Gordon Parks Jr.’s 1972 blaxploitation classic Super Fly is a product of its time, as the karate-trained cocaine kingpin Priest goes for a big score in a seedy New York City. Super Fly relied strongly on its mentality of a black man who succeeded in a way he never expected, then attempting to get out of that world. Priest was a man that knew he was poisoning his own streets and living off the sickness of others. Yet with a surprisingly solid and timeless message, Super Fly was starting to show its age.
2018’s Superfly has made Priest look more like The Weeknd, moved from New York to Atlanta, and updated the soundtrack from Curtis Mayfield to Future. Certainly Director X’s Superfly update feels timely – and will likely feel just as aged in fifty years as the original does now, if not more so – an anti-hero for the present day that highlights the strengths of this character.
Director X’s Superfly paints with the same broad brushstrokes as the original, as it follows Youngblood Priest (Trevor Jackson of grown-ish), a smart drug kingpin in a world of flashy, arrogant pushers. After an innocuous confrontation with a member of the “Snow Patrol” gang starts a rivalry between the two cocaine empires, Priest attempts to make enough money to get out of the life and retire early instead of dying on the streets.
Alex Tse (Watchmen) writes Priest almost like the cocaine world’s answer to Walter White. Priest knows the ins-and-outs of this world, and is cunning in reading other people. He can demean a rising rapper by noticing the falseness of his jewelry, or appeal to a Mexican cartel leader by referencing the soccer magazine he’s holding. Jackson plays Priest with layers in a way that feels unique for the typical drug-runner types in film. There’s always something going on behind his eyes, whether it’s the sadness that’s long been brewing since childhood, or his next way of getting ahead of those who challenge him.
Director X and Tse do a fine job of updating this story in a way that still hits on many of the original’s same notes, but modernizes it in fascinating ways. Superfly confronts police brutality and corruption in ways that are frankly surprising, while it both glamorizes and criticizes the gangster lifestyle. While in the original, Priest simply wants out for the sake of not living this life anymore, this version makes this more urgent, where Priest gets out for fear of his life. X and Tse add a forward momentum, a fear of the lifestyle Priest has thrived in, and plenty of extra levels that expand the Superfly story.
In Priest’s attempt to basically become Walter White, the film tends to get a bit too overstuffed. By the end of the film, Priest has issues with his business partner Eddie (Jason Mitchell), the police, Mexican cartels, rival gangs, and even within his long-term ménage à trois relationship. Because of this, Superfly sets up plenty of plots that keep the film exciting, but then get stuck trying to wrap them up in a packed final half hour. There’s a lot of ground that Superfly has to cover in the end, and it ends up being a bit tidy, and almost like three movies worth of story thrown together into one.
Superfly is the rare drug dealer film with brains. It is an astute, sharp modern take on a story that deserved an update. Priest is a substantial character that is fresh in this current climate, and Jackson’s portrayal breathes new life into a character that couldn’t been entirely one-note. Superfly is a welcome summer surprise that revitalizes stale genre tropes into a refreshingly substantial and impressive reboot.