Aug 10, 2018

On Blu-ray: Ron O'Neal's Finest Moment in Super Fly (1972)

I tend to think of Blaxploitation as a label for flicks made to thrill, with action, sex, and violence. They’re a showcase for charismatic stars and hip music, with a few stabs at social issues. That said, Super Fly (1972), which has a reputation for being one of the best so-called Blaxploitation films, both fits the bill and strays from the formula. This unique, thoughtful drama has plenty to get the blood pumping, but there’s a lot more happening here than a little excitement. I recently had the chance the revisit the film on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive.

Like his father, photographer Gordon Parks, director Gordon Parks, Jr. has a knack for cutting directly to the emotions of his subjects. This applies to the way he peers into the uneasy world of Priest (Ron O’Neal), a drug dealer who wants out of the business, and the people who populate his inner circle. Just as importantly, he captures the mood on the streets of Harlem, with observant location shooting, revealing a world where anxious, preoccupied women rush home with groceries and young men on the make strut down the sidewalk with a grace that belies their struggles.

There’s a palpable life force to the city scenes Parks films, like blood rushing through veins. He documents the cracks in the sidewalk and the garbage piled alongside them. Parking tickets flap from windshields. When he moves in on the placid details of Priest’s plush home, you feel the hope in the dealer’s attempt to create a quiet space. He’s born for a quiet, intellectual life, but in a racist society, he’s got to hustle to live to his standards.

Curtis Mayfield’s soulful and soul-searching soundtrack hews closely to Parks’ vision. His lyrics serve as a Greek chorus, commenting on the world of Priest, but also go inside, finding the vulnerability and doubt beneath the hip defiance that is his shield. In a nightclub scene, the singer perfectly embodies those extremes, appearing confident and cool, but also sensitive behind those John Lennon specs.

In addition to being his most popular film, this is the role that reflects Ron O’Neal’s place as an actor. He would eventually perform Shakespeare on Broadway, and here you feel the gravity and impeccable approach necessary in a performer of that caliber. He’s able to communicate his feelings with wounded subtlety, broadcasting a conflicted interior life. Just like Priest, O’Neal was qualified for better things than he received.

In a pivotal moment, Priest makes an angry stand against the establishment, relying on the street smarts he’s acquired in a deadly business to save himself. When he succeeds, there’s a moment where a flicker of doubt breaks through. In a system created to see him fail, he can’t fully trust that he’s managed to push back. That moment describes a lot more than the story of one ambitious dealer and it’s why Super Fly is such a remarkable achievement beyond its style and genre trappings.

I was concerned about what a Blu-ray would do to the rough-hewn feel of the cinematography, but the image stays faithful to the feel of the film, which would not look right with a glossy restoration.

The robust special features include One Last Deal: A Retrospective Documentary, which is full of brilliant expert commentary, film commentary by Dr. Todd Boyd, USC Professor of Cinema, Behind the Hog, a short documentary about the body shop that made Priest’s custom car, a history of the film’s costumes: Behind the Threads, and a revealing interview with Ron O’Neal in The Making of Super Fly.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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