Thursday, March 26, 2015

Sticking It To The Man!

Believe it or not until a few weeks ago I had never seen Super Fly, the infamous 1972 "Blaxploitation" movie which is mostly famous for its infectious soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield. I well remember the songs, because I was an inveterate AM listener back in those days (it's all I had). Curtis Mayfield defined a big part of the pop culture sound of the 70's in which I grew up. But for whatever reason, I had never seen the movie which first launched that effect.

Now I have, and it's a real time capsule for sure. At this remote time it's easy to judge the film making, but frankly I really find these verite' movies of the 70's a lot of fun because of the big city reality they show, since production value was mostly achieved by just being on the streets of NYC and letting reality fill in the gaps. For a Kentucky country boy New York City was the "Sodom and/or Gommorah" of the day, a place where sex, crime, and mostly drugs ruled the day while the "establishment" tried to simultaneously profit from and attempt to eradicate the activity. Mostly they wanted to keep it out of the news and off the minds of those who might want to visit the greatest city in the world.

The story of Super Fly is that successful drug dealer named Priest wants to leave his life of crime now that he has profited sufficiently and seek a regular law-abiding life outside the rigors of drug culture. But being a black man he is confronted by the stark reality that he is successful purely because he has found his success outside the laws controlled by the white majority. Played by Ron Neal, Priest is cool, handsome, and seems to be the ideal for any black boy who aspires to "matter" in his community. The movie for all its moralism mostly makes drug culture out to be rather cool and attractive. Priest snorts cocaine several times a day and even smokes some weed on top of that but seems for all that only a little bleary eyed from time to time. While clearly a junkie, he is high functioning and so gives something of a lie to the notion that drugs are a one-way street to degradation. He certainly is not degraded, if from time to time he is disrespected.

We never see really the folks who buy the drugs save in a fascinating photo montage which showcases that the drugs penetrate all parts of the society from the working class to the highest echelons of big business. Never are we presented with anyone who doesn't seem to be at some level benefiting from their drug use in some fashion. And certainly political action is presented as a limited option with the de rigueur activists who show up for a single scene are presented as ineffectual and in many ways as demanding of Priest as his drug bosses.

The criminal clans that control the drugs are black to a point when corrupt and all white police officials enter the scene and are shown to be effectively in control of their black agents. Perhaps that's the point of the ending when Priest is able to finally extricate himself somewhat from the life, but at great cost and we get the sense perhaps not for very long. But his victory does suggest he is exerting control over his life on his terms and not the terms routinely dictated to him by almost everyone in the movie that being a drug lord is the only out for a man of color.

Nonetheless as a young boy seeing this flick, I'd have been less impressed by the morality play than the fact that Priest is always the most fascinating figure in every scene, his glamor far exceeding any sense of remorse he might express for the way he lives.

Super Fly is an oddly fascinating movie, at once a neat peek back to a time when "cool" was rather distinctly defined and when drugs were not automatically a bane, but presented as a managed facet of a complicated world. As the United States begins to extricate itself from decades of drug hysteria and move into a more subtle and complex understanding of how such substances effect the whole of society, it's an oddly refreshing presentation.

And the music was boss.

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  1. I have not seen SuperFly – but I bought the Curtis Mayfield soundtrack about a year or so back and it is a terrific recording. Wanted to mention too, I recently saw The French Connection(1971) on Netflix and I’m still mulling over the ending. Keep coming away with the fact that – even in ‘71 the filmmakers seemed to be cognizant that the War on Drugs wasn’t working…(Also Gene Hackman’s depiction as a driven, over-the-top cop casts some interesting parallels on today’s world as well.)

    1. The French Connection is a real fave of mine. I watch it pretty much every time I catch it on TCM, and just watched it again a few weeks back. Yeah, the ending is a real poser. Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider are great, love the way they slowly peel back the onion of the crime. Another movie in that vein is The Seven-Ups, which features even more procedural stuff. People talk about the car chase in TFC all the time, but that's only a small part of a great character study flick.

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