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Superfly (1972)




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"The game he plays, he plays for keeps Hustling times in the ghetto streets."
These lyrics, from Curtis Mayfield's chart-topping 1972 single "Superfly", pretty much sum up the life of Priest (Ron O'Neal), a Harlem dope dealer, and his daily struggles to make it on the tough streets of his gritty neighborhood. After years of hustling dope on the streets, though, Priest begins looking for a way out and sets up a deal to score 30 kilos of cocaine from a Mafia supplier. The plan is to hit the streets hard, sell all 30 kilos in a short time, and retire on the profit of a million dollars. Unfortunately, Priest hasn't taken into account the Mafia's long-standing rule that once you do business with them, you're partners for life.

Filmed on location during the cold winter of 1971, Superfly offers an unblinking close-up of New York as a rotting rubble-strewn wasteland full of crumbling buildings and industrial debris. Director Gordon Parks Jr. knew how to use the atmosphere of urban decay to his advantage. The street scenes, the restaurants, the alleys, the clubs and the tenements all helped Superfly depict a new kind of black social realism on the big screen. Parks, the son of famed Life magazine photographer Gordon Parks Sr., proved that his dad wasn't the only talented member of the family. Incidentally, not only did Gordon Jr.'s dad achieve fame as a photographer, he was also a noted film director in his own right, responsible for Shaft (1971) and Shaft's Big Score (1972), among others.

Given the fact that it was released in the early 1970's during an era when few films were likely to feature a black dope salesman as a protagonist, Superfly was widely criticized for glorifying Priest's drug-oriented lifestyle. Nevertheless, audiences loved seeing a black hero to whom they could easily relate and the movie, which was made for only $500,000, eventually grossed over $12 million at the box office. Since half a million dollars was a pretty skimpy budget even by early 70's standards, producer Sig Shore had to fight relentlessly to bring Superfly to the screen. On more than one occasion, Shore was forced to shut down production until he could scrape together enough money to buy more film stock. According to Darius James' book "That's Blaxploitation," at one point Shore even had to negotiate with a Lower East Side gang leader to shoot on his turf. The cash-strapped producer didn't buy off the gang leader with money, however. Instead, he ended up casting him as a junkie in the film. In the wake of the film's success, producer Shore cranked out a sequel, "Superfly T.N.T." (1973), which was directed by star O'Neal. Despite this incomparably fantastic title, the film was a bit of a letdown in the wake of its predecessor. Shore even directed his own Superfly movie in 1990 without the participation of star Ron O'Neal, but the result (The Return Of Superfly) also lacked the spark of the original production.

Screenwriter Phillip Fenty, who originally wrote Superfly to be a stage play, left some large gaps in the film's screenplay, forcing actors to improvise a great deal of their dialogue. Fenty, an advertising man by trade, grew up in Cleveland with Ron O'Neal and was responsible for bringing O'Neal into the project.
When Warner Brothers studio bosses, nervous about the fact that Gordon Parks Jr. was a novice film director working with an unproven screenwriter, insisted on viewing rushes before putting up the completion money, producer Shore ignored their requests. Instead, he turned to an array of black business people to help him. According to Darius James, the group included various "pimps, madams, and drug dealers." However it was done, the necessary money was raised and Parks was able to finish his film without further interference from the studio.

Fans of vintage soul music are sure to find joy in the fact that legendary singer/songwriter/producer Curtis Mayfield appears in Superfly. In fact, he was not only responsible for the soundtrack (which featured two million-selling singles, "Superfly" and "Freddie's Dead"), but his band, the Curtis Mayfield Experience, also appears in the film, singing the tune "Pusherman" in a nightclub scene. Mayfield's soundtrack for Superfly proved an enormous success, spending an amazing 46 weeks on the Billboard album charts.

Superfly (1972)
June 11, 2000 at 3:45 a.m. ET/PT, Rating: TV-14-DLS.

Curtis Mayfield singing "Pusherman" from Superfly
(click to play clip)


Click here to stop the themesong from "Shaft" before playing videoclip


Fun fact:
The Magna Carta, the Gutenberg Bible, Declaration of Independence and US Constitution were all printed on paper made from hemp. In the 1930s, big oil and timber companies financed the movie "Reefer Madness" to make hemp illegal so they could sell petroleum-based clothing and wood-based paper without competition. Much of George Washington's estate was devoted to growing hemp for use in making rope. Even today, it is used to produce food and supplements for horses according to this Canadian website

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