Monday, February 20, 2012

President's Day Double Feature: Cocaine Is A Helluva Drug

by Odienator
(for all Mumf pieces, go here)

(Editor's Note: Time for our second annual President's Day Double Feature! This year, our topic is something both political parties love fighting over: Capitalism! We've got two rogue capitalists for you  here at the Mumf. I'll be back later to tell you about my favorite HBO movie of all time.)

The early days of Blaxploitation are filled with milestones. Sweet Sweetback showed that films for a built in Black audience could be made. Shaft provided the blueprint: sexy bruva, trendy clothes, lots of action, a little bit of sex and a killer soundtrack by a soul superstar. Coffy upped the violence, tapped into an anti-drug message and gave the male dominated genre a female hero who could kick a guy’s ass better than most men. The Mack introduced the Oakland pimp scene, giving cinema a glimpse at the bitch-slappinest fashion show to not feature Naomi Campbell, The Player’s Ball. Between Shaft and Coffy, my two favorite movies in the genre, is the film many consider to be Blaxploitation’s masterpiece, 1972’s Super Fly.

Gordon Parks, Jr.’s directorial debut has much in common with his father’s 1971 ghetto classic, Shaft. There’s a sexy, fine bruva in the lead. He’s got trendy threads, a bevy of women, a kick-ass mustache, impressive fighting skills and theme music by a soul superstar. The Junior Parks grabs these elements and Philip Fenty’s script takes them on major detours: Super Fly’s hero, Youngblood Priest (Ron O’Neal), is on the opposite side of the law. He dresses fancier than Shaft because Priest has a shitload more money than Richard Roundtree. Shaft is dark skinned with a natural ‘do. Priest is light-skinned, with an UltraPerm that puts the capital P in Processed Hair. Priest does martial arts instead of always shooting a gun.

On the soundtrack, Shaft was followed around by the soulful, deep voice of Isaac Hayes. Priest takes his cue from the superbad falsetto of Curtis Mayfield. Ike tells us his subject’s a “complicated man” and a “bad mutha SHUT YO’ MOUF!” Curtis sings of his hero’s “solid life of crime, a man of all circumstance, a victim of ghetto demand.” Both men were, to quote Shaft’s theme song, “sex machines to all the chicks,” and their methods of lovin’ put a twist on the old adage that cleanliness was next to godliness: Shaft gets bizzy with his woman in the shower; Priest gets bizzy with his lady in the tub. In slow motion.

From a cultural standpoint, Super Fly is the clear winner. The soundtrack sold like gangbusters, influenced soul music and cementing a market space for film soundtracks. Super Fly’s success at the box office proved that Shaft was no fluke, extending its genre. His Eldorado remains one of the baddest cars ever filmed (it was owned by a pimp who gets an opening credit AND a scene in the film in exchange for its use). And the film’s fashions were emulated by ‘hood denizens, including yours truly. For years, I’ve been threatening to post that picture of 3-year old Odie in his Super Fly coat and hat, an outfit as rust-colored as my red Afro. The reason there’s been no delivery is that I’ve yet to find that picture in any of Mom’s photo albums. Someday, folks, you’ll bear witness to a kid who looks like the pimp of the playground.

Until then, I’ll focus on the one other way Super Fly influenced we people who are darker than blue. According to comedian Sinbad, Super Fly convinced a lot of his cronies to enter the drug trade. I am too young to have paid any attention to a trend such as this, so I cannot speak for its truthfulness. But if you’ve seen Super Fly, you could make a convincing case for Sinbad’s argument. This movie makes selling and using drugs look cool. The amorality with which the film depicts this brands it as a product of another time, but it’s also a major sticking point for me. I am certainly no prude, and I enjoy when a film is ambiguous or amoral about the actions of its characters. But I also grew up in a crack neighborhood where I knew a lot of drug dealers and even more drug users. I’ve seen the ravages of drugs firsthand, especially on people who couldn’t afford their habits. Super Fly’s pusher won’t let the junkie go free, and from that he becomes one hell of a capitalist. It’s a little hard for me to root for this guy’s million dollar big score when much of it is linked to ravaging the neighborhood.

Youngblood Priest is a coke dealer. He wears a coke spoon on a necklace he is never seen without, not even in the aforementioned bathtub romp. Priest snorts a fair amount of The White Girl, and even appears with both figurative and literal White Girls in a scene that still carries a jolt today. The woman begs Priest not to go, and when he offers her a sniff of his product as a trade for him having to leave, she quotes an old cola slogan: “Some things go better with coke.” Priest doesn’t need anything to go with his coke—every other scene has him snorting it, with no reaction to it at all. I wondered why he was snorting it in the first place if it did nothing for him. “Maybe cocaine keeps his hair looking that good, like some nasal equivalent of jHeri curl activator,” I thought.

Rick James told us “cocaine is a helluva drug.” Eric Clapton told us “she don’t lie.” Priest’s product has netted him and his partner Eddie (Carl Lee) $300,000 over time. Priest wants to get out of the business, and he needs one big score to push his coiffers up to a cool million. Eddie thinks he’s crazy for wanting to get out of the life.

“You're gonna give all this up?” asks Eddie. “Eight Track Stereo, color T.V. in every room, and can snort a half a piece of dope every day? That's the American Dream, nigga!” 

Priest complains about what he has to deal with in order to maintain this “American Dream:” corrupt officers looking for a slice, insubordinate dealers, and occasional attempts on his life.

Later, Eddie challenges Priest’s plan:

“What the fuck are you gonna do except hustle? Besides pimpin'? And you really ain't got the stomach for that.” 

I would think with a million dollars, one could retire from The Game. Hell, $300,000 is enough—this is 1972 money we’re talking about here. Priest is motivated purely by business greed, and he’s willing to sacrifice a few of his cronies to get dat loot.  The Mafia is involved as are the police, both of whom want Priest to stay around because his organizational and sales skills are preternaturally good.  He recruits his old supplier, who has retired from the life, and gets one of his pushers killed. That pusher, Freddy (Charles MacGregor from Blazing Saddles) looms larger on the soundtrack than he does in the film. Back to Freddy in a minute.

Super Fly’s most controversial sequence references the photography skills of both elder and Junior Parks. Parks Senior took photos for Life magazine. Parks Junior was also a shutterbug of some note, and he uses his skills to take pictures of numerous people enjoying Priest’s product. This becomes a montage set to Mayfield’s score. Ron O’Neal objected to this sequence, calling it “a commercial for cocaine,” and his point is well-founded. This montage is edited with Madison Avenue precision, showing people enjoying coke more than Eddie and Priest seem to in the film. Parks gets maximum mileage from a low-budget idea, and along with the notorious bathtub sequence, provides Super Fly with its most seductive images.

If Sinbad’s claims of drug pushing are correct, Super Fly’s climax could be seen as the clincher of convincing people to try selling dope. Priest’s nemesis the Deputy Commissioner (played by the producer of Super Fly, Sig Shore) finally catches up to him and demands not only a big cut of the profits from this big score but also Priest’s continued employment. But Priest has outsmarted him by taking out a contract on the Commisssioner’s life. Should anything happen to Priest, the Commissioner gets rubbed out by, as Priest tells him “the best killers, WHITE ONES!”

“You better take real good care of me,” Priest warns. “Nothing, nothing better happen to one hair on my gorgeous head. Can you dig it?”

The Commissioner has no choice but to comply, and Priest drives off into the sunset (and into a sequel, Super Fly TNT, and a reboot, The Return of Super Fly).

In Josiah Howard’s Blaxploitation book, the author calls Super Fly the best Blaxploitation movie ever made. It is certainly one of the best acted, with O’Neal a standout as the protagonist. Whether sharing a quiet scene with his main squeeze, Georgia (Sheila Frazer) or threatening to put Freddy’s wife on the street if Freddy doesn’t deliver his money, O’Neal brings credibility and smoothness to Youngblood Priest. The supporting players are also convincing in their roles. The screenplay gives them several speeches, and the actors make some of them more believable than they deserve to be.

Ron O’Neal is billed as the star of Super Fly, but its real star makes only a cameo appearance onscreen. Curtis Mayfield shows up at a club to sing Pusherman, the second song on the Super Fly CD and the soundtrack’s most clever number. Mayfield also thought Super Fly was a commercial for cocaine and decided to counter it musically. On the surface, Pusherman sounds like a boastful Blaxploitation hero’s song, but underneath it is a warning to users. Containing the most shocking lyrics of the Super Fly soundtrack, Mayfield tells the junkie:

“I’m your Mama, I’m Your Daddy
I’m that nigga in the alley.
I’m your doctor when you need
Want some coke, have some weed.
You know me, I’m your friend, your main boy thick and thin.
I’m your Pusherman.”

Later, he tells you what your money gets him.

“Feelin’ good for the man
Super Fly, here I stand.
Secret stash, heavy bread,
Baddest Bitches in the bed.
I’m your Pusherman.”

Mayfield’s falsetto is sexy, seductive, and ultimately Satanic. This is a deal with the devil that won’t work out for you. The song is hypnotic, with its relentless percussion lulling you as a distraction from the bluntness of his words. His delivery of the line “baddest bitches in the bed” is an almost cruel taunt.

While the movie lives a fantasy, Mayfield’s songs bring a cold dose of reality. In Freddie’s Dead, Mayfield sings about Charles MacGregor’s fate in Super Fly. Super Fly spends little time lamenting Freddie’s demise  or making him any form of tragic figure. Mayfield fixes that on the soundtrack. The song’s matter-of-fact lyrics are jarring and real.

“Everybody's misused him
Ripped him up and abused him
Another junkie plan
Pushin' dope for the man
A terrible blow
But that's how it goes
A Freddie’s on the corner now
If you wanna be a junkie, wow
Remember Freddie’s dead.”

Later, he warns us “Don’t be misled, just think of Fred.”

All of this is wrapped in music that’s both bold and sad. Wah wah guitars and a walking bass line co-exist with a sad string section, representing the super highs and the terrible lows of Freddie’s addiction. This is my favorite song on the Super Fly soundtrack. For years, its funky opening sequence was my ringtone.

Mayfield also tries to bring a little more context to the life of the pusher. In the title track, Mayfield sings about Priest’s hustle:

“The game he plays, he plays for keeps
Hustlin’ times and ghetto streets, tryin’ ta get over.
That’s what he’s tryin’ ta do y’all.
Taking all that he can take
Gambling with the odds of fate
Tryin’ ta get over.”

Tryin’ ta get over. That’s what all we hood denizens were tryin’ ta do, y’all. But at what cost? That’s what makes me itch about this film. Should my feelings be filed under “Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game?” Am I walking some kind of socialist fine line by making a distinction on what kind of capitalist hustle I can tolerate? Honestly, I don’t know. But Super Fly has always held me in a suspended state of equal fascination and repulsion. Its lead character’s ideas on making money at any cost to the disenfranchised would make him the best candidate the GOP would have to offer in the 2012 election, though I doubt the establishment could handle him.

 This would make one hell of a campaign poster!

No comments: