Sunday, April 21, 2024

‘Superfly’ Soars

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Superfly is a slick, smooth ride. A remake of the 1972 blaxploitation film, Super Fly, Director X, has chosen to add more visual flair and a bolder aesthetic to his version. Superfly is a fun, smart, and funny movie with more than money on its mind.

At its core, Superfly is the age-old tale about a criminal trying to go straight. How does one leave a tempestuous gang of drug smugglers, dealers, and money launderers? One last big score.

Director X has peppered this story with grace notes of social statements about the current state of the lives of black men and women. Action scenes are punctuated with visuals rooted in current political struggles and conversations lend the scenes a heightened emotional catharsis. Few other films would blow up a Confederate statue as an exclamation point to a car chase. Though I don’t know why, it seems like an easy crowd-pleasing visual, to me.

Priest (Trevor Jackson) is at the top of his game. In the Atlanta criminal underground, he is treated almost as if his namesake is his profession. In the opening scenes, we see Priest enter a party. The building is bathed in neon red as people dance to the thudding bass tempo. Priest confronts the man throwing the party, a local rapper, who wears gold chains and a cross around his neck. The rapper, calls over his bodyguards and refuses to talk to Priest.

The opening scene of Superfly is a standoff but it’s not a shootout. The script by Alex Tse instead uses it as a way to introduce Priest the character morally and intellectually. He asks the young man about what the cross means to him. If he’s so sincere about it why isn’t he at church? Priest then goes on to call out the bodyguards, not by their street names, but by their given names. “The fear of God comes from him being all knowing.”

Jackson has a wonderful presence that anchors the movie. His stylized black trenchcoat and perfectly coiffed hair. His boss and mentor Scatter (Michael K. Williams) even comments on his hair, “You with your Morris Day haircut.” “Wait, wait. Who’s Morris Day?”

Tse peppers Superfly with humor and insight. He cares about his characters and their choices for they are what drive the plot. Priest has reached the pinnacle of the drug business by doing being smart and cautious. Talking to his partner, Eddie (Jason Mitchell) as they drive down a highway Priest confides in him his views on killing. “Taking a human life…taints you…forever.”  Priest seems to abhor a body count. It is what has helped him stay unnoticed by the corrupt Atlanta Police Department.

Director X allows us to see the glory of being on top but also the psychological pressure of being number one in a criminal organization. “At any point, some fool with a gun can end it all.” Priest wants out, and he’s taking his girlfriends Georgia (Lex Scott Davis) and Cynthia (Andrea Londo) with him. Priest’s triad polyamorous relationship is treated with nothing but the utmost love and care. The three plan together, live together, and in one steamy scene, even shower together.

Director X comes from a background of music videos. Normally this means the film will be hyper-stylized and a visual and narrative mess. However, while Director X does make Superfly stylized, the rival street gang Snow Patrol, dress all in white, even down to their white guns, it is a sort of organic stylization. The actions of its characters create a wonderful domino effect causing Priest to more and more slide closer to the line he himself has made.

After leaving a club one night a member of Snow Patrol, Juju (Kaalan Walker), jealous of Priest’s relationship with Cynthia, pulls a gun on him. Three party girls pull out their phone to record it. We learn that Priest knows martial arts and we also learn just how fragile Juju’s ego is. He pulls a gun, Priest’s dodges a bullet, and one of the party girls gets hit. Director X purposefully has every death by gunshot framed to cause a visceral emotional impact. 

Priest’s plans to leave this life behind involve him betraying and going around Scatter to get to the supplier Adalberto (Esai Morales). A risky move because if found out Priest’s plans will be put in jeopardy. While Priest and Eddie are in Mexico, Fat Freddie (Jacob Ming-Trent) pulls a drive-by at the Snow Patrol hang out. The one thing Priest didn’t want is now happening, a war.

Piecing together what must have happened Priest realizes Fat Freddie had to have acted on orders. But Priest didn’t give those orders. Logically this leaves Eddie, who in his own misbegotten view of loyalty and trust gave Fat Freddie the orders. Much like Casino we see the downfall of these men because of petty greed, jealousy, and ego.

Unfortunately, Eddie isn’t done making bad decisions. Fat Freddy wants more to do so Eddie gives him some coke to sell. Fat Freddie leaves the party with a substantial amount of coke and passes JuJu the rest of the Snow Patrol. They are waiting to ambush him, knowing that he is the one who carried out the drive by. Director X and Tse do something here that I don’t think a white writer would have done. Fat Freddie gets pulled over by a cop, Officer Turk Franklin (Brian F. Durkin). Juju and the others put down their guns and drive off. As they leave Juju comments that he doesn’t know if Fat Freddie just got lucky or unlucky.

Superfly doesn’t paint the entire Atlanta Police Force as corrupt. After all the climax does have them being arrested by other police officers. But it does illustrate the visceral tension between the black community and cops. Officer Turk is somewhat unhinged. A fact bemoaned but also exploited by his partner and boss, a corrupt DEA agent Detective Mason (Jennifer Morrison).

Mason is confused and intrigued. Fat Freddie is an unknown to her and the cocaine in his truck is far too pure for him to be an unknown. The more they talk the more names are mentioned that Mason has never heard before. She lets him go, telling him she’ll be in touch. As Fat Freddie leaves Officer Turk pulls him over again. What follows is a scene we’ve seen reported all too often in the news. Officer Turk guns Fat Freddie down in his car.

When Turk and Mason show up at Priest’s headquarters, a discount furniture shop, Priest plans become even more waylaid. Entering into a deal with the cops only brings Priest in deeper. Arguing with Eddie about how they need to find someplace safe, Eddie explodes, “There ain’t no place in the world safe for a black man!”

The center of Superfly is black anxiety. The anxiety of basic survival, both individual and cultural. Mason and Turk are the only two white people in Superfly and that is by design. Even when the Mexican drug lord Adalberto threatens Priest, once on his plane, and another time at a cattle ranch, the tension is never as high as when Mason and Turk are around.

Director X doesn’t shy away from the very real power shift that happens. Mexican drug cartels are terrifying. But nothing is more terrifying than white cops. At the end when everything falls apart before coming together all justice is meted out. Everyone, except Officer Turk. Turk’s murder of Fat Freddie was investigated by the City. He was found innocent and called a local hero.

Again the most powerful person in the movie is an unhinged white cop. Even Mason is arrested on charges of corruption. But Turk walks free. “I’m a hero. Mayor can’t do anything to tarnish his image. Especially with an election coming up.” An election that Priest has ironically helped cement.

In a daring and potentially divisive scene, Priest takes away Turk’s gun in a fight. Priest proceeds to beat Turk with his own baton. The scene recalls the end of Melvin Van Peeble’s Sweet Sweetback’s BaadAsssss Song, the father of blaxploitation and the godfather of independent cinema. The end of that movie had Sweetback kill a white cop and running away, free. Black audiences reportedly gave the film a standing ovation. They had never seen a black man even hit a cop and get away free. It was a moment of cultural catharsis.

Norman Jewison’s In The Heat Of The Night has a moment where Sidney Poitier’s character slaps a rich white man after he shouts a racist slur at Poitier. Images are powerful things and both of these images struck a nerve in black audiences. Black characters resisting and even attacking authority are pitifully rare in a cinematic landscape overpopulated by white characters doing that very thing.

Priest beats a white cop and is allowed to live happily ever after. I’m guessing a scene like that might have a similar effect on today’s black audience. I wouldn’t know, I’m white. But if the black man sitting next to me on the literal edge of his seat, is any indication, it will.

Superfly looks and feels joyously alive. Director X infuses the film with a distinct personality while making Atlanta feel less like a character and more like a place with a history and a culture all its own. Cinematographer Amir Mokri puts the characters in vast empty spaces when they are at their most vulnerable. They feel trapped, they have so much space but nowhere to run.

Mokri, Director X, and the editor Ann-Carolin Biesenbach, have a car chase scene toward the end of Superfly that is flat out some of the best action I’ve seen all year. The interior shots reek of green screen but the exterior shots are vintage Gone in 60 Seconds. (The original). Even here the CGI sometimes is blatant. But it’s the style and how the wheels are framed and how the film is cut as a car turns that makes a car chase work. It works here on a visceral and entertaining level. I mentioned this before, but it bears repeating, they end the chase by blowing up a Confederate monument. It’s glorious.

If I have any gripes about Superfly, it is the fate of Cynthia. Women, women of color, and queer characters have a disturbingly high mortality rate. Cynthia is all three. I will say I appreciated how both Priest and Georgia mourn her death. Often times in these types of polyamorous relationships when one dies we are never shown the others mourning.  

While Superfly is not necessarily pro-gun it does have a tendency to fetishize guns to some extent. Perhaps this is a holdover from the exploitative roots of the movie. While Priest never uses a gun in a fight we do see him at a gun range shooting multiple high powered high ammunition guns with Eddie. Priest is a crack shot but it feels out of place for his character. Maybe it’s a case of Director X showing us that if he wanted to Priest could kill everybody with a gun but he chooses not to. Or it could just be cinematic machismo chest puffing. Don’t worry, he’s a real man. See, here he is shooting a gun.

The original Super Fly, is largely remembered for Curtis Mayfield’s theme song. Taking a cue from Black Panther, Director X has, Future, curate the soundtrack. This lends Superfly a distinct and vivid sound.

Cynthia’s death is the only thing that really mars Superfly for me. A film that is otherwise ridiculously fun while every once in awhile flexing it’s socially conscious muscles. I admired how the character’s actions made sense within the confines of Superfly. Also, I can’t stress enough the joy of seeing a Confederate statute go up in a ball of flames. I clapped. I mean that alone is worth your time and money.

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