“I want to thank you all for coming out for a movie that represents the renaissance of black cinema,” filmmaker Warrington Hudlin told the audience at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens on Friday night, before a screening of Gordon Parks Jr.’s SUPER FLY (1972). “And everybody is officially authorized, when the song starts, sing along!”
Nobody sang, of course, probably because we all wanted to savor Curtis Mayfield’s unforgettable music. From the soulful ballad “Little Child Running Wild” during the opening sequence to the infectiously funky, million-selling title track, Mayfield’s original score helped propel an indie film shot guerilla-style on the streets of Harlem to blockbuster status during the tumultuous summer of ’72.
Billed as a “40th Anniversary Celebration” (give or take a year), the sometimes raucous evening reunited cast members Sheila Frazier (Georgia) and K.C. (he plays a pimp, but is better known as the real-life owner of the hero’s tricked-out 1971 Cadillac Eldorado) with cinematographer James Signorelli and Nate Adams, who designed the iconic fashions worn by star Ron O’Neal.
“Working with Ron was a dream,” said Frazier, who shares a memorable moment in a tub with her leading man. “I was not comfortable doing that love scene; that was not how I was raised. So he called me and said, ‘Come over. I want to make you dinner,’ and we talked about everything except the film, like opera music. Ron was a square. You see him in that role, but that was not him. He was the squarest person, so I was very comfortable with him.”
“And the cameraman knew how to shoot it,” she added with a laugh. “He got rid of everybody.”
“I was in there for a long time,” quipped Signorelli, who’s been the producer of the often hilarious commercial parodies on Saturday Night Live since 1976.
The extended love scene is just one of many moments in SUPER FLY that still shock two generations later. Independently produced (by Sig Shore Productions) and financed (“with African American dollars,” said Hudlin, reportedly two dentists and Gordon Parks Sr., director of 1971′s SHAFT), SUPER FLY was released by Warner Bros. The once prestigious studio had just been spun off from Kinney National, a company that owned parking lots, and was desperate to combat shrinking cinema audiences and attract a new generation. With the previously unthinkable creative freedoms afforded by the MPAA’s new letter-based ratings system, Warner Bros. distributed a film in which a drug-dealing, black hero is introduced in bed, sniffing cocaine from a cross-shaped spoon with a naked white woman lying beside him.
“Some things go better with coke,” the nude sex kitten purrs, in a line that must have sent Coca-Cola execs into paroxysms of panic.
A lot had changed in the five years since the “controversial” GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER. But SUPER FLY’s release was not without its own controversies, including condemnations from the NAACP and accusations that it glorified drug dealing and recreational use.
“We were concerned about that, but if you want to tell the story, you tell the story,” Adams said. “That era was a revolution of cocaine. That was prevalent in street culture, so if you’re going to show it, you have to show it. If not, go make a Mickey Mouse movie.”
“But we were saying he wanted out; that was the message we were giving,” he added.
“The NAACP, which is presumably about advancement, was actually a very destructive element in this,” Hudlin interjected.
“They went to Warner Bros. and said, ‘You can’t do any more of these Blaxploitation films,’” Adams added. “Their protest of this movie stifled the whole movement of independent filmmaking, especially black independent filmmaking.”
“After that era the film community changed, particularly for black filmmakers,” Frazier said. “Hollywood got back on its feet. It was broke until black films came about, and we basically bailed them out. And then they stopped giving the (black) filmmakers deals. We had black writers, black producers, black directors and they basically stopped.”
Frazier, who got her start at the famed Negro Ensemble Company in New York, went on to a career in TV production, as a producer at Black Entertainment Television (BET). She also appeared in the ill-fated 1973 sequel SUPER FLY TNT (directed by O’Neal) and has recently been seen in a recurring role on the CBS series N.C.I.S.
“SUPERFLY gave me a sense, as an aspiring young filmmaker, of a different kind of possibility, that we could tell stories where we were not victims, not being oppressed,” Hudlin added. “Unfortunately, even today, we don’t have this level of independence and freedom.”
“But we persevered,” Adams said. “Forty years later I never knew we’d have this kind of life. There is no way we thought, going into this, that they’d still be talking about this film even ten years later.”
SUPER FLY screened in an appropriately battered 35 mm print, transforming MoMI’s futuristically elegant, 267-seat Sumner Redstone Theater into a Times Square-style grindhouse, if only for a night. The diverse audience included all age groups, from teens to seniors, and they were particularly responsive, often talking back to the screen or laughing at dated references like “8-track stereo.” That sort of thing would usually drive me nuts, but it only added to the evening’s sense of good-natured celebration and interactive fun.
SUPER FLY is not a great film, and it doesn’t try to be. But it’s got an sense of rough-hewn immediacy that feels fresh four decades later. Parks Jr.’s split screen sequence of still photos after the title character makes his big score still packs a stylish punch, even though O’Neal (who died in 2004) condemned it on The E True Hollywood Story as a “commercial for cocaine.” For me, that’s a big part of what is resonant about SUPER FLY. In this era of corporate-controlled entertainment, in which publicly traded conglomerates filter popular culture through a sieve of political correctness, it’s exhilarating to see a film in which verboten behavior is rewarded.
Groundbreaking too is the film’s seminal use of music as both a storytelling device and a promotional tool. According to Adams, Mayfield (who died in 1999) already had two tracks completed when he signed on to SUPER FLY. His self-released companion album went on to out-gross the film that inspired it, one of the few soundtracks to hold that distinction.
“The music was introduced ninety days before the movie came out, so it was hot, and the audience was ready for it,” Adams said. “It was the first time the music carried the movie.”
“And all the movies that followed tried to duplicate it,” Hudlin added.
After the Q&A, Hudlin finally got his wish for a sing-along, as Bow Legged Lou from the R&B group Full Force led the audience in live renditions of “Pusher Man” (which Mayfield and his band perform in a club scene in the film), and “Freddie’s Dead.” It was a rousing conclusion to an event that was sometimes bittersweet, but always entertaining.
One final note: if you’re like me, you’ll want to know what happened to the souped-up Caddy O’Neal drives in the film. K.C. gave fans the unfortunate answer.
“The government took it,” he lamented. “As a result of all the notoriety and whatnot, y’all know what happened: the IRS got busy.”
Even in Blaxploitation, sometimes The Man comes out on top.
Updated 8/19/13 – Added SHAFT credit for Gordon Parks Sr., year of death for Curtis Mayfield, film credits for Warrington Hudlin, Full Force credit for Bow Legged Lou, corrected Frazier quote re: Ron O’Neal, added to Adams’ quote re: NAACP