SuperFly: Ballin’ on a Budget, by David Bax
It would be misleading to refer to Director X.’s SuperFly as a comedy (despite the director’s clownish name) but it will make you laugh more than once, and on purpose too. Well, for the most part; I’m not sure I was supposed to find it funny that a gang of drug dealers are named after indie-lite rock band Snow Patrol. But I’m referring to the vein of subversive, satiric humor that runs through the movie. When, for example, a black man sitting in a parked car reflexively locks the doors in fear of the people outside, the irony is not lost on X. or screenwriter Alex Tse. Before long, their scope expands to take in confederate statues, traffic stops where white cops shoot black people and more, all of it with a mix of cynicism and a skewed note of defiant hope. Also, the part where a funeral choir is clearly Auto-Tuned is just hilarious.
Based on 1972’s Super Fly, this new version updates the setting to Atlanta but loosely sticks to the story of a dapper, smart drug dealer named Priest (Trevor Jackson) looking to make the one last push in the game that will allow him to retire for good. Most of the original film’s roles remain, in tweaked versions, including the supplier and former mentor (Michael K. Williams), the hot-headed partner in crime (Jason Mitchell), the corrupt cops (Jennifer Morrison and Brian Durkin) and Priest’s two girlfriends (Lex Scott Davis and Andrea Londo). Even Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman” makes an appearance on the soundtrack. What X. and Tse do add is run time; SuperFly‘s only real fault is that it’s overlong.
Feature film debuts from established music video directors tend to be excessively stylized (Alien3, Torque, One Hour Photo) but X. surprises by being, at least relatively, grounded in his visual approach. That could be attributable to budget constraints but there’s a sense that this underworld is a place where people actually live and work every day. The orange and gray stripes on the wall of Scatter’s (Williams) martial arts studio, for example, look hand-painted. Like Priest himself, whose low profile has kept him out of the sight of the law, SuperFly is stylish but modest. There are exceptions, of course, such as the fact that everyone in the movie carries comically enormous handguns.
Here in the real world, when men carry guns that big, they are (and should be) accused of compensating for insecurities about the size of their penises. Priest seems to be pretty confident in that department but SuperFly‘s overall vision of sex still falls under the category of juvenile male wish fulfillment. Case in point: The movie’s centerpiece sex scene, a steamy shower three-way, was audibly scoffed at by the woman behind me and literally applauded by the man to my left.
Maybe the dashes of prurient content are meant to keep the immature viewers from nodding off during a movie that is far more crime drama than action flick. That said, what action scenes there are don’t disappoint. From a nearly superhuman dispatching of multiple henchman at once to a gonzo car chase to a talky bit of fight-sposition, X. keeps things lively in between the already entertaining bouts of crime lord intrigue and conspicuous consumption.
SuperFly was reportedly made for a fraction of what other major studio summer movies cost but it stretches its dollar impressively far, from the cars and clothes to the cameos by name rappers like Rick Ross and Big Boi. That kind of discount glow up is a metaphor for the movie itself and the characters in it. Atlanta represents the Southern belt of hip hop cool in the 2010s and this movie is indicative of the aspirational appeal of that music, especially for people of whom Mitchell’s Eddie says, “We’re black men. There ain’t nowhere safe.” SuperFly is a moderately flashy, mostly fun update of its 46 year old source material but also a reminder of how little has changed in that time.