How 1972 blaxploitation classic 'Super Fly' gets retold for a new generation: It's 'Hood Shakespeare'

Kevin Polowy
Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
Trevor Jackson in SuperFly. (Photo: Sony)

Super Fly is one of the most seminal entries in the canon of blaxploitation, the evocative genre described by the New York Times as “supercharged, bad‐talking, highly romanticized melodramas” that featured predominantly African-American casts. The 1972 classic is probably second only to its pioneering predecessor Shaft (1971) in popularity.

Director X, the music video visionary who counts Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar, and Drake among his collaborators and who has his feature film debut with the new remake SuperFly, wasn’t shy about putting his own spin on classic material.

“I treated it like Hood Shakespeare,” X told Yahoo Entertainment recently at CinemaCon in Las Vegas, where he was joined by his stars Trevor Jackson and Jason Mitchell. “You do Romeo and Juliet. A few things have to happen, and that makes it Romeo and Juliet. So we did the same thing with SuperFly. What are the things that have to happen for it to be Super Fly?”

X admits the early version of the script that came his way, via super producer Joel Silver (Die Hard, The Matrix, The Nice Guys), was only semi-fly. “They called it SuperFly, but it wasn’t SuperFly. So we reworked it to be based in the original film.”

The bones of the story are the same: In the 1972 version, Ron O’Neal plays Youngblood Priest, a high-class Harlem cocaine dealer angling to leave the drug trade behind but facing obstacles at every turn. Although the original laced Curtis Mayfield-produced soul over scenes of gritty New York streets, X’s stylized and splashier new take moves the action to Atlanta and sets it all to Future-produced trap music.

Trevor Jackson and Jason Mitchell in SuperFly. (Photo: Sony)

Although countless movies and television shows are filmed in Atlanta due to Georgia’s enticing tax rebates for production, SuperFly is one of the first to proudly and prominently own Atlanta as its setting. And it just made sense. “It’s the Harlem of today,” X said. ” In the ’70s and for a long time, being hot in New York meant you were hot around the world. And now that’s Atlanta … It’s the epicenter of black culture.

“Plus, you can’t do SuperFly with a Whole Foods on 125th Street,” X added, lobbing shade at the gentrification of uptown Manhattan. “Starbucks and Whole Foods and SuperFly don’t go together.”

For the soft-permed Priest, Silver and X recruited actor-singer Jackson, best known for his work on TV’s Grown-ish, and who says he practically begged for the role after growing up with the original. “My dad made me watch it when I was like 8. I was like, ‘What is happening? These guys are [snorting] sugar up their noses. I don’t know what this is. And then as I got older, I understood how impactful it was for black culture. It was a statement, for sure, at the time.”

As for what issues O’Neal’s Priest dealt with that Jackson’s Priest still does in 2018? “Being black,” Jackson said, eliciting laughs from X and Mitchell. ” Technological advances make it different, but I think that’s one that’s synonymous to the original: Being black and making money is not easy.”

Jason Mitchell, Director X, and Trevor Jackson (Photo: Getty Images)

Still, although ’70s blaxploitation films featured not only gaudy and outspoken African-American leads so rare in movies at the time but also healthy doses of social context, X cautions that SuperFly puts entertainment first. “Not every black film has to be about us. First and foremost, it’s an action movie. But so many things have happened, to put us in line with the original, we had to bring that into current day. So there’s stuff going on in there that’s very [topical].

Jackson likens the glamorization of its black kingpin to the depiction of Italian mob bosses in films like Goodfellas and Casino.

Added Mitchell, who plays Priest’s loyal friend Eddie, “We’re not making a trip to Wakanda. But there’s a handbook for everything, and we’re the handbook for ‘Fly. It’s really cool to be part of that cultural reassurance. Everybody knows what the life is like, and why Atlanta is the super dope place to have it, but not everybody gets to see it. So we’re putting it all out there.”

Speaking of Wakanda, the record-smashing success of February’s Marvel release Black Panther invoked a familiar narrative about the box-office-grossing power of black-led films. That doesn’t necessarily make the SuperFly gang any more or less confident in the prospects of their own release. It’s old news, in their opinions. Really old.

“It keeps on happening,” X said. “The original Super Fly came out, and I have an article that’s like, ‘This movie came out, and black people came out to see it! We’re all so surprised!’ It keeps on happening. It’s never stopped, though. Black folks make a movie, people go and see it, and then it’s like, ‘Wow, people want to see black people!’ And then they forget and act like that didn’t happen.”

Mitchell jumped in: “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the way most black folks operate is, ‘If it looks like it was done right, we coming out.'” Added Jackson, ” If not, we gonna wait til we get it on Showtime or HBO.”

SuperFly hits theaters Friday.

Watch Jackson talk about wearing his now-famous rat-tail in the movie:

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