Music-vid helmer Director X remakes the 1972 blaxploitation pic with Trevor Jackson in the lead.
For many of us who discovered blaxploitation decades after its brief heyday, the appeal was not cinematic but musical. Though significant at the time for putting black protagonists onscreen, and occasionally in the director’s chair, the movies were often made by cynics who thought their audience couldn’t tell good scripts and acting from bad, and would buy anything containing a few surefire plot ingredients (guns, cash, naked ladies) and music by big stars. Some of the era’s most brilliant artists lent their gifts to these cheap films: Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield arranged entire scores for Trouble Man and Super Fly; theme songs by Bobby Womack and Isaac Hayes were easily the most enduring elements of Across 110th Street and Shaft. So now that it’s possible (albeit difficult) to get a serious film about black characters made, the occasional prospect of remaking one of these movies is greeted not with an indignant “how could you!” but a bemused “why would you?”
The latter question was easy to answer in 2000, when an ascendant black director (John Singleton) was paired with a star, Samuel L. Jackson, whose matchless charisma had already been contextualized, in Quentin Tarantino’s films, as ideal for grind house extremes. It’s much harder to answer with the new Superfly, which plays like a feature-length (and then some) version of the most superficial genre of rap video and boasts a star (Trevor Jackson) who wilts in the light of his more skilled costars. Beyond the obvious complaints about objectification of women, this second feature from the Canadian who calls himself Director X is just a bore.
Jackson, sporting an upswept shock of straightened hair, plays Priest, a coke dealer whose success depends on knowing his rivals’ secrets. In a hard-to-swallow introductory scene, we watch him confront three men with guns and disarm them simply by airing their dirty laundry.
In raspy voiceover, Priest explains that he’s been hustling since 11, building his little empire by knowing what others don’t and giving people jobs. If you think this is the beginning of a subtext weaving real-world issues into genre conventions, hold your applause until you see the nature of those jobs. In the next scene, we enter a vast strip club where Priest’s two girlfriends do his bidding without question. In the 1972 film, Priest had two women (one black and one white) who didn’t know anything about each other; here, he lives in a happy threesome with girlfriend-employees, treating the black one (Lex Scott Davis’ Georgia) nearly like a sentient human and keeping the Latina (Andrea Londo’s Cynthia) as an accessory, unseen until it’s time for a threesome in the shower. (That scene may be literally steamy, but its cheesy soft-core vibe made the New York preview audience giggle.)
More an equal in Priest’s coke-slinging operation is Eddie (Jason Mitchell), who seemingly oversees most of the business while Priest is tending his hair and squinting at people. They’ve made piles and piles of money, but a violent encounter with a gang called Snow Patrol — not the Irish rock band, but a group of drug dealers who wear white parkas in the Georgia heat — convinces Priest it’s time to leave the gang. He wants to make one last huge deal, then retire.
The man who supplies Priest with his drugs, Michael Kenneth Williams’ Scatter, isn’t about to facilitate that big score by introducing Priest to his wholesaler. So Priest goes around him, hunting down the head of a Mexican cartel (Esai Morales) and impressing him with his knowledge of soccer. Soon, Priest and Eddie are up to their necks in blow, triggering a product-moving montage set to “Pusherman,” one of Mayfield’s original Super Fly songs.
The usual complications ensue, with gang warfare on one side, corrupt cops on another, and occasional cameos from an Atlanta mayor played by Outkast’s Big Boi. Coming as he does from the world of music videos (having directed Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” among others) Director X brings surprisingly little visual style to the action. Aside from Priest’s hair, the most eye-catching thing about the film is the exotic array of guns its gangsters wield.
A lack of style would be no problem if the film breathed life into its tired glitz-gangsta tropes. But it drags its feet through the motions, hobbled in part by Jackson’s failure to convince us that Priest is as smart as he thinks he is. Four decades from now, he may look less laughable than Ron O’Neal’s original Priest, with his upholstery trench coats and regrettable hair. But that’s assuming anyone 40 years from now will even know this flick existed.
Production company: Silver Pictures
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Cast: Trevor Jackson, Jason Mitchell, Jacob Ming-Trent, Lex Scott Davis, Andrea Londo, Michael Kenneth Williams, Esai Morales, Kaalan Walker, Big Boi, Jennifer Morrison, Brian F. Durkin
Director: Director X
Screenwriter: Alex Tse
Producers: Future, Palak Patel, Joel Silver
Executive producer: Matthew Hirsch
Director of photography: Amir Mokri
Production designer: Graham Grace Walker
Costume designer: Antoinette Messam
Composer: Josh Atchley
Casting director: Tamara-Lee Notcutt
Rated R, 116 minutes