The other night I watched Superfly for the first time. I didn't really know what to expect. I've loved the soundtrack for years, I'm a huge Curtis Mayfield fan, but hadn't really ever heard anyone talk much about the movie itself. I watched a documentary on the "Blaxploitation" genre, and it made me realize that I'd never seen a lot of those movies, so I decided to check out at least one of them.
I'd heard that Superfly got a lot of flack at the time of its release, 1972, because many members of the black community felt that it glamourized its drug dealing (and addicted) protagonist, thus furthering negative stereotypes of black people and setting bad examples for the children. Seeing it outside of the cultural climate of the times, I can say that it does nothing of the sort. Priest, the main character, is most definitely a drug dealer, but he knows that drugs are a bad scene to be in, and he wants out. The sociological comment that the movie makes, that people seemed to have missed at the time, is that Priest is only supported in his dream to get out by his girlfriend. Every other person in his world tries to keep him in that lifestyle. His partner even telling him "Look, I know it's a rotten game, but it's the only one The Man left us to play." It's his environment that's really poisoned, not him. He's trying to do the right thing by getting out, he just does it by exploiting that poisoned environment. Priest doesn't know what he's qualified to do, or even what he wants to do, in the "real world". But he knows that if he could have half a million dollars in his bank account there'd be no rush to figure it out. So he decides to try and set up the classic "last big score before he retires".
Ron O'Neal was apparently a stage actor in New York, and would be known for this role to most people until he died in 2004. I really wish he'd done more, because he's electrifying as Priest. The script is fairly strong, with some good dialog at least, and O'Neal has total command of the screen every moment he's on it. None of the other actors are anything particularly good, but O'Neal is in pretty much every scene for the entire 93 minutes, so it doesn't really matter. It's far from a perfect movie, there are many technical faults (seeing the camera crew in the window reflection and stuff like that), but they're ultimately forgivable. It's really just a crackling good crime drama with a tremendous lead performance by Ron O'Neal. Oh, and the soundtrack is beyond brilliant. The best in movie history, easily.