Trevor Jackson shoots, Future scores in “SuperFly” remake

By Steve Pulaski

Blaxploitation is long gone dead. The pimps of the 1970s look like your average clubgoers when compared to the swagger and flash of the hustlers today. Violence that was once at the very least principled and a last-ditch effort is propelled into the forefront thanks to the trigger-happy attitudes of the same young cats. Furthermore, the soulful crooning of Curtis Mayfield has been replaced by the slurry bars of Future, and scenes involving crooked police officers present an infuriating kind of symbolism given America’s present troubles. To keep it pithy, this ain’t your grandfather’s Super Fly.

Helmed by music video mogul “Director X,” who has shot everything from Aaliyah’s “I Care 4 U” to Drake’s “God’s Plan” more recently, SuperFly is an unapologetic modernization of the 1972 blaxploitation flick from Gordon Parks, Jr. One of the foundational films of the genre that came to define a large chunk of seventies cinema, Super Fly was made possible thanks to the contributions from several Harlem residents and black business owners in the area, many ostensibly hungry for long-overdue representation on the big-screen. What emerged was a stylish, groovy commentary on the hard-knock life of Youngblood Priest, a street-smart dope-dealer given great personality by the enigmatic Ron O’Neal. The film was slow, but likable, and Mayfield’s soundtrack remains one of the most beloved scores in American cinema.

In X’s remake, writer Alex Tse (cowriter of Watchmen) rejuvenates the material to make it as flashy and as excessive as modern day gangster culture. The film has the visual similarities of a Grand Theft Auto video game, and every scene could, in some way, open a Lil Wayne or Migos music video. Unlike in Parks, Jr’s film, where menacing characters showed they were menacing simply by the way they talked and moved, X and Tse’s characters always appear to be reaching for their gun, or patting their waistband to assure themselves, and everyone within a few paces, that they’re packing heat for the cold days.

Priest is played by Trevor Jackson, a young musician who could have a fruitful acting career based on the chops he presents here. His Priest is similar in feel to O’Neal’s: he’s thoughtful with every move he makes, but his patience for the Atlanta dope-game is running thin. He wants out, and he informs his partner Eddie (Jason Mitchell, Straight Outta Compton) and his girl Georgia (Lex Scott Davis) that he is attempting to up his supply, make a couple million off of pure cocaine, and then be gone for good. While his dealer, Scatter (Michael Kenneth Williams, who suggests he could’ve been in the original film thanks to the contrast he provides), has something to say about that, Priest nonetheless finds plugs that will help him increase his cartel. In addition, a local gang of pushers known as “Snow Patrol,” run by Q (Big Bank Black), are bringing unnecessary heat on Priest and his operation. Juju (Kaalan “KR” Walker), one of Q’s youngsters, becomes envious of Priest, and plots to kill him just as a corrupt detective (Jennifer Morrison) starts to sniff out the supply as well.

SuperFly has a lot more moving parts than its junior, but the dynamic supporting cast elevates the film to more surprising heights. On top of Jackson serving as a fine lead, and Jason Mitchell once again proving he has a real gift for drama, Big Bank Black is terrific as an initially disciplined dealer who gets sized by his youthful counterparts. Morrison has some great moments as a loathsome officer, and her partner, played by Brian F. Durkin, has a hilarious scene involving Fat Freddie (Jacob Ming-Trent) and his girlfriend that involves him searching the couple’s car while singing Chamillionaire’s anthemic song “Ridin’.” As a collective, the acting is made something of a mixed bag thanks to the relative inexperience of many of the faces involved, but far more individuals are characterized here than in Parks, Jr’s effort.

Cinematographer Amir Mokri, who has worked on the flashiest of Hollywood projects from Bad Boys II to Fast & Furious, provides SuperFly‘s look with warm teal tones and motion blur that would make Michael Mann proud. In handling Mokri’s visual scheme, X shows he’s a music video director by favoring several establishing shots in addition to tricky camera pans and crane-shots that give us a taste of double-decker strip clubs and other lavish settings. If you can overlook every object and person becoming obscured just a tiny bit every time X’s camera shifts within the same scene, you’ll likely find yourself in the clear when it comes to dealing with a film that seems like it’s just waiting for an ad-lib to signal the trap tune to begin. If you’re anal and attentive, you’ll find yourself perhaps unreasonably annoyed.

X and Tse were wise to have Atlanta rapper Future compose the soundtrack for SuperFly. His ever-reliable brand of deceptively introspective yet characteristically groggy hip-hop has become the defining sound of Atlanta for at least the last four years. His soundtrack produces the film’s emphatically catchy theme song “Walk on Minks,” which plays over the opening titles, and the soundtrack’s host of talented producers — DY, Young Chop, and Zaytoven, who makes a cameo appearance in the film — assure that the film is as authentically ATL as possible. It’s this loyalty to location that helps SuperFly retain its commitment to making its setting pop. First it was Harlem, now it’s the city of excess.

Some will say SuperFly is too “extra.” Others will say it’s victim to being about a little too much. When we see one character die in a fiery car crash upon slamming into a Confederate monument, it indeed evokes a reaction of it being too much yet simultaneously not enough. Coupled with its sudden shift into looking at the frequently unjust treatment of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement, it’s a film that realizes its symbolic nature during the third act, disappointingly so. But SuperFly is as Super Fly always has been insofar that it’s full of energy, driven by swag and personality, unabashedly cool, and often sloppy. I wouldn’t have expected anything less.

Grade: B-