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Super Fly (Parks, 1972)

Two of my other favourite blaxploitation movies, Black Caesar and The Mack, pose a certain challenge to the audience. Their heroes are so cool, so charismatic, that it's a shock when the movie confronts you with their capacity for cruelty. What does it say about us as viewers that we're rooting for them? There's a certain queasy fascination at the centre of these pictures that makes them all the more thrilling. Gordon Parks, Jr.'s Super Fly doesn't quite confront us in the same way. Certainly Ron O'Neal is no slouch in the cool and charismatic department, but what's really shocking here is the movie's ambivalence to his profession as a drug dealer. He wants to get out of the business not because drugs are harming the community, but because it's wearing him out to play this part in the system. Indeed, the central tension here is between the glamourous lifestyle that drug dealing affords him and the agency it robs of him, and the movie is upfront about the limited opportunities black men have to get ahead in America. The film's most famous sequence, a still photograph montage by the director's father Gordon Parks, Sr. (the legendary photographer who had helmed Shaft the previous year), pushes this dynamic most succinctly, framing the hero's activities as part of a supply chain that reaches across all of society.

With blaxploitation, there's a certain tension between onscreen representation and negative stereotypes when it comes to black characters. Super Fly was not free from criticism (even from its own star, who took issue in particular with the cocaine montage) and almost seems to invite it, with almost all of its characters being mired in this criminal ecosystem. (I will add that the movie was also notable for representation behind the camera, having been made with a mostly non-white crew.) But it's also notable for the way it reorients our perspective from the racial dynamics of mainstream American cinema. The black characters here are our points of identification, our "default", so to speak, the ones we see as well fleshed out human beings and complex interpersonal dynamics (in one scene, we see the hero approached by members of the Nation of Islam, who attack him with a slur that in prior scenes he'd used as a term of affection), while the white characters are the ones who are othered (the hero's white girlfriend is the obvious status symbol, the cops are immediately suspect). The movie's goal is not what I think can be glibly termed as "reverse racism", but rather to bring us into the world of its hero and help us understand the context in which his actions might make sense, even if they're not ones we'd agree with in the real world. A lesser movie would lecture us on why dealing drugs is bad. This one invites us to consider why one would take it up.

The "one last job" plot has been done to death in crime movies, but in 1972 this was perhaps not the cliche it's since become, and the movie's lack of apology for the hero's motivations gives it an undeniable charge. Of course, it helps when the hero is played by Ron O'Neal, seen here with a luxurious coiffure and in all manner of stylish attire, a look that provides a striking contrast with the gritty surroundings. Has anyone looked as dashing running through the back alleys of Harlem as O'Neal in his turtleneck and black safari suit? On a formal level, this is not the most stylish movie, but it makes up for that with the style offered by its protagonist and the soundtrack. Much of the visual style comes from the camera enrapt as it follows O'Neal navigating his environment, like a shark in a nature documentary. Has ever a movie been so infatuated with its star? And of course, there's the Curtis Mayfield soundtrack, more famous than the movie itself, which offers a level of poetic reflection on the proceedings. It's not exaggerating to call this one of the best soundtracks of all time.

And of course, if like me you've listened to that soundtrack more often than you've watched the movie, you'll know that one of the songs alerts us to the fate of a character named Freddie. Once that character appears onscreen, with a presence that reminds one of a teddy bear and is hilariously ill fitting for the grimness of the proceedings, the countdown starts, so to speak. Parks Jr. repeatedly deploys instrumental sections from that track, most likely because it's a great bit of scoring, but the effect (perhaps unintentionally) is that of taunting the viewer. Each time the song comes on the soundtrack, we ask ourselves nervously, will Freddie finally meet his fate?