“I know it’s a rotten game, but it’s the only one the Man left us to play.”
With those words, spoken by one weary drug dealer to another, the 1972 film “Super Fly” offered up a soulful lament to go with its moody style, fabulous clothes and immortal Curtis Mayfield soundtrack. Directed by Gordon Parks Jr., whose father had helped usher in the blaxploitation era by directing “Shaft” the year before, the movie told the sad, biting story of Youngblood Priest (Ron O’Neal), a Harlem cocaine dealer looking to pull off one last big score and get out of the game for good — a classic gangster-movie premise that couldn’t help but take on extra resonance for a black man defying a system bent on keeping him and others like him in their place.
Forty-six years later, there’s a new “Superfly” on the scene, and Priest, now played by the strikingly handsome Trevor Jackson (“Grown-ish”), is still a pusherman gunning for early retirement, this time sporting a leather jacket and a slicked-back cock-of-the-walk hairdo. He talks a lot more than his predecessor did, underscoring the movie’s overall more-is-more sensibility: more gritty realism, more outsize fantasy, more drive-by political critique.
The action has moved from Harlem to Atlanta, with a few quick stopovers in Texas and Mexico for that extra jolt of contemporary drug-war verisimilitude. There are several shootouts, a lot more dead bodies and one explosive car chase whose biggest casualty is a once-proud Confederate statue. In between set-pieces dripping with so much blood and attitude that you might want to bring a mop to the theater, we get some pole-dancing eye candy and a three-way sex scene that, much like the 1972 film’s memorable bathtub interlude, nearly stops the story dead in its tracks.
In neither case should that be interpreted as a criticism. “Superfly” may be suffused with political fury, but it is also unapologetically awash in cheap, disreputable B-movie thrills. That sounds like a fair approximation of the twin satisfactions — pleasure and provocation — that the early blaxploitation movies afforded their audiences in the immediate wake of the civil rights era, and there’s no real reason the formula shouldn’t hold up now: Even more than some movies, racial oppression has a way of never falling out of fashion.
But if “Superfly” is an arresting feature effort for Director X (a.k.a. Julien Christian Lutz), the music-video auteur known for his visually hypnotic work with artists including Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z and Rihanna, its gleeful ode to excess can also be strained and self-defeating. A lot of effort has been expended to outdo the original story in sheer scale, volume and violence, but the soul of Parks’ 1972 picture — the quality that made it both a crudely invigorating entertainment and a meaningful document of its time and place — is in little danger of meeting its match here.
Which doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy yourself. Director X does a pretty good imitation of a Michael Mann fever dream, shooting in a rough digital blur of neon-nightclub interiors and harsh daylight exteriors, amped by the throbbing beats of a soundtrack assembled by hip-hop artist Future. (The music, which includes shout-outs to “Pusherman,” “Freddie’s Dead” and other Mayfield classics, is the one area in which the new movie makes no real effort to compete.)
Jackson’s charisma is almost as enviable as his coiffure, and he survives the script’s decision to transform Priest into a preening smartass and trash talker extraordinaire. But like O’Neal’s more melancholic spin on the role, he retains a fundamental core of integrity, evident in his reluctance to kill anyone as he looks for the exit sign. Priest’s commitment to nonviolence is not even remotely shared by anyone else — not his gambling-loving partner, Eddie (“Mudbound’s” terrific Jason Mitchell), or his unreliable backup, Fat Freddie (Jacob Ming-Trent), who have their own mixed feelings about his decision to quit.
The excellent if underused Michael K. Williams shows off a few jujitsu moves as Priest’s longtime supplier, while Esai Morales takes the story briefly south of the border as a ruthless drug lord. Piling complication upon complication, a new subplot introduces a rival gang of Atlanta drug dealers, named Sno Patrol for their white suits, white cars and white firearms, who run afoul of the play-it-cool Priest and ignite a brutal turf war.
Among those in Priest’s inner circle forced to deal with the fallout are his two live-in girlfriends, Georgia (Lex Scott Davis) and Cynthia (Andrea Londo). Their highly functional domestic arrangement offers a sly update of the original material (which had Priest cheating on two different women) as well as an acknowledgment of the more open, sexually fluid tenor of the present moment.
But if the women in Priest’s life get to see some more action this time, whether that means making out in the shower or hurling a few Molotov cocktails, it’s hardly enough to keep the story from lapsing into the reflexive misogyny that has always been part of blaxploitation’s legacy.
“Superfly” may not escape the built-in pitfalls of the genre that inspired it, but it doesn’t skimp on the sidelong satisfactions that those old movies held for black audiences unaccustomed to seeing themselves adequately represented on the big screen. You could argue that things have changed for the better in an era that has given us works as rich and varied as “Moonlight,” “Get Out,” “Black Panther” and the forthcoming “BlacKkKlansman” — a renaissance in African American cinema that might make the scuzzy, nasty pleasures of “Superfly” seem regressive by comparison.
Maybe they do. Or maybe the sharp representational laws that too often constrict the cinematic depiction of minorities should be flexible enough to allow for both progress and regression, the low, the high and everything in between. There are ferocious moments here, one involving a confrontation between a white cop and a black driver, that briefly lift “Superfly” out of the realm of lurid, flashy genre retread and into territory that feels raw, unsettling and all too grimly convincing. How Youngblood Priest deals with the Man this time around may be the stuff of purest revenge fantasy, but it also touches a nerve that is hard to dismiss as anything but real.
Rating: R, for violence and language throughout, strong sexuality, nudity and drug content
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Playing: In general release