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Super Fly at 50: A blaxploitation classic that remains a powerful pop culture force

Super Fly, lobbycard, from left: Sheila Frazier, Ron O'Neal, 1972.
LMPC
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LMPC via Getty Images
Super Fly, lobbycard, from left: Sheila Frazier, Ron O'Neal, 1972.

It has been 50 years since Sheila Frazier made her big-screen debut as Georgia, girlfriend to wily drug dealer Youngblood Priest, in the blaxploitation film classic Super Fly.

And Frazier estimates there hasn't been a week in her life that has passed since the premiere without someone mentioning the movie.

"It does surprise me that it's been 50 years and people are still talking about it," says Frazier, who initially took the job thinking it would be great to act in a movie with Ron O'Neal, who played Priest. "Maybe it still reflects what some of our communities are dealing with."

Even people who haven't seen Super Fly recognize its theme song: A grooving, funky hit written by R&B star Curtis Mayfield, which became one of the most successful movie themes of the blaxploitation era. The soundtrack helped turn the film into one of the most profitable movies of its time, earning millions while briefly dethroning The Godfather as the top film of 1972.

Since then, the movie's gritty, authentic depiction of street life and its flamboyant lead character – a sharp dressing, karate-kicking drug dealer looking for one last, big score before leaving the game – helped create archetypes that have inspired legions of future storytellers and musicians.

Consider Wesley Snipes' flashy gangster Nino Brown from the 1991 film New Jack City. Or Idris Elba's ruthless drug kingpin Stringer Bell, who wants to leave the criminal life and convert his ill-gotten wealth into a legitimate business on HBO's series The Wire.

Even Prince's soft spoken, inscrutable performance as The Kid in Purple Rain feels like it owes some kind of debt to O'Neal's intense, enigmatic take on Priest.

In music, everything from Mary J. Blige's I'm the Only Woman to Fishbone's version of Freddie's Dead either samples or outright copies the legendary hits Mayfield created to amplify the film's story.

Super Fly, poster, Ron O'Neal, 1972.
LMPC / LMPC via Getty Images
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LMPC via Getty Images
Super Fly, poster, Ron O'Neal, 1972.

A film inspired by the streets of Harlem

Still, there is a lot some people don't know about the film Super Fly, including the meaning of the title — which describes the high quality of cocaine Priest puts on the street.

"Fly was the term at the time," says Philip Fenty, who wrote the script for Super Fly. "I just put super to it and made Super Fly...I could have heard it someplace and it stuck because it's cool."

Back then, Fenty was aware of the success of Shaft – another blaxploitation classic released just a year earlier — and inspired by a burgeoning, Black-centered independent film and theater movement in New York. As an executive at a Black-owned advertising agency, Fenty wanted to use skills he'd developed making commercials to write his own film.

He saw a 1971 cover story in New York magazine about a rising Black drug dealer called The Man With the Golden Nose. And then a friend brought a drug dealer to Fenty's home in New York, with a warning.

"He said, 'Boy don't you square up on me,'" Fenty says, using a slang term for acting too straitlaced, which eventually wound up in the film. "It was, truly, one of the most incredible evenings I've ever spent in my entire life."

That friend who brought over the drug dealer was Nate Adams, who grew up with Fenty in Cleveland. According to Adams, when Fenty originally suggested they develop a film together, he had a curt reply.

"Excuse my French, I said 'N----s ain't doing no movies,'" Adams notes, laughing. "We ain't got no shot at doing a movie."

But Adams eventually went along, developing the signature look of the characters by digging up the clothing himself: flashy trenchcoats and bold hats for Priest, plush fur coats for Georgia. Adams found the tricked-out car Priest drives – a Cadillac Eldorado with a custom Rolls Royce-style grill and special headlights – driven by a guy at a local shoeshine parlor.

Fenty teamed with producer Sig Shore, who helped dig up funding; the writer says he had three credit cards and Shore had two. He says they also got money from two Black dentists and the director, Gordon Parks Jr., eventually had to ask his famous father – legendary photographer/director Gordon Parks, who directed Shaft – for funds. Adams said the lack of permits and money meant they were often running around New York City, dodging the Teamsters Union and police, like guerilla filmmakers.

"Money always was an issue, all the way through shooting," says Adams. "We'd be out in the street at night shooting and they were tapping electricity from the lampposts, from the street (lights), to get this thing done."

Adams says he and Fenty just walked around their Harlem neighborhood to soak up the atmosphere of pimps, drug dealers and sex workers in the street life. And they cast another friend from Cleveland, up-and-coming stage actor O'Neal, as Priest.

Super Fly emerges at a pivotal time

Super Fly came along at a crucial moment for the film world; Mafia movie classic The Godfather, released a few months earlier, proved there was a market for antiheroes rooted in authentic ethnic cultures (As did Black-centered films like Shaft and Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song). And Black consumers were eager to see films starring the kind of people they recognized: hip, streetwise characters who could beat "the man" (the white establishment) at their own game.

Priest, who eventually outsmarts corrupt police to get out of the life – tooling around in a distinctive car that was a bit like his Batmobile — seemed an superstar antihero for the moment.

"That was one of the rare times that someone from the inner city won, against all the people in politics that helped set these things up in our communities," Frazier says.

Of course, another reason the film hit big was Mayfield's soundtrack, featuring hits like Freddie's Dead and the film's theme song. Todd Mayfield, Curtis' son, said his father began writing songs almost immediately after Fenty and Shore gave him a script — empathizing with one of Priest's hapless dealers, Fat Freddie, who is hit by a car and killed while running from police.

"There were more Freddies around than there were Priests," says Todd Mayfield, who fondly remembered seeing his father work on a Fender Rhodes keyboard sitting next to a video machine. "One of the first songs that he wrote was Freddie's Dead. Some of the same folks who lived in the Bronx and Harlem and different parts of New York are the same kind of folks you would see here in Chicago on the West Side and parts of the South Side."

Curtis Mayfield's hits were an important part of marketing the film, spreading word and heightening the movie's cool factor. Todd Mayfield notes the songs also told stories which added to the film's narrative, criticizing the drug trade.

"The soundtrack made these characters more than one dimensional," he adds. "It gave them some depth. And it made you sometimes think about them in a little bit of different way than the face value you were seeing early in the film."

A drug-dealing antihero produces backlash

But not everyone loved seeing Black drug dealers and the street life humanized. Groups including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People criticized films like Super Fly for their violence and depictions of drug use, accusing them of glorifying terrible people.

Junius Griffin, then president of the NAACP's Beverly Hills-Hollywood branch, is credited with coining the term "blaxploitation" shortly after Super Fly's release, saying such films exploit Black people while encouraging them to embrace destructive ideals.

The word "blaxploitation" has since expanded to describe an entire genre of films which flourished in the 1970s, featuring Black characters as heroes, often in urban settings. Fans of the genre, like superstar director Quentin Tarantino, leverage the term as a badge of honor.

Still, Fenty, Adams and Frazier all say they dislike the word.

"I can't stand it," says Frazier. "They didn't call it white exploitation when we looked at (James) Cagney's (gangster) films and a lot of the films that dealt with Mafia and bootlegging."

Todd Boyd, a professor at the University of Southern California and a cultural commentator featured in the DVD commentary for Super Fly, agrees with Frazier. He notes that, even though Priest is shown driving a cool car, in nice clothes and an amazing car, he's also depressed and under pressure, trying to get out of a dangerous life before it kills him.

"There's a sense of Black power mixed with capitalism and this desire to be kind of a street entrepreneur," Boyd says. "And to put it in a film, it kind of gives that pursuit of life meaning in a way that it wouldn't have had otherwise."

Super Fly eventually spawned two half-hearted sequels and a 2018 remake film. Many of those involved in making the original movie, including Ron O'Neal, Sig Shore and Gordon Parks Jr., have died, but the film's influence lives on in hip-hop culture and pop life.

Fenty offers a simple explanation for its pop culture longevity.

"We in this country love outlaws," he says. "He (Priest) came from the bottom. And the only way to get from the bottom to the top is to be an outlaw."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.