Screening Report: SUPER FLY (1972) 40th Anniversary Celebration at Museum of the Moving Image

Super Fly“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.

Sheila

Sheila Frazier, still stunning at 64. (Photo by Will)

“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.

2013_08_16_Hudlin

Warrington Hudlin, producer of HOUSE PARTY (1990), BOOMERANG (1992), and BEBE’S KIDS (1992) (Photo by Will)

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.

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.

Curtis Mayfield, c. 1970 (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Curtis Mayfield, c. 1970 (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

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.

supefly-caddy-movie

2013_08_16_Frazier_KC_Adams_Signorelli

(L-R) Sheila Frazier, K.C., Nate Adams, James Signorelli at the Museum of the Moving Image on August 16, 2013. (Photo by Will)

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

About willmckinley

I'm a New York City-based writer, video producer, print journalist, radio/podcast host, and social media influencer. I've been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by Robert Osborne), NPR, Sirius Satellite Radio, and the official TCM podcast. My byline has appeared in Slate.com and more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News. I'm also a social media copywriter for Sony's getTV and a contributor to four film-and-TV-related books: "Monster Serial," "Bride of Monster Serial," "Taste the Blood of Monster Serial," and "Remembering Jonathan Frid."
This entry was posted in Classic Film, Screening Report and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Screening Report: SUPER FLY (1972) 40th Anniversary Celebration at Museum of the Moving Image

  1. le0pard13 says:

    One of the great anti-heroes of 70s cinema and really underrated film. Too bad we lost Ron O’Neal so early. Also, one of the great movie soundtracks. Wish I could have been there for this. Thanks, Will.

  2. Hawkswill says:

    Sorry Will, couldn’t find where to comment on THE TINGLER. I had to look it up……..couldn’t believe it was the same movie that almost scared me out of the theater……..would have only I was afraid to get out of my seat!……I was 9, LOL. Would love to see it again, now that I don’t really BeLIEVE there is such a thing. Oh, the nightmares I had for MONTHS., Thanks for posting it. KEITH

    • willmckinley says:

      Keith – Thanks for the comment. I actually haven’t written about THE TINGLER screening yet. That’s a favorite of mine too, and has been since I saw it for the first time in the ’80s. By the way, I hope to have the book review up this weekend. I’ll send you a link when it’s posted. Thanks again.

  3. Angelabsurdist says:

    Another excellent article Will.
    “A lot had changed in the five years since the controversial ‘GUESS WHO’S COMING FOR Dinner'”. Exactly. Exploitation movies always use what is in the news. The late 1960’s and early 1970’s. media was saturated with race-related violence which fuelled the fear that the ‘black man’ could destroy ‘suburban’ (read white) lives.
    At the same time the hippie lifestyle was experimenting with every drug they could get their hands on. Irony, much?
    At first when we meet Youngblood Priest he’s a pusher living the life. After the his mugging Priest starts asking himself what he’s been doing to his people. All he wants is to do is live life in peace with his woman. Escape the life of crime.
    To me this movie is about being against ‘the Man’.The grittiness of SUPERFLY has a documentary feel to it.
    I also think The soundtrack to SUPERFLY is better than SHAFT.
    Thanks for sharing a wonderful celebration at The Museum of Moving Image.

    • willmckinley says:

      Angela, thanks for your very nice comments. I agree with all your points. I also feel that SUPER FLY has not only a better soundtrack than SHAFT, it’s a better film. I love both of them, but SUPER FLY feels more real to me.

  4. LOVED BEING A PART OF THE 40th Anniversary celebration.

  5. Sarah says:

    Will, this is terrific! I’ve not even heard to of Super Fly, which I am ashamed of…..because now I’m craving a viewing of it. Thanks for another screening report of a movie I get to add to my long list of must-sees. (Even if you didn’t think it was great, it sounds like such fun).

    • willmckinley says:

      Sarah, I love SUPER FLY, even though I don’t think it’s a great film. But I don’t think it has to be great to be iconic and memorable. And it’s both of those.

      • Sarah says:

        You’re right. That’s very true, Will.

        And guess what? I found this little gem at our library tonight. I’m very happy about that, and can’t wait to see it. Why this one horse town has so many interesting movies like this in its library is beyond me, but I love that they do.

  6. willmckinley says:

    Sarah, I am impressed. You have some New York City hustle going on!

  7. dotti46 says:

    sheila frazier’s comment about ron o’neal being square seems true. from the interviews i saw him do he did come across that way. however, he may have been somewhat of a square; but he sure knew what he was doing in that tub scene. whew!

  8. Ralph Severino says:

    This was one of the best movies of all times . Sorry we had to lose such talented people . To this day I currently drive a superfly car myself . I recreated his car and is just a little more updated and it can be checked out on youtube under superfly car .

  9. dotti46 says:

    i so wish those closest to ron o’neal would break the cycle of obscurity that hollywood imposed upon him and write a book with a collection of their memories and what they knew of his life. no disrespect to his widow but at one point i had hoped he and his first wife, carol banks, would reunite. my heart went out to her as she recalled the pain of their break up in her book ‘hello with love to me’. the book was touching and inspirational. carol came across as such sweet soul in her book and in the interview she granted jet magazine decades ago. is she still with us? let me fast forward to ron’s years with his widow who stuck by him “in sickness and in health.” maybe she can be encouraged to write some memoirs of his life. someone sure needs to.

    • dotti46 says:

      correction: maybe she can be encouraged to write memoirs of her life with him.

    • Love1 says:

      Ron and i were really close EVERYDAY I think of him & yearn to hear that laugh one more time. Writing a book about Ron would almost be like betrayal IMO cause most of the time he seemed to like his “obscurity”. As close as we were & as often as we talked (about all kinds of things) he never told me he was married, nor did he tell me he was ill. To this day I don’t know how he pulled this off!! anyway truly love and miss him and for the rest of my days he will own my heart.

  10. Pingback: Old Movie Camp | cinematically insane

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s