“There is a difference between getting out, and getting pushed out.” Michael K. Williams’ character Scatter offers those haunting words of advice to Youngblood Priest (portrayed by Trevor Jackson) in the new trailer for Superfly. Though this 21st-century film is a world away from Gordon Parks Jr.’s 1972 Harlem-set Super Fly, the core of the story remains untouched. Set in Atlanta, Jackson’s Preist has become increasingly wary of the drug game. The constant paranoia has become all-consuming. Determined to start over, he bands together with his girl Georgia (Lex Scott Davis) and his business partner Eddie (Jason Mitchell) for one last job before he vanishes.
Seated at the helm is Director X, known for his astonishing music videos for everyone from Drake to Rihanna, and the filmmaker was determined to elevate Atlanta life in all of its glitz and glory without removing the layer of grime that comes with street life, violence, death and drugs. Seated in the center of a nightclub in ATL surrounded by equipment, props and the incessant chatter of extras in the background, X is clearly in his element. He’d been called upon to deliver a 2018 version of Super Fly, and he’s determined to deliver. “We all know the reality of movies nowadays,“ he explained. “People want properties. If you’re going to spend 20 million bucks, would you spend it on something you know people will be interested in right away, or would you spend it on an idea? We all miss the old days when people spent a lot of money on ideas they had, but this is the energy in the air right now. I think Cleopatra Jones is being remade. They’re doing another Shaft. Even Taraji’s Proud Mary; it’s not a remake, but it’s definitely in the energy of those old movies.”
Despite Hollywood’s remake and reboot climate, X revealed that when he first received the script, though it was named Superfly, the tone of the original was nowhere to be found. For him, that was unacceptable. “I read the script, and it wasn’t about a drug dealer trying to get out,” he remembered. “I said, We gotta make Super Fly, so that’s the movie we’re making. You’ve got Scatter, Eddie, Georgia, Cynthia, all those main characters that were in the original are here. The major story points happen. We took the major beats of Super Fly and said, ‘Alright, these are the major things that happen, these are the things that have to happen in our version, and all the other stuff we do from there is an expansion.’”
Though the original film was considered an action drama during its time, X wanted to elevate the narrative by amplifying the most explosive notes in the plot and fleshing out a glossy and elite Atlanta world for Priest. “There’s a little bit of art to everything,” the “Work” music video director expressed. “Everything’s just a little hyper-real. I didn’t want to do this super realistic drug story. I’m not interested in that. We’re making a fun summer movie. Strip club culture is such a big part of the scene out here, but even that, this is the Superfly version of Magic City. Atlanta is the Harlem of today. If you were poppin’ in Harlem in the ’70s, you was poppin’ around the world. If you’re poppin’ in Atlanta, you’re poppin’ around the world. This is that black epicenter now.”
It was the lore of the original film that promoted Trevor Jackson to get involved in the first place. “Obviously the movie is the first attraction, just knowing what it was and what it was to black people –that’s what I wanted to be a part of,” he revealed as he sat stretched out in one of the club’s booths. “Reading the new script, I loved the action aspects of it. I loved (Priest’s) ambition, and I love the whole message — the American dream. Nothing comes easy, even the thing that you work your whole life for may not be what you want at the end of the day. That’s what this story’s about, he works so hard to be this guy at the top, but maybe he doesn’t want that life anymore.”
Jackson had quite the transformation from his grown-ish character Aaron into the perm-wearing Priest; a stoic, leather jacket-wearing figure in the midst of a sea of flashy drug dealers. “I feel like the main difference between him and me is I’m just very all over the place, and he’s very reserved,” Jackson explained. “(Priest) calculates everything, and I’m very vocal. He’s very mysterious — kind of moves like a shark in a way. But I love it. Being able to be and work with so many talented people, that brings the best work out of me.”
In the original film, Ron O’Neal’s hair was iconic, so X knew they had to do something with Jackson’s hair, as well. “Atlanta is known for its hair,” he explained. “So for Superfly, we can’t not do something with the hair.” Despite the flourish of hair, Jackson worked diligently to make the character his own – a man very separate from O’Neal’s ’72 rendition. “I didn’t want to take anything, because I never want to try and redo something somebody already did. I feel like we’re already doing enough trying to redo the movie,” he explained. “I didn’t want it to try and be me mimicking him. I just wanted to put my own twist on it and allow that to be the legendary performance that it was and try to bring my own little twist to it. I’d seen the movie once when I was younger, and when I found out I got it, I only watched it one time, but I didn’t want to try and take too much of that. I’m playing a much younger version of the character, and it’s 2018 and everything’s kind of different now.”
Director X along with writer, Alex Tse, were very deliberate about the choices they made to modernize the film. “Cynthia and Georgia was a hard one to deal with,” X explained. “In the original, Priest has two girlfriends —they never meet. We don’t know what they know about one another. So we said, alright, he got two girlfriends? Give him two girlfriends. Let’s go. In the original movie, two junkies try to rob Priest at the beginning of the film. But I couldn’t believe that a guy who’s making a couple of million dollars over X amount of months is anywhere near junkies. So then that evolved into, ‘What if there are other drug dealers?’ Which then upped the danger and the rivalry. So it builds Sno Patrol. This big massive crew of flashy, flamboyant guys that want to get him. We just keep adding danger.”
Nailing down the right talent was also essential in making sure that Parks Jr.’s blueprint was remixed in a way that would be most enticing to a present-day audience. “All of our cast are talented, skillful actors that want to do right by it, build these characters and really make something right,” Director X said thoughtfully. “So it’s just dope to have a good arsenal of weapons.” Still, just as much as an iconic cast like Williams, Jackson and Mitchell stand at the center of the film, 1972’s Super Fly continues to withstand time because of its music. The soundtrack, X knew, would be an intricate part of his story. “I wasn’t trying to replicate Curtis Mayfield and say the music needs to be somehow musically that,” he affirmed. “When I looked at the beats of the original story, It wasn’t just that it’s Curtis Mayfield — it’s that it had a singular vision. He came in and said, ‘This is what I’m doing with the music.’ I wanted to have that kind of vision, musically, from someone who knows this place, knows this life, knows this city, knows this sound. So what (Future) brings to it is just innate. There’s no need for us to step into (Mayfield’s) shoes. We’re working on the music as we go, so we let the artistic process go the way it goes. We wanted pieces of the actual culture here. Not just for people from Atlanta to say, ‘Yeah, they did that right.’ But also for people who have no idea what’s right and what’s not to get a taste of the Atlanta essence. And for that, you need some people who are from here. So Future does that musically.”
For Mitchell who plays Eddie, a role originated by Carl Lee in the ‘70s, it was Mayfield’s iconic soundtrack that imprinted on his brain as a kid. “I knew the music first, but my dad was always a movie buff, too,” he remembered. “It’s one of those things I didn’t really even understand. I’m like, ‘Dad, what’s all this white stuff?’ (cocaine) He would say, “Don’t worry about it.’” It was those memories of watching Park’s Jr.’s Super Fly as a kid with his father, that prompted Mitchell to sign for Director X’s version. For the Straight Outta Compton actor, it was also a chance for black people to see ourselves in all of our various colors and particularities. “People need to be able to see themselves,“ he emphasized. “That’s really what it boils down to. When we try to give something to the younger generations, they have to say, ‘I see somebody like myself. I see somebody with natural hair. I see a drug dealer. I see these different things that are in the communities.’”
Though Mitchell’s performance is very much his own, he looked to Lee’s work as a roadmap to really dive into who Eddie is. “My character, he’s just built off loyalty,” he explained. “A lot of times you see people cross each other in this drug game. You see friends cross each other for money. You see people kill their parents to get money. It’s just a dog-eat-dog world, but he’s loyal. He’s super, super, super loyal. He’s blood like that. I lost my best friend. That’s why I started actin’ in the first place. I always did want somethin’ better for myself. It’s exciting, being your own boss, being young with cash rolling in, it’s exciting. Eddie is the kind of dude that if he weren’t sellin’ drugs, he would probably be on them. He’s so loyal to Priest for giving him an opportunity to be able to make something of himself. I think that’s kind of how I look at acting –as my Priest in a way.”
In many ways, though his loyalty is very much with Priest, Eddie also feels trapped between his best friend and Sno Patrol. “The Sno Patrol … they like being up,” The Chi actor admitted. “As much as people don’t wanna realize it or don’t wanna say it, in the drug game it’s strength in numbers. If people didn’t choose to be flashy, it would be a much stronger thing. Sno Patrol went to different cities recruitin’ the best drug dealers. Ain’t no reason to lock nobody out, it’s money to get. I feel like Eddie is lookin’ at Sno Patrol like, ‘We can be gettin’ this kind of money. Why are we not part of this? We’re strong.’ I think in the process of Eddie watching them and watching what Priest does, he finds the common medium. But I think that he really does just have this twinkle in his eye for what they do. They’re proud of it, but Priest doesn’t have any pride in his work.”
Since Superfly is revamping such a beloved and classic film, pushback is bound to happen, but Jackson, for one, is ready to embrace it. “There’s gonna be a lot of hate and a lot of love; I’m ready for all of it,” he smiled. “I feel like regardless of the time 2018, or the ’70s, the American dream will always be a story that is the same. Regardless of the generation. Having Future and so many talented people in this movie, and Jason’s audience, my audience — everybody is bringing their own thing to the table, so I think it’s going to be dope, man. I’m hype.”
Superfly debuts June 15, 2018.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.