Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sun Jun 17, 2018 3:23 pm 
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Further comment on the original film and contrasts here. Documentary about the original here.

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LEX SCOTT DAVIS AND TREVOR JACKSON IN SUPERFLY

Not so fly

SupeFfly is a remake, but you must be of a certain age to know what of. Younger people might not even know what "Super Fly" means, and think it's another comic book superhero flick, between The Fly and Spider-Man. The older title was "Super-Fly," you dig? "Fly" meant "cool," or "bad," in the good sense. The original is from 1972, the early days of the Blaxploitation genre, and was directed by Gordon Parks, Jr., the son of the great and pioneering black American photographer, Gordon Parks (who directed movies too, more of them) . Gordon Parks, Jr. jumped on the Blaxploitation bandwagon in its early years, made four movies in five years, and then stopped making movies. The first "Super Fly" starred an actor called Ron O'Neal. It had a cookin', funky Curtis Mayfield score whose lyrics defined it better than its so-so script. Blackness was soulful back then, and "fly" black coke dealers in movies wore long coats and big hats. Priest, the iconically handsome and stylish dealer, with the ankh hanging around his neck that he uses to sniff his own cocaine, is tired of the dangerous game and wants to score big (a million bucks), and get out with his girlfriend. His lazy partner isn't so enthusiastic, but gives in, till corrupt white cops enter the scene.

Gordon Parks, Jr.'s movie was somewhat controversial: drug dealing was presented non-judgmentally. The New York Times published a favorable review by Roger Greenspun, who said Super Fly was mostly action, "but with the distinction that all the action means something." "The film's gut pleasures are real, and there are a lot of them," he wrote. "...they always connect with one another in a world so precisely, cruelly, excitingly balanced that there is no movement without countermovement, no pressure without a greater pressure in return." You can feel Greenspun's enthusiasm for a strong exemplar of a new genre. He says this is "a very good movie," and finds no fault with a performance by Ron O'Neal that has a "furious authority," even if it's "sometimes excessive" and "belongs as much to current myth as to reality."

The new version of Super Fly is entertaining enough, but has no such power. Its title is written now with the space taken out as SuperFly, like so many hackneyed trade names in the decades since the original. It arrives in a haze not of myth but of money - money thrown around like confetti by partying gangsters in gratuitous, unnecessary "atmosphere" scenes of the film, and by the deep-pockets producer of the film, Sony. This is a distraction. Trever Jackson, who plays the lead, is tall and handsome in a baby-faced sort of way; he has previously played more clean-cut roles, and speaks correctly, and too much, since the original Priest rarely spoke. A lot of time is wasted on spectacles, notably involving a gang of rival black coke dealers called Snow Patrol whose theme is white.

Snow Patrol live in a white palace, where everything is symmetrical. They all wear white, drive white cars, and shoot white designer guns. You expect them to burst into a song-and-dance routine at any moment. Their designer absurdity is distracting and one of the blights on this movie whose possible authentic core is continually being undermined by showy excess - and by clumsy writing that can't get any suspense going and completely lacks the satisfying clarity Greenspun describes of "no movement without countermovement, no pressure without a greater pressure in return." The original Priest had flash and panache that made him like a pimp or a drug dealer. The new baby-face Priest just seems nicely "styled", with his attention-getting hairdo and nice clothes that tart him up but don't seem essential to his persona.

It takes Super Fly 2 an hour to get any kind of purchase on its plot. You begin to suspect it's not going to have a plot, just a series of scenes. Director X, who helmed this picture, has experience with short hip hop videos, not feature films. Clearly he's not very confident of his plot, though the narrative elements from the first film provide a perfectly good framework for one. Besides set pieces, often involving the essentially irrelevant Snow Patrol, Priest has a mentor and boss, Scatter (Michael Kenneth Williams of "The Wire"); his weak-willed sidekick, Eddie (Jason Mitchell, of Straight Outa Compton); his girlfriend Georgia (up-and-comer Lex Scott Davis), on whom he bestows an art gallery (cue another gratuitous scene); and their Latina BFF Cynthia (Andrea Londo).

His effort to go to the source to make the big bucks takes Priest, you may have guessed it, to Mexico, where, magically, he is immediately kidnapped in an open market and taken to Adalberto Gonzales (Esai Morales, whose name I remembered from La Bamba, three decades ago), the capo dei capi of his drug chain of command. Too easily, Adalberto decides not to throw Priest out of his plane and to make him his chief Atlanta dealer because he's smart and has done some background checking. He knows about Adalberto's brother in the pen, and his mean mother, whom we'll see later. There is plenty of killing in this movie, and some of it is done by unexpected and terrifying means. There is also - and this strikes a welcome simple note - hand-to-hand combat, partly because Scatter has as a front a jujitsu studio, and Priest was his first, best student.

But the real life, what the movie defines as evil, comes when Priest's stealth operation gets blown after a low-level player carrying five pounds of Coke with a big-mouthed whore girlfriend is stopped by a duo of corrupt white cops, straight man Officer Turk (TV journeyman Brian F. Durkin) and boss lady Detective Mason (Jennifer Morrison). Morrison handles her unpleasant role of threatening extortionist in a generic style that makes it even sleazier. Her brutal backup man Officer Turk is the most iconic thing in this movie, iconic in a new way: he is the epitome of the enemy of every young American black man whose legally sanctioned murders inspired the Black Lives Matter movement. Our sympathies are with Priest and his gang, but it's not till these nasty white cops, capable of shooting a black man in his car reaching for his ID, like we know so well, that the plot gets goosed a little. Now Priest becomes a prisoner of city graft, the kind blandly corrupt black Atlanta Mayor Atkins (Antwan 'Big Boi' Patton) is in cahoots with, and this is a prison that motivates him to get himself and Georgia out of the country - to Montenegro, where for a few million dollars in cash they can become citizens and there is no extradition law. Eddie stays in Atlanta. Have we gone anywhere?

SuperFly, 116 mins., opened in US cinemas 13 June 2018. UK release is 14 September. Its Metascore is 54%.

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