On a humid February day in Atlanta, Georgia it’s raining outside and indoors. On the downtown streets precipitation is ruining whatever kick game you had planned for the day, but inside on the set of Superfly a stage is littered with tell-tale dollar bills, the foliage of the financially flush. The popular Masquerade Club has been bathed in amethyst light, transforming it into a sophisticated Cirque Du Soleil. Actors and extras clad in white are pantomiming to a silent disco until the director yells “Cut!” Pooty don’t need no music.
“Strip club culture is such a big part of the scene out here,” says Director X during a break between takes. “This is the Superfly version of Magic City. We just build from that. This is the Harlem of today. If you were popping in Harlem in the ‘70s you were popping around the world. If you’re popping in Atlanta you’re popping around the world. This is that Black epicenter now.”
The original Superfly was the feature film debut of Gordon Parks, Jr., son of famed photographer, musician and director Gordon Parks. The story centered around a young cocaine dealer in Harlem named Priest who was feeling the constraints of the criminal life closing in on him and sought a way out. Priest was ruthless but had heart, making him a bit of an anti-hero, a duality that earned the film some controversy when it premiered.
“Being a hustler is not a fun thing. And we show this rather clearly in the movie,” the late Ron O’Neal, the original Youngblood Priest of the 1972’s Superfly, said in an interview. “There is something dangerous about Priest as an idea. To tell the truth is a dangerous thing. You upset an awful lot of people.”
If we’re being honest, the very idea of this remake has upset a lot of people. Hollywood has been churning out remakes like new versions of the latest smartphone and moviegoers are hungry for original stories. But the business of film has proven that repackaging the familiar has upside.
X, who broke into the game twenty years ago making music videos for the likes of Total, Onyx and Nore and commercials for McDonald’s, walks around with a copy of the original Superfly script by Phillip Fenty in a binder. He’s dedicated to maintaining the feel and vibe of the source material but updating it for a 2018 audience. He is shooting it at a blistering pace. Today is day 16 of an aggressive timeline. In today’s scene his star Trevor Jackson, the quixotic Priest, is holding court at a table with one of his lady friends. The leader of a rival gang, the Snow Patrol, is partying with his alabaster clad crew. With all of its flash, guns and gratuitous rump-shaking this could be any action movie, so why Superfly?
“We all know the reality of movies nowadays. People want properties. If you were going to spend $20 Million bucks would you spend it on something that you know people are going to be interested in right away, or would you spend it on an idea I got?,” he says matter of factly. “We all miss the old days when people spent a lot of money on ideas they had.” When asked point black if naming this film Superfly, as opposed to something like Mask Off or Trap Lords is what helped get the film financed, X doesn’t miss a beat. “Of course. Of course. And the energy is in the air. Cleopatra Jones is getting a remake, they’re doing another Shaft. Even with Proud Mary, even though it’s not a remake, it’s definitely in the energy of those old movies. The universe moves things and you just happen to be a part of it. It’s not like we were like, ‘They’re making this, let’s go make that.’ And as we’re making it it’s ‘Hey, they’re making that over there.’ We’re just in the energy.”
X says when he first got the script it was nothing like what it became to be. A good bit of massaging was required to get it to a workable state. But it was his well-seasoned pitch that sealed the deal.
“When I was pitching this to the studios I said it’s like Shakespeare. If you’re doing Romeo and Juliet, you’ve got two groups of people who don’t get along who fall in love, ‘a curse on both your houses’ and at the end they both die tragically. So as long as you do those things you’ve done Romeo and Juliet. So we took the major beats of Superfly and said alright, these are the major things that happen in Superfly and these are the things that happen in our version, and all the other stuff we do from there is an expansion. It’s like going from 60’s Batman to Nolan’s Batman. It’s Batman, no question. Still Bruce Wayne and the cave, all those things, but it’s now. Taking 70s Superfly to 2018 Superfly was the same process.”
The legend of the Superfly film has enjoyed extended life and relevance thanks to the soundtrack produced by the late great Curtis Mayfield. And given the Atlanta setting for this new film, for X it only made sense to have someone like Future, who is entrenched in today’s music scene, to curate the music this go around.
“I wasn’t trying to replicate Curtis Mayfield,” says X. “When I looked at the beats of the original story I said lets pull that. What was it about the music? It had a singular vision. So I wanted to have that vision from someone who knows this place, knows this life, knows this city, knows this sound. No need for us to step into a great man’s shoes.”
Well, it’s hard to avoid stepping into a great man’s shoes when you’re doing a remake, and actor Trevor Jackson revels in taking on the role of Priest popularized by O’Neal, but by putting his own stamp on it.
“I’ve seen the movie once when I was younger. My dad forced me to watch it when I was like 7 and I only watched it one time when I got the part. I didn’t want to take anything from [O’Neal’s] performance. I never want to redo something already did. We’re already doing enough trying to redo the movie, so I didn’t want to mimic him. Just let that legendary performance be what it is. I want to bring my own twist to it. It’s 2018 and everything is different.”
Trevor’s co-star Jason Mitchell, who is fresh off of an Oscar-worthy performance in Mudbound and wowed audiences as Eazy-E in the blockbuster Straight Outta Compton, will bring his distinct swagger to the role of Eddie.
“This is the first set I’ve been on where I’ve been the veteran,” he says matter of factly. “So I have to know how to be the supporting guy that’s the general at the same time. It’s interesting working with a lot of young cats, fresh talent. But it’s also a very beautiful thing.”
Given his experience Mitchell also understands what this film means from a business standpoint for all involved.
“Big studios don’t trust us with money,” he says, the ‘us’ being the young and melaninated. “We don’t get these opportunities. But doing good with these opportunities, they’re gonna keep coming. This is a good start and launch pad to do things that we actually want to see. Because you can get a slave movie done real quick.”
Fans will get to find out how this all plays out on June 15th with Superfly hits theaters.
Photo Credit: Sony