Super Fly, the blaxploitation film that inspired generations of filmmakers The movie's gritty, authentic depiction of street life and its flamboyant lead character created archetypes that have inspired legions of future storytellers and musicians.

Super Fly at 50: A blaxploitation classic that remains a powerful pop culture force

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

"Super Fly," the classic blaxploitation film, celebrates its 50th anniversary today. NPR's Eric Deggans talked to several people who made the movie to discover how a scrappy, independent film about a cocaine dealer became one of the most influential Black-centered films in history.

(SOUNDBITE OF CURTIS MAYFIELD SONG, "SUPERFLY")

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Even if you haven't seen the movie, you probably know the theme song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPERFLY")

CURTIS MAYFIELD: (Singing) Oh, superfly.

DEGGANS: Along with "Shaft," which was released a year earlier, R&B star Curtis Mayfield's steam for "Super Fly" led one of the most successful movie soundtracks of the blaxploitation era. It helped turn the film into one of the most profitable movies of its time, earning millions while briefly dethroning "The Godfather" as the top film of 1972.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPERFLY")

C MAYFIELD: (Singing) Oh, superfly.

DEGGANS: And since then, the movie's gritty, authentic depiction of street life and its flamboyant lead character, a sharp dressing, karate-kicking drug dealer named Youngblood Priest, helped create archetypes which inspired legions of storytellers and musicians. There's films like "New Jack City" and TV shows like "The Wire," and music influences range from Mary J. Blige, sampling Mayfield's "Give Me Your Love" for her hit "I'm The Only Woman"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M THE ONLY WOMAN")

MARY J BLIGE: (Singing) I'm the only woman. I'm the only woman.

DEGGANS: ...To Fishbone rocking out on a cover of Mayfield's hit "Freddie's Dead."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREDDIE'S DEAD")

FISHBONE: (Singing) Freddie's dead.

DEGGANS: Still, there's a lot some people don't know about the film "Super Fly," including the meaning of the title, which describes the high quality of cocaine that Priest sold.

PHILLIP FENTY: Fly was the term at the time. Oh, that's fly. You're looking fly. I put super to it and made "Super Fly."

DEGGANS: That's Phillip Fenty, a former advertising executive who wrote the script for "Super Fly." Aware of the success of "Shaft" and inspired by a burgeoning Black-centered independent film and theater movement in New York, Fenty wanted to write his own film. He saw a cover story in New York Magazine about a rising Black drug dealer called The Man with the Golden Nose. And then a friend brought a dealer to Fenty's apartment in New York, warning him not to square up or act too straitlaced.

FENTY: He said, boy, don't you square up on me. (Laughter) So, oh, please, come in. It was truly one of the most incredible evenings I've ever spent in my entire life.

DEGGANS: Fenty worked with Nate Adams, a boyhood friend, who developed the character's signature look by digging up the clothes himself. Adams also found the tricked-out car that Priest drives - a Cadillac Eldorado with custom Rolls-Royce style grille and special headlights driven by a guy at a local shoeshine parlor. They team with producer Sig Shore for funds, casting another friend from Cleveland, up-and-coming stage actor Ron O'Neal as Priest, a smart player seeking one last score to get out of the life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREDDIE'S DEAD")

C MAYFIELD: (Singing) Freddie's dead.

DEGGANS: Of course, another reason the film hit big was Mayfield's soundtrack packed with hits like "Freddie's Dead," "Pusherman" and the film's theme song. Todd Mayfield, Curtis' son, said his father began writing songs almost immediately after Fenty and Shore gave him a script, creating songs with stories that added to the film's narrative.

TODD MAYFIELD: The soundtrack made these characters more than one-dimensional, you know? It gave them some depth, and it made you sometimes think about them in a little bit of a different way than the face value that you're seeing early in the film.

DEGGANS: But not everyone loves seeing Black drug dealers and the street life humanized. Junius Griffin, then president of the NAACP's Beverly Hills-Hollywood Branch, is credited with coining the term blaxploitation shortly after the film's release, saying such films exploit Black people while encouraging them to embrace destructive ideals. Sheila Frazier, who played Priest's girlfriend Georgia, still sees the word blaxploitation as an insult.

SHEILA FRAZIER: Oh, I can't stand it. You know, I can't stand it. They didn't call it white exploitation when we looked at Cagney films and a lot of the films that dealt with Mafia and bootlegging.

DEGGANS: Todd Boyd, a professor at the University of Southern California and a cultural commentator featured in the DVD commentary for "Super Fly," agrees with Frazier. He notes that Priest outsmarts corrupt cops and rivals to get out of a life that's dangerous and depressing.

TODD BOYD: There's a sense of Black power mixed with capitalism and this desire to be kind of a street entrepreneur. And to put it in a film, it kind of gives that pursuit of life meaning in a way that it wouldn't have had otherwise.

DEGGANS: "Super Fly" eventually spawned two half-hearted sequels and a 2018 remake film. Many of those involved in making the original movie, including O'Neal and Shore, have died, but the film's influence lives on. Frazier says "Super Fly" succeeded by showing Black people something they hadn't seen before.

FRAZIER: That was one of the rare times that someone from the inner city won. And, like, he walked away without one hair touched on his pretty head.

DEGGANS: Fenty offers a simpler explanation.

FENTY: We in this country love outlaws. We still do. So he was - he came from that - from the bottom. No way to get to the top from the bottom than to be an outlaw.

DEGGANS: As the nation still struggles with racism, poverty, police brutality and social decay, the themes in "Super Fly" remain resonant as ever 50 years on.

(SOUNDBITE OF CURTIS MAYFIELD SONG, "PUSHERMAN")

DEGGANS: I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUSHERMAN")

C MAYFIELD: (Singing) I'm your mama. I'm your daddy in the alley. I'm your doctor when in need. Want some coke? Have some weed. You know me. I'm your friend, your main boy, thick and thin. I'm your pusherman. I'm your pusherman.

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