A new film series curated by critic J. Hoberman, “Fun City: New York in the Movies 1967-75,” got off the ground last Saturday afternoon at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens. A primarily weekend event running through September 1st, the retrospective seeks to draw attention to the New York films of yesteryear, films featuring on-location shooting gleefully encouraged by then Mayor John V. Lindsay; Lindsay described his rundown NYC as a “Fun City.” The result was some excellent films that leaned on their locales for extra doses of hard-knocks and gritty gravitas. Directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin and Sidney Lumet subsequently made their presence known.
Presented on a 35MM print tonight at MOMI (with actress Sheila Frazier in attendance) is the stylishly influential and musically beloved Superfly, director Gordon Parks Jr.'s cautionary tale rooted in themes prevalent in blaxploitation cinema. Filmed back when the Knickerbockers were still winning NBA championships, Superfly – the ultimate “get out before things go bad” drug movie – was culturally significant for a number of reasons.
The story of Priest, a well respected cocaine dealer trying to escape the lifestyle after one final lucrative sale, the film, famous for its outfits and Grammy-nominated soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield, is a representation of a city divided by race. Yes, the African-American men in the film have power within their business, but who’s running it? Of particular interest is Superfly's second half which reveals the players getting played, the black men acknowledging manipulation by the crooked white police officers and detectives in control.
Once Priest and his right-hand man and business partner, Eddie, make a deal with Scatter (an old man trying to put his life of drug-dealing behind him) to obtain thirty keys of coke, the two men discover who their suppliers are: shady white men working in the name of the law. Eddie and Priest thus work for these people and, like Scatter trying to live his remaining days as a chef, can never truly get out. By wishing to make one final sale, large enough that he and his girlfriend can live a comfortable life free of fear, Priest digs himself deeper into a labyrinth of crime. The deputy commissioner now owns him; who can you ask for help when those in power are the ones posing the threat?
In a worthwhile but not unexpected development, Eddie has no interest leaving the drug game behind, and therefore has trouble understanding his friend's dilemma. Priest has “an 8 track stereo, color TVs in every room, and can snort a half a piece of dope everyday,” a life of riches Eddie assumes is the quintessential American dream. The danger associated with their line of work seems less apparent to him, and when he does acknowledge it, he speaks as a man whose dreams have already passed him by.
After the detectives murder Scatter by way of forced overdose, Priest has had enough and again tries to convince his friend to get out. Eddie still doesn't get it, and in one of the film's more tragic moments, indicates that he has accepted the terrible fate predetermined by his societal constraints. “People been using me all my life,” Eddie explains, “Yeah, that honky using me. So what? I'm glad he's using me, because I'm gonna make a piss pot full of money. And I'm gonna live like a prince, a fucking black prince.” Eddie then proceeds to rat his friend out once Priest collects stacks of dollar bills from the safe and runs. This marks the second time in the film where one of Priest's fifty employees gives his name up to our Caucasian antagonists; earlier, a man sells Priest out after being interrogated and beaten by the authorities.
In a city employing criminals to keep the criminals in check, the New York of Superfly serves as a political and racial battleground; a revolt may be on the horizon. Never is this more apparent than in a scene in which Priest and Eddie are confronted by a trio of young black men looking to get a cut of the cocaine profits. “You've got plenty of time for your brothers,” the leader tells Priest, “After all, black folks been mighty good to you. And you owe those people something too.” Is Priest respected and envied throughout the streets for his monetary value or is he seen as a fool for who he works for? “We're out here building a new nation for black people,” the stranger continues, [and] it's time for you to start paying some dues, nigger.” Priest understands the man's drift and will have none of it. “I ain't giving you shit,” Priest declares, “Now, I tell you what you do. You go get a gun, and all those black folks you keep doing so much talking about get guns and come back ready to go down, and I'll be right down front killing whitey. Until you can do that, you go sing your marching song someplace else.” Simultaneously threatened and mocked, Priest tells these men off. In doing so, he's suggesting that they work as a single unit to fight the oppressive forces turning them against one another. One needn't look much further than an incident early in the film where two African-American men attempt to rob Priest as evidence of poverty leading to distrust of one's own race.
Sexual intercourse can occasionally, and in the case of this film momentarily, bring the races together. When we first see Priest he is getting high on his own supply while lying next to a nude Caucasian woman. She is his fling on the side, as it is with his African-American girlfriend that he sees potential relationship longevity. Because of this, he keeps this white woman at a distance, an extra prize symbolizing the standard of success he thought he wanted. As she represents the dangerous side of Priest's life (promiscuity, drugs, lacking a future), he eventually ditches her for the familiarity and safety provided by a woman of his own race.
If the selling of narcotics is then the ultimate divider in the world of Superfly, the consumption of them is the ultimate equalizer. In the film's most memorable sequence, a montage of still images depicting cocaine's travels from pocket to nose, from street drug to home activity, unfolds as Mayfield's “Pusher Man” prominently plays on the soundtrack. This approximately four minute tableau shows Priest's men preparing the coke for purchase, selling it nefariously on street corners and bridges – is your local shoe cleaner a pusher man? What about the man holding a Village Voice newspaper close to his body? – and finally the men and women, often Caucasian, enjoying the drug in their protected four-walled confines. Presented in split-screens of up to six images, the story being told here is based on the universality of the desired high. It also serves as an in-depth look at the peddling of illegal product. Since we're shown still frames not quite in succession, we search for the secretive transaction taking place before our eyes. Perhaps we should worry less about their handshake than what is in their hands.
Follow Erik Luers on twitter at @ErikLuers.