Ron O’Neal and producer Sig Shore had no clue how iconic the new film Superfly would become when it was released forty years ago this month.
Directed by Gordon Parks, Jr., whose father Gordon Parks, Sr. directed Shaft a year earlier, Superfly stars Ron O’Neal as Youngblood Priest, who is trying to quit the underworld drug business.
The story begins when Priest is mugged by two junkies while on his way to a meeting in Harlem one morning. He beats one up and chases the other into an apartment and gets his money back. Later, Priest’s two main drug dealers, Freddie and Nate Adams, make their payments; Freddie comes up short and Priest warns him to either get the money by robbing someone or that he was going to have his wife on “whore’s row.” The pair are given a gun and they rob a member of the mafia. Priest then meets up with his homeboy Eddie (played by Carl Lee) and tells him that he wants out of the drug business but wants to make one last big score and earn $1 million in four months. Eddie tries to talk Priest out of it since he enjoys living the American Dream, which he says includes “having an 8-track player,” but he reluctantly goes along with Priest’s wishes as they prepare to make one last big score.
That night, Priest and Eddie arrive at the restaurant of Scatter (Julius Harris), a retired drug dealer who was a mentor to Priest. They discuss their plans with him and tell him that they need 30 kilograms of cocaine. At first, Scatter refuses to help, but then agrees to supply the 30 kilograms of cocaine. During a meeting with Freddie and Nate, Priest accidentally reveals to them his plans. The next day, Freddie is arrested in Harlem for assault and is questioned and beaten by narcotics detectives. He then rats out Priest and Eddie as he reveals their plans. Freddie is released but is hit by a car and killed. Later that evening, Priest and Eddie go to pick up one kilo of cocaine from Scatter but the detectives are waiting. They make a deal with them that they can operate but must make payments of $10,000 a month. Although Priest is uncomfortable with this, Eddie is enthusiastic, believing that “the man” is on their side.
Much later in the film, Scatter tells Priest information about “the man” and asks him for $20,000 in cash as he must leave town. After Scatter leaves, he is arrested by narcotics detectives, shot up with a large dose of heroin which kills him, and then disposed of in his Rolls Royce . Priest confers with Eddie about the tragic news and suggests foul play and that the police were behind it in order to use him and Eddie to make larger buys and to stay in business. Priest demands his half of the money and wants to get out of the rat race. Eddie reluctantly gives Priest his money but then double-crosses Priest by calling the detectives to tell them that Priest left his place with a briefcase full of money. Priest exchanges his briefcase for another briefcase in the elevator with his girlfriend Georgia (played by Sheila Frazier) who is in disguise as a homeless woman. When Priest arrives to his car, the police detain him and escort him to the waterfront where Deputy Commissioner Reardon (played by the film’s producer Sig Shore) is waiting for him. Reardon is the one running the extortion racket and chastises Priest for wanting to leave the business and tells him that he will be never be nothing more than a “two-bit black junkie.” A fight breaks out and Priest uses his karate skills to overcome the detectives. Reardon pulls a gun on Priest but then Priest explains that he has placed a murder contract on Reardon and his family if any harm comes to him from the police. Reardon believes Priest has no money to pull off such a deal and opens the briefcase to find only dirty clothes in it! Priest then hops into his customized Cadillac Eldorado and drives off, triumphant.
When Superfly was first released, it became a cultural phenomenon. Theaters everywhere across the U.S. were packed as moviegoers were intrigued by the film’s plot, its characters and the clothes they wore, the flashy cars they drove, and the movie score done by the “master storyteller” Curtis Mayfield. Audiences happily yelled “Right On!” at the film’s ending as Priest overcame “the man.”
The film’s origin began when Ron O’Neal and a friend, Phil Fonty, discussed black films and the streets from which both of them were raised and came up with a film treatment. O’Neal and Fonty had no jobs at the time but in less than two weeks Fonty brought in Sig Shore as the producer and soon thereafter Gordon Parks, Jr. as the director. The project now had four ambitious people with a screenplay but no money. Shore went to all of the major studios, who rejected the script due to its nitty gritty street realism and its images of pimps and hustlers. Shore persisted and contacted Ed Arnold, a black dentist friend of his, who in turn took on a partner, Connie Jenkins, and they solicited funds from black businessmen, doctors, pimps, hustlers and celebrities. “Every dollar put into Superfly was black exclusively. This is the first film ever to receive total black financial support,” O’Neal stated in a Soul magazine interview in 1972.
The cast involved only three professional actors while the rest of the cast had little or no dramatic training.
Curtis Mayfield’s brilliant score for Superfly also added to the mega success of the film. Songs such as “Freddie’s Dead,” “Pusherman” (which played during a montage of scenes showing various people getting high off of cocaine), “Little Child Running Wild,” and “Eddie You Should Know Better” not only spoke about the plight of the film and its characters, but generally the plight of urban neighborhoods across America. Mayfield, whose previous and future solo albums spoke about the conditions of America and the happenings in ghetto areas along with self-pride, self-love and racial unity, had a cameo in the movie singing the aforementioned ‘Pusherman” in a club scene.
The Superfly soundtrack, along with Isaac Hayes’ Shaft a year earlier, paved the way for movie scores to be huge “tie-ins” with its films.
Superfly also triggered fashion trends. Although straightening and processing hair was nothing new in the black community, dating back to the 1920s and 1930s, an uptick in the new “permed” or “relaxed” style of hair was on the rise after the release of Superfly, particularly among young black men who admired Priest’s straight hair and wanted to copy his look. The “pimp” hats and big fur coats Priest wore in the film were other things many copied or tried to copy. Indeed, not only was the movie Superfly iconic, but the character Priest was an icon as well. O’Neal even made a cameo as Priest, along with other seventies icons, in Snoop Dogg’s music video “Doggy Dogg World,” which was a tribute to seventies black culture.
Of greater importance is that movies like Superfly and Shaft came out a time when the black power movement was in full swing. After the deaths of Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., many black Americans felt lost, hurt and enraged. Hence, for about 90 minutes, black audiences could sit in movie theaters and watch characters like Priest and John Shaft overcome “the man.” Indeed, the so-called “blaxploitation films” released from 1971 to 1976 gave black audiences a way to feel empowered, seeing the establishment or “the man” overthrown.
However, many others put down the movie after its release for what was perceived as its glorification of drugs, pimps, prostitutes and the negative aspects of ghetto life. The film was not necessarily glorifying or exploiting the ills of the ghetto, but rather just showing “the hood” for what it was, the reality of urban life for many. What many of those critics failed to look at was that Priest wanted out of the drug scene. In a scene with his girlfriend Georgia in Central Park, Priest tells her of his ambitions of leaving that life behind him and taking her with him so that they could start a new beginning, a new life together. So Priest is not a one-dimensional character with no depth, but rather a positive character who realizes before it is too late the trappings and dangers of being a part of the drug underworld and his yearning to flee from it. Moreover, Priest’s desire to make “one last score” was not only his way of getting over on “the man,” but also making a fool of him and others in the “establishment,” the very people who introduced drugs into black communities in the first place.
In 1973, a sequel to Superfly called Superfly T.N.T.–which O’Neal directed and co-wrote with Roots author Alex Haley–was less than successful. Likewise, 1990’s Return of Superfly did not make any headway either. Nevertheless, Superfly’s cultural impact and huge success has forever been cemented in the annals of movie history and will reach generations of moviegoers for years to come.
– Stephen McMillian
Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor, filmmaker, dancer, soul music historian and Soul Train historian.