‘Superfly’: Bringing Bling to a Dark Story of the Streets

Posted June 12, 2018 8:23 p.m. EDT

The American dream is invoked several times in “Superfly.” The mentions come from the movie’s lead character, and from a song on the soundtrack. These days, it seems, the phrase is often used ironically. It’s all about the accumulation of wealth and a sybaritic lifestyle. There’s no spiritual dimension, no sense of genuine civic aspiration.

Within those cynically defined contemporary parameters, Youngblood Priest (Trevor Jackson, dressed to the nines and sporting what one character derides as “Morris Day hair”) is doing well. He’s a major drug supplier in bling-driven Atlanta. He has two live-in girlfriends, the quietly sophisticated Georgia (Lex Scott Davis) and the younger, flintier Cynthia (Andrea Londo). He’s got a beautiful house and a beautiful car, commands respect, and presides over an uneasy peace with Snow Patrol, a competing drug gang that wears all white.

That peace starts fragmenting early in the picture, outside a nightclub, where an indolently truculent Snow Patrol member, Juju (Kaalan Rashad Walker), takes a shot at Priest and instead hits a bystander. Priest plays good guy by handing the victim’s friends a wad of cash and giving them the name of the best local trauma center.

The close call and its concurrent threat of a gang war compel Priest to take stock. He confides to a lieutenant, Eddie (Jason Mitchell), that he wants out. Pulling into his driveway, he confides to the audience, in voice-over, that he believes “no car ever outran fate.”

This film, directed by Director X from a script by Alex Tse, is a remake of the 1972 picture directed by Gordon Parks Jr. (whose father had made “Shaft” a year before). The first film — titled “Super Fly” (two words instead of one) — was a low-budget affair with a gritty look and a claustrophobic feel. As Priest, Ron O’Neal had a charisma and enigmatic elegance that stood out in the Harlem back rooms and alleys where he did his business. The moral conundrum of drug dealing among African-Americans was addressed mostly by Curtis Mayfield’s superb soundtrack, which functioned as a kind of Greek chorus.

This “Superfly” has original songs by the hip-hop artist Future, who’s also a producer of the film. But they’re not particularly distinctive; perhaps that’s why a couple of Mayfield songs are brought back to serve here. And indeed, when they pop up, they infuse the movie with fresh rhythm. Director X has a larger budget and a more expansive milieu to deal with here. He seems almost as influenced by Brian De Palma’s “Scarface” (itself a remake) as by the original “Super Fly.” Witness the bright oranges and subsequent neon colors in the movie’s opening scene: a tracking shot of an underground nightclub, depicting Priest on a mission to collect money owed.

Once Priest decides to pursue his “last score,” he seeks help from his mentor in crime, Scatter, played by an avuncular but cautiously sinister Michael Kenneth Williams. On the one hand, it’s a clever idea to have the pair negotiate drug supplies while sparring in Scatter’s martial-arts gym; on the other, the cleverness becomes beside the point because Director X can’t manage to make both the action and the dialogue work in tandem.

Refused by Scatter, Priest has to pitch himself to a deadly Mexican cartel manager played by Esai Morales. Priest manages to get to terms with him just before some henchmen are going to throw him from a private jet. As Mayfield’s “Pusherman” plays, Priest’s drugs are seen hitting Birmingham, Alabama; Nashville, Tennessee; Miami; and Houston. The money rolls in, and soon a couple of corrupt white cops are making aggressive requests to dip their beaks.

The roomier scenario of this remake has the potential to yield a decent thriller, but “Superfly” too often prioritizes showy sequences for dubious reasons. One lengthy sex-in-the-shower scene between the characters played by Jackson, Londo and Davis has a nearly risible box-checking quality.

On “Freddie’s Dead,” a song on the 1972 soundtrack album (it’s not sung in the film itself), Mayfield calls out “Another junkie plan/Pushing dope for the Man,” vocalizing in a tone that the critic Greil Marcus (in his great book “Mystery Train”) called “incredulous and disgusted.”

“The Man” so trenchantly invoked by Mayfield was incarnated in the earlier film by a white police superintendent who wants Priest as his puppet. That character was a stand-in for white oppression, someone Priest finally contrives to walk away from, clean.

But in this film’s 21st-century Atlanta, “The Man” never really manifests. Greed and corruption are themselves the magnetic fields that pull together would-be players — white, Latino and African-American. Given human nature, the alliances and affinities are almost always short term, of course. Which isn’t to say that the film lacks for racial consciousness.

“Superfly” saves its most righteous physical violence for its finale, and it’s a sequence that will probably enrage anyone who’s ever uttered the phrase “Blue Lives Matter.” The entire denouement has a nice satirical sting, pushed along by the rapper and songwriter Big Boi’s droll turn as an incumbent mayor hungry for re-election who becomes a potent weapon in Priest’s score settling.

“Superfly” is rated R for being a remake of “Super Fly.” Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes.