“Look, I know it’s a rotten game, but it’s
the only one The Man left us to play.”
I think acting is the only profession where you can be penalized for doing a great job.
Occasionally, an actor gives a performance that so captures the public’s imagination that they simply can’t separate the man from the role – a problem that would plague Ron O’Neal for the rest of his too short life after the release of the blaxploitation classic Superfly. Classically trained with a background in Shakespeare, O’Neal would forever be the cocky, stylish cocaine dealer Youngblood Priest in the eyes of the public. His dynamite performance laid the foundation for a sadly misunderstood flick concerned with what would soon be a familiar topic: a criminal’s attempt at one last big score before getting out of the game for good.
In this case, Priest is tired of the hustle. Tired of the lifestyle. So, he – along with his hesitant partner Eddie – make a deal to buy 30 kilos of cocaine and sell it all in a month for a cool million, then Priest can get out while the gettin’ is good. All goes to plan, until their associate Fat Freddie (Charles McGregor, Blazing Saddles) gets picked up by the Man and beaten into giving the details on Priest’s underground empire. But the cops are more interested in partnering than breaking it up, with the caveat that they won’t let Youngblood ever get out of the hustle. It’ll take all his street wisdom to make the last big score before the police put Priest down for good.
Gritty, street-smart photography and unpolished direction from Gordon Parks Jr. helped influence a cavalcade of imitations, but we all know what really made Superfly a classic – the absolutely legendary soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield. Playing more like a concept album than a traditional soundtrack, Mayfield (who performs in the film along with his band The Curtis Mayfield Experience) injects a sense of morality and social consciousness into the proceedings through his lyrics, adding gravitas to sometimes stilted scenes. Songs like “Pusherman,” “Freddie’s Dead” and “Superfly” remain soul classics, and provide a necessary counterpoint to O’Neal’s fiery performance.
While there is an obvious political undercurrent that runs throughout – from the quote above, to Priest being accosted by a black militant group who try to force him to “pay his dues,” before being pacified with promises that when things go down, he’ll “be right down front killin’ whitey” – the message becomes rather muddled in the second half, which is more concerned with Priest’s attempts to double-cross those who are trying to steal his freedom. Of course, the police are out for Youngblood’s (young) blood are as racist as they are corrupt, but Priest’s protestations feel a little hollow as he snorts his way though massive amounts of cocaine while attempting to sell off an even more massive amount. He’s a hard guy to love, but O’Neal plays him with enough guarded charm that you can’t help but pull for him to get out from under his oppressors’ thumb.
Often praised as one of the prototypical blaxploitation films next to Shaft and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Superfly is an entirely more sedate animal. Occasionally choppy, though featuring some outstanding cinematic moments – a photographic montage set to Mayfield’s “Pusher Man” is a highlight – Superfly rests on the shoulders of two men who died before their time. Ron O’Neal may never have escaped the shadow of this performance (he would direct the sequel Super Fly T.N.T. in 1973), but his impact could be felt in all of the black anti-hero characters which followed, while Curtis Mayfield (who was paralyzed by a tragic accident in 1990 and passed away due to his declining health in 1999) remains a cultural icon due to his politically- conscious funk and R&B . Superfly may be super-flawed in parts, but remains absolutely unforgettable.
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