Youngblood Priest, the fabulously coiffed cocaine kingpin portrayed by Trevor Jackson in Sony Pictures’ upcoming gangster thriller Superfly, plies his lucrative trade in a stylized version of modern-day Atlanta. Mink-coat-wearing strippers work the pole beneath hailstorms of dollar bills. Men with facial tattoos drive Lamborghinis and pop off on rival drug dealers with matte-white machine guns. Everything moves to the hard, skeletal snap of cutting-edge hip-hop, thanks to the movie’s co-producer and soundtrack architect Future, a.k.a. ATL’s “Trap Jesus.”
Superfly is arriving on screens like some kind of radical distillation of modern rap’s most cherished tropes, existing at an extreme of the current cultural moment. So it’s easy enough to overlook that the film finds its genesis in a much earlier era, and within a totally different setting: the gritty urban tableau of funk-saturated 1972 Harlem — backdrop to the original Super Fly, director Gordon Parks Jr.’s epochal blaxploitation crime drama starring Ron O’Neal as a wild-eyed coke dealer trying to quit the underworld after making one last colossal score.
Superfly director, Director X (government name: Julien Lutz), tells Vulture the remake’s chief operating principle was to stay true to the original film’s major characters and primary plot points while making certain necessary updates — “remixes,” as he refers to them — but never outright betraying the source material. But even with that fealty to the past, this iteration of Superfly could only exist now. With its African-American hero and corrupt white cops, the film implicitly addresses America’s current political moment, situated in a post-Charlottesville Deep South and featuring a shocking scene where an unarmed black man is shot by a police patrolman during a traffic stop. Moreover, in an era when black cinema has never been more diverse — or lucrative — Superfly pimp-strolls into theaters in front of a new wave of blaxploitation remakes.
“This is not some Hollywood woop-de-woop where we take the name and kinda take what the original was about and redo it,” Director X says, seated in an editing bay on the Sony back lot before a giant bank of computer monitors, where he was making final tweaks to the film just days ahead of its theatrical release. “So that someone who knows the original is like, ‘What the fuck is this? What did y’all do to my favorite movie?’ We took the original film, thought out the original characters, and asked, ‘What are the beats? What are the key elements of the Super Fly story that we need to touch on in order for it to be Superfly?’ When we found those moments, we had our freedom to go where we needed to go.”
When it comes to blaxploitation — the movie genre that targeted urban African-American audiences in the ’70s by mashing up anti-authoritarian anger with Black Power politics and propulsive funk-soul soundtracks — similar conversations are playing out all over Hollywood. For the last few years, movies featuring predominantly black casts such as Girls Trip, Black Panther, and Straight Outta Compton have been routinely over-performing financial expectations at the box office. So after decades of cultural dormancy, a spate of new blaxploitation remakes is about to hit screens both big and small. To wit: New Line’s reworking of the 1971 detective thriller Shaft; Warner Bros.’s reboot of the 1973 female-empowerment action flick Cleopatra Jones; and a TV series plotted around the 1974 Pam Grier–starring cult hit, Foxy Brown, is in the works at Hulu. (Sony’s blaxploitation-inspired crime thriller Proud Mary hit theaters in January.)
Producer Joel Silver (behind the blockbuster Lethal Weapon, Matrix and Die Hard franchises, as well as the 1988 blaxploitation film Action Jackson) began developing Superfly in 2001, buying, losing, then regaining the rights to the original film over that time. But as he attempted to update it for modern audiences, the property began to sharply diverge from the 1972 movie’s core gangster narrative, turning into a Shakespearean tragedy at one point. “It was a kind of King Lear story,” Silver recalls. “It was a drug dealer aesthetic. But it didn’t have the flow and development of what Super Fly was. We kind of veered away from the original material.”
That Shakespeare-inspired screenplay went out the window, however, when Silver offered the job to Toronto native Director X — best known as a music-video ace who’s put together eye-popping, color-saturated clips for urban music’s best and brightest, including Drake, Rihanna, Jay-Z, and Kanye West. X insisted the King Lear plot line (a “Hollywood woop-de-woop” embodied) be jettisoned, and would only board if the project adhered more closely to the “bones” of the original, in which Priest’s attempt to go legit is imperiled by rival dealers and crooked cops.
Which is not to say the remake doesn’t put its own stamp on the material — rebooting blaxploitation into something less countercultural and more mainstream in the process. In addition to transplanting the action to Atlanta, Jackson’s Priest carries none of the existential gloom and little of the glowering intensity of his predecessor. Instead, the character is now a millennial drug mogul–cum–street philosopher with a Sherlock Holmes–like ability to appraise people and situations. A rival drug-dealing gang called Snow Patrol (which doesn’t appear in Super Fly) dials up the pressure on Priest through repeated attempts on his life. (Straight Outta Compton’s Jason Mitchell and The Wire fan favorite Michael K. Williams play his character’s drug-dealing partner and crime mentor, respectively). And while Ron O’Neal snorts cocaine throughout the original and two-times his devoted girlfriend with a mistress, none of those elements make their way into this year’s take on the material.
“In the original Super Fly, they snort coke to say hello. It just wasn’t something I was comfortable putting in the world,” Director X says. “Now you’ve got to deal with his two girlfriends. This gives us a challenge. Is he going to be a cheating chauvinist who has two girlfriends who don’t know about each other? Or do we bring them together and say, ‘Fuck it. This is the world today. We know people like this guy. We’ve seen this out in the culture where a guy has enough game to have two girlfriends.’ It’s one big happy family, right?”
In perhaps the most notable concession Superfly makes to authentically exist in the present day, the movie features Priest getting into business with a Mexican drug cartel. In the original, dishonest police detectives supply O’Neal’s character’s cocaine kilos and attempt to force him to keep selling drugs in the first film — an implicit illustration of institutional racism, with The Man actively responsible for turning people in the black community into addicts. But even while that substitution nullifies one of Super Fly’s more outwardly political components, Director X felt the police-as-dealers plot line simply didn’t ring true. “In the age of the Mexican cartel world, it just didn’t feel like the cops would be the supplier,” X explains. “The amount of money he’d want to get out of the game, to believe the police were going into the locker room and pulling out some fucking keys to give to him just doesn’t work. We know cops are doing some dirty shit. But not on the ‘Get out of the life’ level.”
For its time, the original Super Fly functions as something like an underclass cri de coeur. Over its 93-minute run time, the 1972 film shines a spotlight on black poverty, racial inequality, and white-dominated power structures in the post-civil-rights era. According to Director X, though, the new film was never intended to sermonize or reflect anything other than a high-style aesthetic embodied by the word Superfly. “It’s a black action movie,” says the director, who is wearing what looks like a silk kimono as a work shirt when I meet him. “We’re not looking to weigh you down and really make you contemplate this big, heavy thing. You don’t watch The Fast and the Furious and wonder about the socioeconomic statement that they’re making. You watch it to see a car drive off a fucking train and land on the space shuttle!”
Yet in an era of Black Lives Matter, it’s impossible to view Superfly as strictly popcorn entertainment. In one scene, an unarmed supporting character who is black is shot to death by a white cop during a traffic stop. And in one of the film’s climactic sequences, a monument to a Confederate general is, shall we say, dramatically desecrated — an oblique shout out to last year’s Charlottesville riots which were, of course, sparked by the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. “Do we touch on elements in society? Yes. Are they factors in our movie? Yes,” says Silver. “We’ve had this picture for almost 20 years, but now is the perfect time to make it. I think the notion of an African-American/black-centric action movie is right for right now.”