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Superfly

When you think of the best films of early '70s American cinema, you think of The Godfather and The French Connection. You think Chinatown, Mean Streets, and Five Easy Pieces. Unfortunately, you probably don't think of Superfly (1972). Like all these other seminal films, Superfly was a groundbreaking, trend-setting masterpiece. But while so many other films from that era have gone on to achieve legendary status, Superfly has teetered on the brink of obscurity, having been all too often regulated to cult-film oddity. All of that stands to change, however, with its arrival on DVD. Classically trained stage actor Ron O'Neal was catapulted to stardom as Youngblood Priest, a mid-level cocaine dealer. With a closet full of the best clothes, beautiful women in his bed, and small empire of dope dealers at his command, Priest is living a sinister version of the American dream. But despite all the material wealth and creature comforts, he is tired of the criminal life. He wants a chance at something more. Something better. He sees his opportunity in one huge score that will leave him with enough money to get out of the hustling business, and allow him to do something legit. The problem is all the outside forces that want to keep Priest in the game, including his partner in crime, Eddie (Carl Lee). "You gonna give all this up?" asks Eddie. "Eight track stereo, color TV in every room, and can snort half a piece of dope every day. That's the American dream, nigga." Directed by Gordon Parks, Jr. and written by Philip Fenty, Superfly frequently feels like a documentary. The gritty camera work, low-budget production values, and authentic '70s dialogue help to create a cinema verité view of the underbelly of Harlem coke dealers. The performances also helps bring a sense of authenticity to the film, especially the scenes between O'Neal and Lee. Watching the natural chemistry between the two of them, it's easy to forget that they're actors and not real-life criminals. At the time, before the film and those involved became caught up in the political backlash surrounding the blaxploitation films of the 1970s, O'Neal and Lee were considered strong contenders for Oscar nominations. Their performance together is on par with Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro in Mean Streets, which came out a year after Superfly and drew some of its inspiration from the underrated classic.

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More than anything, what drives Superfly and gives it its power, however, is the soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield. The greatest soundtrack ever recorded, Mayfield's songs and music are an integral part of the film, serving as a Greek chorus. Superfly the film exists as it does, in large part because of Mayfield's musical contributions. In that regard, the film is very much like a musical, where the songs serve to explain and comment on what is transpiring on the screen. Released on DVD by Warner in widescreen, Superfly features a clean film transfer that looks much better than all the earlier VHS versions that have been released over the years. Unfortunately the soundtrack has not been enhanced for optimum sound. Bonus features include an audio commentary by author and film professor Dr. Todd Boyd. Boyd doesn't get too deep into the specifics of the film's production, but he does provide an informative overview of the film's meaning within the societal context of the 1970s. But rather than sounding like a stuffy academic, Boyd matches his knowledge of the film and the era with his love for Superfly. For more information on the making of Superfly, check out the mini documentary that features producer Sig Shore and writer Phillip Fenty among others, discussing the history of Superfly. As far as documentaries of this nature go, it isn't half-bad; but it does leave out any mention of the tremendous political backlash the film helped inspire. There is also an interesting vintage featurette with Ron O'Neal discussing his involvement in the film. (In a sad irony, O'Neal died of cancer the day after Superfly was released on DVD.) Snap-case.
—David Walker



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