SuperFly (Director X., 2018) 1½ out of 4 stars.
The 1970s saw a wave of films about urban life, starring African-Americans, dubbed “blaxploitation” movies. Some of them were better than others, though many trafficked in stereotypes about black Americans that were hardly flattering. Still, they provided much-needed on-screen work for actors who might otherwise have been relegated to minor supporting roles, even if the characters they played were drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes and more. The movement, such as it was (it was already losing steam by the middle of the decade), also afforded opportunities to African-American directors (though many of the movies were directed by white directors, too), including noted photographer Gordon Parks and his son, Gordon Parks, Jr. The former helmed one of the best of the genre, Shaft (in which the hero is a private detective, rather than a crook), while the latter made Super Fly (where the hero is a cocaine dealer). Shaft is by far the better movie, but it has already been remade once, so now we get SuperFly (that lack of space in the title is how it’s spelled, for whatever reason). Did the world need this loose reconception of the original? Not really.
It is by no means a disaster, just neither very good nor interesting. Judging by the audience reaction at the preview screening I attended, it is also filled with no small number of unintentional laughs, due to how seriously it takes itself at the wrong moments. Case in point: there’s a risible shower threesome, complete with slo-mo moans and gyrations, that had this boy chuckling away. At other times, though, the film can be delightfully self-aware, as when lead character Youngblood Priest (Trevor Jackson, Sons 2 the Grave) jokes about his “perfect weave” as he is about to be thrown out of an airplane by Mexican cartel leader Adalberto Gonzalez (Esai Morales, more or less reprising his role from Netflix’s Ozark). Yes, it’s funny, and intentionally so, though much of the rest is just dumb. There are good turns from a few of the actors, including Jason Mitchell (Mudbound) as Priest’s partner in crime, Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar from HBO’s The Wire) as his mentor, and Jennifer Morrison (Emma Swan from ABC’s Once Upon a Time) as a corrupt detective who wants in on the drug trade. These disparate high points do not a compelling story make, however.
Mostly, though, it’s a celebration of excess, not all that different from a film like Martin Scorsese’s 2013 Wolf of Wall Street, similarly masquerading as a takedown of a culture that it inadvertently (or not) promotes through glossy shots of fine clothes and good times. Both movies feature copious amounts of cocaine, though here Priest deals, rather than snorts, as well as many naked women whose role is to titillate and nothing more. Priest is a minor kingpin who wants in on the big time, but just for one massive score so he can then retire in style. Along the way, his actions lead to death and destruction for some he held dear, but who really cares if it means you can sit on a boat in the Adriatic Sea, as do two lucky souls who make it out? All that hard work must lead to some reward, right? If only SuperFly had more self-awareness than about its protagonist’s hair, this could all be in service of some larger point. Instead, it’s only occasional fun, and not too much, at that.