Trevor Jackson, the young Black actor who has made a name for himself in shows like American Crime and, most recently, grown-ish is now the star of his first big movie. SuperFly — a current spin on the eponymous 1972 Blaxploitation movie — is in theaters now. It tells the story of Youngblood Priest (Jackson), a crafty and well-respected drug dealer in Atlanta. When the jealousy of another local dope boy disrupts the peaceful life that Priest has built for himself (and his two girlfriends that live with him), he is forced to take some risks in order to get out of the game. Admittedly, I rolled my eyes (during a sex scene between Priest and his two lovers), felt old (especially when looking at all of the face tattoos that have become popular among younger generations), and found some parts of the film to be extremely contrived. But by the end of it, I felt not a single regret about sitting through it.
It’s by design that the film latches on to Black cultural extremism and doesn’t let go. That’s part of the legacy of the Blaxploitation genre that was defined by movies like the original SuperFly. These films were criticized for relying on racial stereotypes abut Black communities. At the same time, they were also the only films that allowed Black characters to play the lead role and even be the hero. As a result, they were extremely popular among Black audiences. Blaxploitation films are deserving of every single critique, but it's hard not to watch them. I’m too young to have lived in the glory days of Blaxploitation. Instead, SuperFly reminded me of another Black subgenre that was a problematic fave in my youth: urban fiction.
When I was a pre-teen, my friends and I were experiencing a literary awakening. We started our own underground book club where we would swap titles in unsupervised hallways or during outings where our parents thought we were only buying clothes and talking to boys. The reason for our secrecy was because of the very adult nature of the books we read. Our selections included raunchy Black erotica from authors like Zane, but the most enticing books were the ones that told gritty stories about navigating the streets. Omar Tyree’s Flyy Girl is considered to be the catalyst for modern “street lit” that made way for books like Sista Souljah’s Coldest Winter Ever and Teri Wood’s True to the Game. During my middle school years, my homegirls and I read them all.
Contemporary urban fiction often offered character development and plot devices that left quite a bit to be desired. But they reflected some of our experience and the other Black art forms that we indulged in. For example, hip-hop has been the soundtrack of my entire life, and these books were another way to connect to the themes in some of our favorite songs and music videos. Movies like Belly, Paid in Full, and State Property were cinematic gems of a time that was heavily invested in street codes and come-ups. SuperFly is just the 2018 version.
Priest is a solid, clear-thinking leader. A protagonist that audiences are already ready to embrace thanks to figures like T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) in Black Panther. SuperFly, from the opening credits to the end, looks like a music video itself, or at least a well-curated Instagram promotion for a party in Miami. There are scenes in strip clubs and cameos from Rick Ross and Outkast’s Big Boi. It’s a movie that is plugged into the group that is going to flood theaters to see it.
At its essence, Superfly is fun. Amidst a hail of gunfire and car chases, the film and its main character carry a light and airy tone. It’s super funny comedy and has none of the political undertones that have become mainstays in projects like Get Out and Black Panther. Priest can shoot, and he is pretty high in rank on Atlanta’s drug scene. However, he tries to avoid violence at all costs and uses strategic thinking and a trove of knowledge about his adversaries and allies to get things done. Throughout the film, even his relationship with two women essentially dissolves into a more palatable, family-friendly love story that involves one woman and one man. It’s this self-awareness of exaggerated grandiosity that makes SuperFly, Blaxploitation films, urban fiction, and hood flicks worth watching. Like a story from your drunk uncle, you strap in for a ride that is familiar, adventurous, and likely not headed to a conclusion that feels impactful. But dammit, it’s a good time.