Trailers for BlacKkKlansman, White Boy Rick, and The Equalizer opened the first day/first show screening of Director X’s SuperFly reboot. If a return to hard R-rated blaxploitation is what’s needed to karate-kick comic book excessivity from out of the mainstream, than fill my pimpmobile with gas and point it in the direction of the local multiplex.
My parents discouraged teenage Scooter from boarding a Loop-bound train to visit one of Chicago’s more seedy downtown movie venues. After their heyday, these once-grand dream palaces lived out their remaining years of service in a constant state of decay, reduced to showing blaxploitation and karate epics. It wasn’t until MGM smelled money to be made off the cultural subgenre and Gordon Parks’ Shaft played a suburban screen that I was able to sneak into my first “urban action film,” as they were (are?) politely termed.
Shaft shortchanged the audience. What was the biggest impression it left on my recently Bar Mitzvahed brain? Once “The Man” finally got around to giving people of color a chance to make movies, they proved to be just as capable of delivering mediocre action films as their white counterparts. Happily, SuperFly joins John Singleton’s Shaft as another example of a remake that surpasses the original.
When Super Fly opened, I was old enough to drive downtown and experience it on the Oriental Theatre’s hundred-foot screen. Director Gordon Parks, Jr. got the better of his father, but not by much. The story of a hood pulling one last score before leaving behind a life of crime might very well be the stuff of which noir is made, but none of that had any bearing on either picture. Film noir is a style, not a genre, and I had to smirk at reviews that misclassified it as such. Duncan Shepherd, my predecessor in these parts, knew a “coarse-grained and clumsy” picture when he saw one. Watching it again reveals a surprising truth: the staging of the climactic shootout between Priest (Ron O’Neal) and Officer Honky is funnier (and sloppier) than any intentional comedy released the same year. The 2018 version is sure to find audiences cheering when Priest (Trevor Jackson) closes the picture by going all Rodney King on a cop’s ass.
Remaking the pro-drug saga of a coke-pushing pimp in the era of #MeToo seemed a daunting task. Priest’s byname was economized to one word, but for the most part it was surprising to watch how closely the new version followed the original. The solutions were simple: our hero must never be seen sampling his product, and when it comes to his day job, it’s hookers out, strippers in.
The babyfaced Jackson is far too pretty to play Priest, the role originated by the preeningly macho O’Neal. The latter knew how to dress, but his pointy, touch-’em’-and-you-bleed sideburns can’t compare to his counterpart’s mile-high pompadour. If Woody Woodpecker and Morris Day had a kid who slept with his head in a box, his coiffure might look something like this.
What else is new? The locale, moved from the sidewalks of New York to an Atlanta strip club and furniture store that acts as a front for the drug-dealing operation. Super Fly is best remembered for its soundtrack, so a few additional characters were needed to compensate for the 30% of the original that’s spent cruising the streets of New York to the soulful strains of Curtis Mayfield. And given its budgetary limitations, Ron O’Neal was never allowed to venture too far from the hood. The biggest laugh in the remake comes when Priest’s sidekick, Eddie (Jason Mitchell) admits a pronounced reluctance to cross the Mexican border by referring to his character as a “domestic n-word.”
Trailer for SuperFly
And why does Priest want to venture South? To track down Mexican drug kingpin Adalberto Gonzalez (Esai Morales). When left to his own devices, Gonzalez has the makings of a worthy enemy. (But the resulting rivalry between a drug lord and his mommy was as undesirable as traces of baby laxative on a coke spoon.) Not wanting to draw attention to himself while in Mexico, Priest opts for a Lexus LC 500 over the standard issue Electra 225. And whereas Ron O’Neal is only once depicted sampling his stable, Jackson has a live-in menage going on.
The bad guys operate under the collective handle Snow Patrol. Jovial group leader Q (Big Bank Black) dresses like Biggie Smalls advertising Hostess Snowballs. Wiry menace Juju (Kaalan Walker) turns out to be one of Priest’s roadblocks. Sadly, the barely perceptible “Thuglife” tattoo above his left eye is bound to be lost on a small screen visit. But true to the original, Priest’s biggest threat comes in the form of crooked cops, in this case a sufficiently seamy male and female duo played by Jennifer Morrison and Brian Durkin.
A frequent recipient of MTV Music Video Awards, this makes it feature number two for Director X. I’ll be the first one to admit that the raining money cliche quickly played itself out, and the ending could have withstood another rewrite. It was about this time that I began wondering if Director X were to appear as a mystery guest on What’s My Line? would he enter and sign in as Julien Christian Lutz?