Cleveland, up-and-coming stage actor O’Neill, as the priest.

Superfly emerges at a critical time

Super Fly came along at a crucial moment for the film world; mafia movie classic SaintReleased a few months earlier, it proved that there was a market for heroes rooted in authentic ethnic cultures (as in Black-centric films such as Shaft and Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback Badmaash Song) and black consumers were eager to see the movies they recognized: hip, roadside characters who could beat “The Man” (the white establishment) at his game.

Priest, who eventually beats out corrupt cops to get the most out of life – tooling around in a distinctive car that was like his Batmobile – seems to be a superstar antagonist this time.

“It was one of those rare times,” says Frazier, “who won against all the people in politics who helped set these things up in our communities.”

Of course, another reason the film became a hit was Mayfield’s soundtrack, which featured hits such as Freddy’s Dead And the theme song of the film. Curtis’ son Todd Mayfield said that his father began writing songs soon after he was given a script by Fenty and Shore – sympathetic to Fat Freddy, one of Priest’s hapless dealers, who was hit by a car. and was killed while running away from the police.

“There were more Freddies than priests,” says Todd Mayfield, who remembers his father working on a Fender Rhodes keyboard sitting next to a video machine. “One of the first songs he wrote was Freddy’s Dead, There’s a lot of people living in the Bronx and Harlem and different parts of New York that you’ll see here in Chicago on the West Side and parts of the South Side.”

Curtis Mayfield performs “Freddie’s Dead” on the TV show Soul Train.


Curtis was an important part of marketing Mayfield’s hit film, promoting it and boosting the film’s cool factor. Todd Mayfield noted that the songs also told stories that added to the film’s narrative while criticizing the drug trade.

“The soundtrack made these characters more one-dimensional,” he says. “It gave him some depth. And it made you think about him a little bit differently sometimes, which is what you were seeing early in the movie.”

A drug-dealing antihero creates backlash

But not everyone liked to see black drug dealers and street life humanised. The films were criticized by groups including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People: Super Fly For his depictions of violence and drug use, he has been accused of glorifying horrible people.

Junius Griffin, then president of the Beverly Hills-Hollywood branch of the NAACP, is credited with coining the term “blaxploitation” shortly after. Super FlyThe U.S. release stated that such films exploit black people and encourage them to adopt destructive ideals.

The word “blaxploitation” is in since the expansion To describe an entire genre of films that flourished in the 1970s, featuring black characters as protagonists, often in urban settings. Fans of the genre, such as superstar director Quentin Tarantino, use the term as a badge of honour.

Still, Fenty, Adams and Frasier all say they dislike the term.

“I can’t stand it,” Frazier says. “When we saw (James) Cagney (gangster) movies and a lot of movies dealing with the mafia and bootlegging, he didn’t call it white exploitation.”

Featured in DVD Commentary for Todd Boyd, a professor at the University of Southern California and a cultural commentator Super FlyAgree with Frazier. He notes that, even though the priest is shown driving a nice car, in nice clothes and a wonderful car, he is also depressed and under pressure to get out of a dangerous life before it kills him. is trying.

“There is a sense of black power mixed with capitalism and this desire to be a street entrepreneur,” says Boyd. “And to put it in a movie, it gives meaning to the search for life in a way that it wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Super Fly Eventually made two half-hearted sequels and a 2018 remake. Many of the people involved in the making of the original film, including Ron O’Neill, Sig Shore, and Gordon Parks Jr. have died, but the film’s influence lives on in hip-hop culture and pop life.

Fenty offers a simple explanation for the longevity of its pop culture.

“We love criminals in this country,” he says. “He (priest) has come from below. And the only way to go from bottom to top is to be a robber.”

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