This remake of the 1970s blaxploitation classic is neither super nor fly
Rated R / 116 Min.
Trevor Jackson takes on the role of Priest, a slick drug dealer in Atlanta, Georgia with plans to step away after “one last, big score.” His best friend Eddie, played by Jason Mitchell, doesn’t believe Priest can walk away so easily, especially with the villainous JuJu (played very well by Kaalan Walker) on Priest’s heels. A tragic shooting leads to Priest playing every angle he can to keep on top and stay alive.
The original Superfly was released in 1972 and arrived in the midst of the so-called “blaxploitaton” film movement. The movement started in 1971 with Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, an act of cinematic defiance in which Van Peebles, after years of playing degrading roles that fed into black stereotypes, decided to make his own movie. Van Peebles plays Sweetback, an on-the-run criminal who, at one point, beats a white cop to death with his handcuffs. Sweetback – in addition to being sexually aggressive, violent and intimidating – also sported a mustache, which was formerly taboo for African-American film actors. Van Peebles’ movie was an indie smash. Shaft, Cleopatra Jones, Black Belt Jones, Blacula and Superfly followed. They changed the way African American men and women appeared in movies: sexy, rebellious and complex.
Priest, the “hero” of Superfly, was especially hard to like. But, accompanied by thrilling music from Curtis Mayfield, the character resonated. While the initial blaxploitation movement waned mostly due to the quality of the later films, the genre never went away. While there are lots of parodies (like the still-uproarious I’m Gonna Git U Sucka and Black Dynamite), there have also been real-deal updates (namely Wesley Snipes in Blade) and loving tributes (like most of Quentin Tarantino’s films). The rich, troubling heritage of blaxploitation (a moniker both positive and negative) made me excited about the return of Priest. Unfortunately, this new version is empty and underwhelming.
Jackson is appealing in the lead – his elevated hair is deservedly noted throughout the film. Jason Mitchell’s performance as Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton was among the best of 2015 and, again, he seizes an opportunity to steal the film. Michael Kenneth Williams has some of the strongest scenes as Priest’s martial arts mentor and Esai Morales is great as essentially the same gangster he plays on Ozark.
Superfly was co-produced by Future, who provides a handful of echoing, redundant songs on the soundtrack. Far better are the inclusion of Mayfield’s classic Superfly theme and “Pusherman,” though both seem out of place with the modern day setting. Had the filmmakers changed the name of the lead character, this would be unrecognizable as the new Superfly. The best that can be said is that it’s better than the awful, long out-of-distribution, 1990 film, The Return of Superfly, in which the title character is played by The Young and the Restless star Nathan Purdee (a young Samuel L. Jackson is in it, too). I recall having a VHS copy of it in a box, where it deserves to remain.
If the new Superfly has a consistent problem, it’s how cheap looking it is. Even by the standards of a B-movie update of a ‘70s drive-in movie classic, there’s nothing here we haven’t seen before. The trailers tout this as coming from “The Producer of The Matrix Trilogy.” Indeed it is, as legendary producer Joel Silver is the biggest name in the film. Despite Silver’s lineage, there’s not enough action and too many scenes of talking and driving. The filmmakers name is Director X, which is too pretentious for a movie this underwhelming.
There’s a satisfying shoot-out in the lively final feel, but this really should have been tougher and nastier. The opening scenes look too much like a late-’90s P. Diddy video, and, seriously, it’s hard to take a rival gang called Snow Patrol seriously. While it has its moments, the new adventures of Priest are neither super, nor fly. Mario Van Peebles, son of Melvin, made this movie better back in 1991. It’s called New Jack City and is everything you’d want from updated blaxploitation.