In the early ‘70s Gordon Parks' Shaft, Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and Gordon Parks Jr.’s Super Fly forever altered how black folks could be seen on screen. Black actors were no longer relegated to the sidelines as servants or even the polished and collected characters that Sir Sidney Poitier mastered in previous decades. These films ushered the Blaxploitation era and broke the mold, allowing black people to step into the spotlight as the varied and multi-dimensional people that we are.
Now, over forty years later, visionary filmmaker Director X (Rihanna’s “Work”) is picking up his camera to remix (not reboot) Parks Jr.'s visceral tale of the cocaine dealer, Youngblood Priest. Played by Grown-ish’s Trevor Jackson, Priest has grown weary of the drug game and is determined to do one last big job before getting out for good. On a rainy day in February, I stepped inside one of Atlanta's most renowned nightclubs. The lounge was transformed and redressed as Masquerade Strip Club --a glittering and upscale parlor full of Cirque du Soleil-like dancers. It was as fabulous as you can imagine. I knew immediately that this was miles away from the gritty streets of 1972's Harlem.
Director X on the set of SUPERFLY. Photo: Sony
A few short weeks into filming, and the set was buzzing with activity. As I sat perched on the balcony, I could see Director X on the ground floor directing the actors which include Jackson, Jason Mitchell, Big Bank Black and Kaalan Walker, among others. The director seemed completely in his element four months from the film's release date. In a world that seems increasingly obsessed with reboots and revamps, resurrecting Super Fly has been in the works for quite some time. "I was always a fan of Blaxploitation films," The Matrix trilogy producer Joel Silver explained as he made his rounds on the set. "It took me a long time to get the rights to Super Fly. Warner's put the movie out in the early '70s, but they only had a one-picture license. I (finally) got it in 2001 or 2002. We went to the studio, but they didn't want to call it Super Fly, and they didn't want the same story. About two years ago I got a call from Steve Shore, the son of the original film’s producer Sig Shore. He said, ‘Are you still interested in Super Fly?' He'd just been approached by Starz. I said, ‘No, no, no. I want it. I want it.’"
Jason Mitchell and Trevor Jackson in SUPERFLY. Photo: Sony
Though he kept the core story intact, Silver knew that he needed the right people on board to bring his vision to life. He also wanted to make sure that a 21st-century audience would be intrigued and feel represented in the film's narrative. The 48 Hours producer reached out to Director X after getting enthralled with the director's extensive filmography. "I saw all these videos," Silver recalled. "Every time I saw a video that I thought was great, it was Drake or Kendrick (Lamar) or somebody, they would always ask this guy to direct. I said, 'Let’s bring him in.' X came to see us and said, ‘Look, this movie has cultural implications to me. I love what it was. I want to go back to the original movie. I want to relive that story in today's world.' Around this time, I was making The Nice Guys. I was shooting in Atlanta; I love the city. I love being here and I thought, 'This is where Superfly could take place today. It should be in Atlanta.' We started working on it, and it came together very quickly. Sony thought about it. They said, ‘Let's go.’ We were moving in October and November. Now we're shooting."
Check out this exclusive video with Director X:
Nailing down the specificities that nod toward present-day Atlanta was imperative for Silver. He recognized that he had to get everything from the intrinsic confidence of the city's residents to its music just right. After bringing on rapper Future to curate the soundtrack, Silver connected with Atlanta native 21 Savage about bringing the character Juju, a soldier in the gang Sno Patrol, to life. Though the rapper's schedule ultimately didn't permit him to join the film, he suggested Atlanta MC Big Bank Black as Sno Patrol leader Q. "I’m not from Atlanta," Silver explained. "I asked 21 Savage, ‘Who should play Q?' He said, 'This guy. Big Bank because he's official.’"
Lex Scott Davis and Trevor Jackson in SUPERFLY. Photo: Sony
The “Bank Account” rapper was correct. You truly don’t get any more Atlanta than Big Bank Black. Donned in all white, Big Bank is a presence in himself. Draped in a white mink coat with a mesmerizing diamond-studded grill in his mouth, Big Bank was a welcome and warm spirit who was eager to talk about Q and his hometown. "Shit, Q is more like the leader of the Sno Patrol," he expressed. "I guess he's a good guy, but he's the leader of a drug crack trafficking organization. But he makes sure everybody eats around him you know —typical dope boy."
Big Bank, who is one of the only Atlanta natives in the cast, was diligent about giving his city its dues in everything from his wardrobe to his dialogue. "I keep it Atlanta even with the fashion, with the look," he emphasized. "I'mma do me even when they tell me the lines. They really let me put the Atlanta lingo on it and shit. Man, the city finna go crazy when they see their boy Bank, you know, because it's real."
With 21 Savage out of the running for the role of Juju – a solider directly under Q with some deep animosity toward Priest, Los Angeles native and MC Kaalan Rashad Walker, who most recently starred in the Halle Berry thriller KINGS, stepped up to the plate. Dressed in white with a series of tattoos sprawled across his babyface, Walker was intensely focused as he greeted me. Quiet and extremely serious, it wasn't very difficult for the 22-year-old actor to channel Juju’s rage. "He is... how do I put this? My real self," Walker stated. "I grew up in a very broken type situation. Grew up with a single mother, no father involved. (He) tried to come in from time to time, but he don't really care. I have this anger in me, and I feel like I can use Juju as a way to get it out. So, I think Juju is me-- a particular part of myself. On a typical day, I'm respectful, nice and caring about everybody. But there's that little piece of anger that I hold in that I don't show the world. I feel like this is my way of laying it out. I think Juju's aggressive. He's hateful. He's jealous. He's a misunderstood person who cares about his family -- Sno Patrol, and nothing else. Getting to know Juju was actually looking in the mirror and getting to know myself. I'm pretty sure everybody has had a hard time with a certain part of their life. I think that's what Juju is, and I think that's how he doesn't show weakness to his team. He doesn't show weakness to his boss. He goes against his boss sometimes 'cause he's so arrogant. But if Sno Patrol leaves, and everybody's gone, and no one cares about him, he has no one to care about; I think he'll end his life."
To flesh out his character, Walker and Director X watched the original film and examined cinema classics like Tupac’s Bishop in Juice and Denzel Washington’s Alonzo Harris in Training Day. "The character Juju allowed me to transform," Walker revealed. "Transforming is very fun. Nobody stays the same way forever, so I can turn it on and turn it back off. I think that all those things together create Juju. He thinks he's bigger than his OG, and that rarely happens. So, when it comes to Q, (Juju) is very obedient but defiant at the same time. It's like he's dragging a wrecking ball everywhere he goes."
In a gangster film like Superfly, I thought it was significant to see broken and insecure black male characters like Juju on the big screen. Walker also understood how impactful that was for a generation of men who seem to be simultaneously pushing against and running toward hypermasculinity. "We don't get to show it nowhere else," Walker reflected. "We're not supposed to be here technically. I'm not Juju for me, bro. There's somebody in Atlanta, California, anywhere that's broken, pissed off, hates the world -- wants somebody hurt because they're hurting on the inside. I'm representing all of them. I'm one person, but I'm trying to show y'all, 'Hey, y'all, you're not alone.' It's a real thing. A very, very real thing."
As the day came to an end with movie dollars flying through the air and the dancers sliding back into their stilettos and resetting on the stage, I thought it was pertinent to ask Silver about the uncertainty and backlash that is undoubtedly coming in the wake of reviving such a beloved cult classic. "It's The Sopranos to me," he stressed. “I’m making The Sopranos for young people. It's a gangster movie. I think that we're keeping the heart and soul of the original. It's not the same movie; we're using reboot, remix -- it's inspired by. It's not a vastly different world, but it is a different world. It's a different time and place. I think we're conscious of that. We want it to be a success, but I want to make something that we're all proud of; all of us. We're not throwing this away. We're doing it right."
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.