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The new remake of blaxploitation staple Superfly starts to feel like a pornographic film somewhere around the shower-set threesome, the steamiest sex scene that a major American studio has allowed in years. But even before that refreshingly indelicate display, Director X adopts pornography’s absolute commitment to the pleasure principle in his fixation on the spectacle of luxury. The first 20 minutes drag the viewer through a neon-lit vortex of raining money, unfathomably expensive cars, zaftig strippers, golden guns and narcotic bricks. This high-gloss take on Gordon Parks Jr’s funky vision of the hustle goes so far into sheer, unabashed rap-video excess that calling it gratuitous would miss the point.
Until it suddenly, brutally isn’t. In a crime saga sampling White Heat, Goodfellas and just about every other classic from the gangster era to the gangsta’s, X reiterates the timeless hood adage that when you live by the gun, you die by it too. Well-to-do pusherman Youngblood Priest (Trevor Jackson) is well aware, fitting squarely into the film’s rigid moral code by virtue of a desire to get out of the game. He knows nobody can escape consequences for long, as X metes out immediate punishment from on high for the cardinal sins of disrespect and disloyalty, and Youngblood would rather quit while he’s ahead. With his right-hand man Eddie (Jason Mitchell), he plots a job without their usual connection, Scatter (karate master Michael K Williams, worth the price of admission alone) and utters the accursed words of One Last Job. Cue recklessness, cue folly in blood, cue all-out war with the rival Snow Patrol gang. No, not that Snow Patrol.
While Youngblood may be the dope-dealing black Übermensch – his sexual potency is such that he requires not one, but two girlfriends – in this instance, X is the true OG. His bona fides in the world of hip-hop, where he’s been a go-to music video director for two solid decades, are the production’s greatest asset. Beyond enlivening the downbeat scenes with lurid colors nicked from the Hotline Bling clip, he capitalizes on his acumen with details that make the film feel lived-in and personal. This numbers among a small cadre of films shot during Georgia’s tax break-fueled production boom that embrace the character of Atlanta instead of disguising it as another city. A host of local talent fills out the soundtrack, trap-rap legends make inspired cameos, and X conjures all of the weatherbeaten beauty that ATL has to offer. The jargon-heavy dialogue may leave less-hip viewers lost, but it’s still the most naturalistic, plausible element in a film railing fat lines of powdered implausibility.
Though perhaps that sense of innate with-it-ness extends past X’s professional expertise and into his very bones. The racial tensions that sparked the inception of the blaxploitation genre have only grown in intensity, and X includes passages suffused with frustration and conflict owed to Youngblood’s identity as a black man shining in America. The small handful of white characters are not to be trusted, vipers waiting the right moment to wedge their fangs in our hero’s back. They’re broadly drawn, almost cartoonishly evil, and yet the iconography of their misdeeds has a potency of its own, particularly one scene that sees Youngblood express America’s simmering antipathy for cops in cathartic, violent terms. The healthy distrust of institutions that characterizes the best of the blaxploitation canon has been amply applied here, amounting to a bracingly unsubtle assault on white complacency.
But X is a firebrand second and minister of indulgence first. Superfly is never more satisfying than when behaving like a series of music videos that exalt in the beauty of slow motion, whether of jiggling thong-clad buttocks or the Michael Mann-styled high-frame-rate action sequences. Extravagance acts as its own currency in the stunt-or-be-stunted-upon culture Youngblood vows to fight his way out of, and X fits right in with his penchant for overflowing aesthetic opulence. The joy of X is often simple and immediate – the leather trenchcoat/turtleneck ensemble, the seat-rattling bass of the 808-on-steroids score, a swaggering dolly shot drifting in and out of candy-colored rooms as if in a cross-faded haze. At long last, Hype Williams’ legendary Belly has found a deserving companion.
- Superfly is out in the US on 15 June and in the UK on 14 September
Source: The Guardian
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