Super Fly.jpg

I did think about going to see the remake of Super Fly last week before failing to muster up the necessary enthusiasm required to experience near inevitable disappointment.

Instead, I rewatched the original featuring a commanding performance by Ron O’Neal and gave the soundtrack album, my absolute favourite of the blaxploitation era, a spin.

Directed by Gordon Parks, Jr in 1972, Super Fly was a low-budget production, incorporating many elements that might now see it classed as ‘guerrilla filmmaking’. Some scenes in public areas were shot without official permission, others were shot in the homes of friends, the same friends also being regularly called upon to provide their services as extras.

Rather than hiring and modifying any car into the kind of eye-catching pimpmobile becoming an evermore common sight at the time, a suitably slick customized Cadillac Eldorado was borrowed from a local mack, who was also given a role – he’s the flashy player in the white suit and red fedora. This is the car that we see Priest sharking around the scuzzy streets of Harlem in.

Sometimes the camerawork is a little shaky and out of focus but that only adds a further edgy flavour to shots of a city on the verge of economic collapse, which was witnessing an unparalleled rise in crime, with narcotics awash across neighbourhoods and a spiralling homicide rate.

Super Fly is now one of the most lauded blaxploitation movies and was an instant hit on release. Armond White, later a film critic for the NY Press, has recalled the impact on the audience when he first saw it in St. Louis, describing a crowd leaping out their seats, stomping their feet and clapping their hands, ‘It connected psychically with people,’ he said of the climax where Priest takes on some cops in a fight before issuing a warning that they will inevitably have to heed.

Not everyone was so pleased to see a big screen portrayal of a black man who is both a mack and drug lord even if he’s a highly charismatic mack and drug lord capable of getting one over on ‘the man’.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People deplored the depiction of a black criminal prepared to flood the streets of his community with drugs in order to make enough money to get out of his lifestyle.

Priest is certainly more anti-hero than hero. We’re hardly into the action before he’s beaten a man in front of a mother and her children and threatened Freddie, one of his men who owes him money, telling him he’ll put his wife out on ‘whore row’ if Freddie fails to deliver the cash before the night is out.

Curtis Mayfield himself saw the film more as an anti-drugs statement than pro and his eloquent lyrics throughout were pointedly critical of the macho Pusherman Priest and the businesses that he chose to make his living from.

Partly as a riposte to some of the criticism levelled at Super Fly’s perceived glorification of crime, O’Neal went on to direct and star in a sequel Superfly T.N.T in 1973, which found Priest in Italy and then a fictional African state, where he attempts to rise above his former life by helping the locals in their fight against colonial rule. It was a critical and commercial failure, though. This time round Osibisa supplied the soundtrack but it wasn’t a patch of Mayfield’s.

Curtis Mayfield -Super Fly

Super Fly was the third studio album by the man with arguably the most distinctive voice in soul Curtis Mayfield.

The music is staggeringly good with insistent beats, fantastic wah wah guitar and some incredibly inventive percussion. Best of all is Mayfield’s honeyed falsetto coo.

The team behind the film were so impressed that after the songs were delivered they decided that Curtis’ band, billed here as The Curtis Mayfield Experience, should be given the chance to perform a song Pusherman during the film, in a small club where Priest goes to visit an older pusher known as Scatter.

Released at a time when soul soundtracks were still in their relative infancy, the album even managed to outgross the movie. It spent four weeks as America’s #1 album, earned four Grammy nominations, and two singles, Freddie’s Dead and Super Fly, both cracked the top ten of the Billboard singles chart, each selling over a million copies.

Even the Super Fly logo used on film and album promotional material is thought to have been a huge influence on the ever growing army of graffiti artists marking the streets and subways of NYC with their tags.

Curtis – and I have only just discovered this – might have articulated some very positive, socially conscious messages in his lyrics but sadly he would appear to be guilty of failing to abide by these ideas in his private life.

According to Traveling Soul, the recent biography penned by his son Todd, Curtis was a deeply insecure man often guilty of abusive behaviour, an often neglectful father and uncompromising partner in love who expected others to bend to his will. It really is unsettling to read about ‘a trembling, frenzied scream that only came out in fights with women’ that he would adopt when his temper flared.

Even as Super Fly made its way up the charts, Todd claims to have been woken during the night as a fight erupted between his father and the woman Toni, who Curtis called his ‘spiritual wife’. ‘I walked out to find a policeman hulking in the doorway and Toni with a black eye. Dad never did these things in front of us [his children], but we’d see the aftermath.’

Mayfield also appears to have been something of a control freak. Just one example: for the recording of the soundtrack, he invited the Impressions’ longtime arranger, Johnny Pate, to help out. Pate felt he definitely merited at least a couple of writing credits but Mayfield flat-out refused to give him any songwriting acknowledgements. They would never again work together, which was a shame, Pate’s arrangements on Super Fly were truly top notch.