SUPERFLY: Brighter Featured

While SHAFT is arguably better known, much of the style and energy of Blacksploitation films can be traced to the original 1972 movie SUPER FLY. So this remake had big shoes to fill. To remake not only a beloved cult movie from time’s past but also one that deserves at least partial credit for launching a cinematic genre is no easy task. Add in one of the quintessential soundtracks in a history and a surprisingly complex take on living a life of crime, police corruption, and racial politics and it goes to nigh impossible. Nonetheless, we must ask, did the SUPERFLY of 2018 manage to become the pusher man of our era?

SUPERFLY: Priest riding solo
Trevor Jackson wears the hell out of that coat in SUPERFLY (Courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

The Idea Behind SUPERFLY

Priest (Trevor Jackson), a cocaine dealer, has been hustling Atlanta since before he could be called a teenager. Now, he has an impressive full-scale operation going without the police having any idea who he is. His personal life is quite something as well. He has a pricey modern style home near downtown Atlanta. Sharing it with him are Georgia (Lex Scott Davis), his ride or die partner from their childhood, and Cynthia (Andrea Londo), his strip club contact. They are both his girlfriends and love to share him with each other and each other with him.

However, one night at one of Atlanta’s finest strip clubs, a member of the gang Snow Patrol becomes jealous of Priest. Juju (Kaalan Walker) attempts to jump Priest after closing time but instead shoots a bystander. Our protagonist, tired of having a life where being shot at is a normal risk of business, decides he wants to pull off one last score. When he is flush with that cash, he’ll leave the game with Georgia and Cynthia in tow and never look back.

Things don’t go as planned. First, his mentor Scatter (Michael Kenneth Williams) won’t help him. Then, he has to make a deal with the cartel, run by Aldaberto Gonzales (Esai Morales), directly. To make matters worse, his lieutenant and friend Eddie (Jason Mitchell) does not want to walk away from the life.

And all of this comes before a key member of his organization gets gunned down and two corrupt cops decide they need a taste of that coca action.

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The Writing

Alex Tse—whose only previous film screenwriting credit is WATCHMEN—turns in a very straightforward screenplay here. Nothing about it is groan worthy, but nothing about it feels particularly captivating either.

I understand not wanting to ostracize an audience with slang they may not know, but SUPERFLY aches for stylistic language. Priest and his co-conspirators live across several conflicting environment — politics, art, drugs, music. And yet, everyone speaks more or less the same. At no point does the language being used give you a feel for the cohort currently being interacted with. Charitably, one might suggest it is commentary about how much these worlds have blended together, but with the exception of the hypocritical mayor played by Big Boi, the movie never gives you anything to justify that charity.

SUPERFLY: Georgia and Priest
Lex Scott Davis and Trevor Jackson go art appreciating in a scene from SUPERFLY (Courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

Casting the Lead of SUPERFLY

Trevor Jackson has an easy air about him that I like. He seems cool and comfortable as he moves through the various worlds he finds himself in. He feels modern in a way that works. Of all the changes between the original and this one, altering Priest’s manner and sense of cool is the best. What made the ’72 incarnation an icon would look ridiculous here. The movie update as embodied by Jackson feels, for lack of a better way to put it, right.

However, when he comes up against difficult moments—be it interpersonal or business—Jackson can’t seem to summon the emotions. He’s almost too calm, too in control. When things got dark, we never really believe Priest is in trouble.

The film does him no favors on this count either. What could have been the juiciest scenes for Jackson either never were scripted or ended up on the cutting room floor — in particular, his late in the film conflict with Eddie. We leave it in one state, return to it in entirely another. However, we never see why or how. I think the intent is to build tension, but the result is viewers are denied relevant information and what could have been a powerful scene or two.

Additionally, his motives are difficult to discern. At one point, Georgia demands of him how much more money he needs to run. He can only say more. When she asks why, what can’t the millions they already have be enough, he does not even attempt an explanation. Not to her or the audience. Moreover, he never does. It’s hard to cheer for him to double his cash—already more than most of us will ever see—when he cannot even attempt to justify the need.

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Casting the Rest of the SUPERFLY Call Sheet

Speaking of Eddie, I liked Mitchell’s interpretation of the character. For one, he just has great chemistry with Jackson which sells their friendship. For another, as the skeptic who does not want to leave the life, he becomes the sole conduit of political commentary in the film.

Much like the Eddie of the original, this one argues that crime is the only place for a black man to make a go of it in America. However, given current circumstances, the declaration feels more relevant than ever. Mitchell makes it clear that Eddie is not only justifying his greed. He truly believes America will kill him one way or another and he might as well go out rich and in control.

Really, the only ones besides Mitchell to get much to chew on are Big Boi as the “man of God” mayor Atkins, who sure does love cocaine and orgies, and Jennifer Morrison as a corrupt vice detective. Every look Big Boi gives on-screen is a sleazy delight. His character is paper thin—a devout man who is actually a hedonist—but he makes it fun.

Morrison, too, is clearly relishing her chance to play bad. With an accent and speaking manner that feels as though she came in from a different movie, she plays Detective Mason as aggressively amoral. She also repeatedly references her partner in this hustle as being scary. However, she does it with this sort of, “Can you believe my doofus husband” vibe that is at once off-putting and weirdly enduring. I can’t say she’s good, but in a movie full of “safe” performances, I love that she’s trying something.

SUPERFLY: Juju and Cynthia
Kaalan Walker attempts to get his flirt on with Andrea Londo in the club in a scene from SUPERFLY (Courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

Filming

The director’s name is Director X. I believe this should, more or less, legally require him to give us some INCREDIBLE visuals. Not coherent storytelling, per se, but some wild stuff to be marveled at on-screen.

He does not.

Worse, at points, especially during a late car chase, the movie looks like you are watching a TV with the motion smoothing setting on.

His arguably most stylish moment occurs in the first fight between Juju and Priest where X employs slow-motion and a moment where, no kidding, Priest literally dodges a point-blank bullet. In a world where POOTIE TANG exists, the scene feels like an impossibly silly reference to that film. Yes, TANG itself was a reference to SUPER FLY but it was intended as parody. This film is intended as serious and in that moment came across as parody of a parody.

The second most stylish scene is the threesome show scene with Priest and his two lovers. I will say that it is the first scene in a mainstream movie I can remember featuring a woman on a man’s face while he enjoys some penetrative sex. So, you know, groundbreaking.

Beyond that, the choices are safe and, as a result, the film lacks energy.

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Comparing the Remake to the Original

SUPERFLY is not as good as SUPER FLY.

Priest in the ’72 original is a baaaaaaaad man. Not just cool and smooth, but seriously wicked. One of the first things we see Priest do is promise that if he doesn’t get his money from Fat Freddie, he will sell Freddie’s wife into prostitution.

’08 Priest never does anything remotely that morally questionable. The movie goes to great length to tell us that Priest somehow put together the most secretive and profitable drug dealing business in Atlanta without ever killing someone.

Second, the’08 plotline is much more complicated—but not complex—that the original. As a result, the meditation on corruption and crime is all muddied up.

Snow Patrol, a drug dealing gang, is part of this. While I get snow equals cocaine, there is no escaping that this dangerous gang is named after a power pop band that just released an album last month. Moreover, they all carry color-coded guns, which is some super villain henchmen stuff right there.

This “more” principle infects the whole movie. The original saw Priest seeking a million dollars to quit the life. In today’s money, that’s about six million. Instead, this Priest wants over 30 million. ’72 Priest had money but lived amongst the grit and grime of the New York City denizens he was selling to. ’08 Priest lives in a gorgeous home overlooking Atlanta. ’72 Priest had a girlfriend and a mistress. ’08 Priest is part of a throuple where the women have sex with him and each other. And on and on we go. As a result, this Priest feels remote, distant, whereas ’72 Priest felt vibrant and real.

SUPERFLY: Eddie and Priest
Jason Mitchell and Trevor Jackson communicate with only their eyes, like best friends do, in SUPERFLY (Courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

That’s a Wrap

I think the above gives it away, but I’ll restate it to be clear. SUPERFLY turns out to not be very good. It goes too big where it should be small and down to earth. It shows us stuff that doesn’t enhance our understanding of the characters or the situations while omitting scenes that would. Despite boasting a director whose name screams, “TOO MUCH STYLE,” the film looks generic as can be. Even without the shadow of SUPER FLY, this would be a “wait for it on streaming.” With the shadow of SUPER FLY, it is a borderline insult.

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