The team behind the new Superfly reimagining thinks it’s possible to remix a classic. But the original Superfly is a staple. It helped brand the 1970s, adding to what many consider the halcyon days of Black American cinema. The film helped string a set of pearls that people had been trying to hide in desk drawers forever: the Black men and women of the ghetto. In the upside down of the Jim Crow America, the glorification of the rags-to-riches motif was also reserved space. So it’s safe to say the Superfly of 1972 shocked people into viewing themselves differently, as heroines instead of sidekicks. It represented a break in the Black American psyche, a step out of the age of respectability politics pushed by the Civil Rights generation and into one that reflected the population as a whole. And it was done on a shoestring $30,000 budget that very much used Black empowerment as a vehicle for its success.
Alex Tse, the writer of The Watchmen screenplay, was tasked by Sony with spinning the Gordon Parks classic into a hustle film with a few fundamental differences. The center of the Black universe is now Atlanta. Future will be doing the soundtrack. Cryptocurrency is now how you launder cash. Plus, they’ve got Trevor Jackson, the Grown-ish star and R&B ladies man, trying on Ron O’Neal’s swagged out shoes. If the film is done well, it will add to the enormous legacy of Atlanta’s cool. If it isn’t, the city will come off like Candace Owens at a Black Lives Matter rally.
The center of the Black universe is now Atlanta. Future will be doing the soundtrack. Cryptocurrency is now how you launder your cash.
There’s some synergy working here, as well. Jackson seems to do his O’Neal with similar panache, at least in the trailer. While we didn’t get a chance to preview the film, when interviewed he was charming, affable, even with his aerodynamic ‘do sitting atop his head like a crown of feathers. We spoke to him and a few other key players of the remake. Director X sat down for us. So did Joel Silver, who has produced many of the high culture points of our times, including The Warriors, The Matrix series, 48 Hours, Predator, and the Sherlock Holmes films.
We caught Jackson after makeup and hair. Was he going to try a straight adaptation of O’Neil’s Youngblood Priest? “I didn’t want to take anything ’cause I never want to try to do anything anyone already did,” Jackson said. “We’re already doing enough by remaking the movie, you know? I didn’t want to take too much from him, I just wanted to put my own twist on it and allow that to be the legendary performance that it was.” And, nearly immediately, he addressed the elephant in the room: Would he be able to pull off a character who lived a life so far from his own? “I did not grow up in the hood,” he laughed. “Nothing near that. But, for me, I think of it like whatever they want in the movie is [just] like the entertainment game; nothing’s gonna stop me from being the best I can be and working hard.”
But is it really possible to update a work like Superfly? If anyone would know, it’s Joel Silver. He’s worked with nearly every major star Hollywood has put out in the last two decades, and when he enters a room, he does so with a flourish of energy. But, why Superfly? “It took me a long time to get the rights to Superfly,” Silver explained. “Warner put the movie out, but they only had a one-picture license, so it went back to the [original] producer Sig Shore. So I got it in like 2001-2002, and right off the bat the studio didn’t want to call it the same name and they didn’t want it to have the same story.”
Silver jumps in and out of the behind-the-scenes of movie making lore here. It’s the kind of internal movie-talk that could be a project in its own right. For 17 years, the movie sat in different phases of production under many names. At first, they tried to make the film a King Lear stand in. “For a while, it took more of like a King Lear story. Kind of like a big gangster guy tries to give the business up to his two or three kids,” Silver said. “Then Sig wanted the property back, so we changed the title for a while. At first, it was called Gangland then it was called King’s Court.” Luckily, those three films never saw the light of day. Eventually, though, Silver got a call. “Two years ago, I got a call from Steve, Sig Shore’s son. He said, ‘Are you still interested in Superfly?’ Because he’d just been approached by Starz—they were going to do Power.”
Silver got the rights back to the film, eventually landed on Director X (who’d been blessing major music videos for K.Dot and Drake) and chose Atlanta for all its cultural cache. “I love Atlanta and thought, This is where [Superfly’s] world should be,” he said. “And it came together very quickly. Sony found out about it, and they were like let’s go and now we’re shooting.” Though, why the breakneck speed? The movie is due out this summer. “Because Sony didn’t have a summer action movie,” he said. “So they said if you can make this movie for this summer, then you can make it.” If this works, too, they have a 21-year-old in Jackson who they can build around for follow-ups. “I mean, the plan is to have a franchise of these movies. We’d like to keep this going forever,” he said. “It’s good to have a guy who’s 21.”
There’s no question that Silver knows films and that he knows Black movies. He’s worked with Eddie Murphy, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Denzel Washington, and the list goes on. But Superfly is special not only because of what it began, but because it was intensely derided by the NAACP and other Black American organizations for what they deemed the glorification of drug culture, gang culture, and “super males.” Still, culture has come a long way since then. Even with pockets of respectability still enforced, a new generation is far more open to Black people of all stripes trying to change their situation, from Black Panther to Superfly. But films can still be typecast as “urban” even in the age of Black Panther, but Superfly also cannot be divorced of its roots in any meaningful way without watering down its appeal. But when asked about the context of Superfly from the ’70s to today Silver asserted, “I’m making The Sopranos for young people. It’s a gangster movie, and I think Priest is an interesting guy. He doesn’t kill anybody, doesn’t get arrested, he stays mostly under the radar.”
To use an overused term, the original Superfly was unapologetic about its portrayal of Priest’s character. And that’s where Director X is coming from. He’s well aware the power of the film’s name is what helped it get made. “I don’t know [if this movie could have been done if it wasn’t called Superfly],” X said. “We all know the reality of the movie business these days, people want properties. If you were going to spend $20 million would you spend it on something you know people would be into right away, or would you spend it on an idea I got?” So that helped it get greenlit? “Of course. The energy’s in the air. They’re making another Cleopatra Jones, another Shaft,” he said. “So we’re in the energy right now.”
Yet the studio didn’t want to touch the original, so when X was approached by Silver to direct he got a script that was something else entirely. “I got a script that was nothing like Superfly,” he said. “So I read their script before I watched the film, but it’s the power of this film: I knew it was about a drug dealer who wanted to make a million dollars and get out. I read it and said, ‘No, this isn’t it, we’ve gotta make Superfly’, and they said ‘Okay, let’s make Superfly.‘”
For X, it was about getting the beats of the story down and then expanding the universe around it, but it couldn’t be made without the core of the film. “All the major characters that were in the original are here,” he said. “And the major plot points happen. We said, these are the things that have to happen in the film, but those core points make the movie, so we make sure to hit those core points… The example I gave was it’s like going from ’60s Batman to Christopher Nolan’s Batman. Still the cave, still Bruce Wayne, but now. So from ’70s Super Fly to 2018 Superfly, that was the same process.”
Still, he comes back to Atlanta as, maybe, the most prominent character in the film. “This is the Harlem of today. If you were poppin’ in Harlem in the ’70s, you were poppin’ around the world,” said X. “If you’re poppin’ in Atlanta today, then you’re poppin’ around the world. This is the Black epicenter now.”
Just make sure to grab those Lemon pepper wings on the way out.
Superfly will be out in theaters on June 15.