‘Superfly’ Remake Has Little Reason For Existing

Superfly 2018 poster

The original “Super Fly” directed by Gordon Parks Jr. was a notable blaxploitation classic as it provided many advancements for African-Americans in show business. Many accused it of glamourizing the drug business and of drug dealing in general, but others saw its glorification of drug dealers as a critique of the civil rights movement’s failure to provide better opportunities for black America. Either way, it gave a lot for audiences to talk about, and it provided us with one of the greatest soundtracks of all time courtesy of Curtis Mayfield.

Now it is 2018, and we have the remake of the 1972 movie which the filmmakers have entitled “Superfly” because, you know, why separate the two words? While it made more sense to separate the words “super” and “fly” decades ago, the rules of grammar continue to change for no special reason. But while the original movie still resonates with audiences more than 45 years after its release, I walked out of this remake constantly saying to myself, what was the point? Updating a classic of any kind is one thing, but this “Superfly” has little reason to exist as it offers us the same old tale of a gangster who is looking to go straight after spending too much time in a life of crime, and it offers nothing new or fresh to this story. While it is never boring, this movie will not have the same staying power of its predecessor.

The story remains the same, but this time the action has been moved from New York to Atlanta, Georgia (or ATL as the locals like to call it). Playing Youngblood Priest is Trevor Jackson, a 21-year-old actor, singer and dancer whose taste in clothes and cars is almost upstaged by his silky head of hair. Priest has it all, and this includes a luxurious house which has a beautiful view of downtown Atlanta, a pair of loving and tough-minded girlfriends in Georgia (Lex Scott Davis) and Cynthia (Andrea Londo), and he drives around town in a super-expensive Lexus car which, unlike Ron O’Neal’s 1971 Cadillac Eldorado, needs no customization. One look at it is enough to give you an idea of how well-off Priest is to where putting a spoiler on his Lexus would just look stupid.

Yes, Priest is a career criminal who is now more serious than ever about leaving the Atlanta drug scene, but no one is about to make things easy for his departure, and this is especially the case when one particular drug deal goes horribly awry. From there, those who have seen the original “Super Fly” will not be surprised at the turns the story takes, and those who have not watched it will marvel at how convoluted things become as the remake heads to its largely unsurprising climax.

The first thing I got to say about “Superfly” is when it comes to Jackson, I cannot help but feel he is too young to play Priest. Jackson is not bad as he exhibits a natural charisma and does have the necessary aura of coolness Priest requires, but he never struck me as a gangster who has led a rough and tumble life. Instead, he looks more like someone who just entered the life to where he has yet to show off any of the scars which come with it. Alex Tse’s screenplay does make mention of how Priest started out hustling at the tender age of 11, but even with this realization, Jackson still looks like an intern who just entered this life.

The other big problem is Jackson is constantly upstaged by his fellow actors, several of whomwould have been more believable as Priest. Chief among them is Michael K. Williams, best known for playing Omar on “The Wire,” who plays Scatter, Priest’s chief drug supplier and martial arts teacher. The scene in which they spar with one another is one of “Superfly’s” best moments as their physical moves match up with their mental ones to where you can see them working out scenarios in their heads about surviving into the future. Williams has the look of someone who has worked in the Atlanta drug trade for many years, and he makes Scatter look like someone with more of a reason to retire from this life than Priest does. I think Williams would have been a better fit for the role of Priest, but I guess considerations in regards to demographics were taken into consideration here above all else.

Jason Mitchell, who was fantastic as Easy-E in “Straight Outta Compton,” steals one scene after another as Priest’s right-hand man, Eddie. He keeps you guessing as to what Eddie’s next move will be to where you constantly wonder where his loyalties lie. While Eddie seems eternally dedicated to Priest, Mitchell constantly gives you the sense he may bolt to the other side as being a supporting player in this trade can be infinitely frustrating at times, and his high energy performance is one of “Superfly’s” great delights.

Lex Scott Davis makes Georgia into a formidable girlfriend for Priest to where he needs her more than she needs him. Andrea Londo provides “Superfly” with its most alluring presence as Cynthia, Priest’s other girlfriend. From start to finish, Londo inhabits Cynthia to where she cannot be mistaken for anything other than a fierce self-provider who is more than prepared to fight to the death for her loved ones. Outkast’s Big Boi shows up as Mayor Atkins, a man whose political influence knows no bounds until Priest puts some directly in his path. And I have to single out Jennifer Morrison for her wonderfully wicked performance as the infinitely corrupt Detective Mason. She doesn’t hesitate to show far off to the dark side Mason is as she makes clear how quick she is to bend the rule of the law to her hardened heart’s content, and I could never take my eyes off her whenever she appeared onscreen.

Directing “Superfly” is Julien Christian Lutz, better known by the name of Director X. Whether or not this name is meant to define some sort of political belief I will leave for him to explain. X is best known for making music videos with Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Rhianna among others, and his trademark involves tweaking the letterbox format to where he plays with our expectations with glee. He crafts a strong opening sequence in which we follow Priest into a nightclub whose membership is clearly restricted to a select few, and it reminded me of the scene in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” when Henry Hill and Karen entered the Copacabana nightclub through the back way. As we follow Priest into this particular nightclub, X makes it feel like an invitation into a side of life many of us never get to experience. After this sequence, everything ends up feeling inescapably routine.

There have been many gangster movies like “Scarface,” “Carlito’s Way,” “Sugar Hill” and “Light Sleeper” which depict their lives in a way which is endlessly fascinating even as the characters are looking to escape the life they were not necessarily aiming to enter. “Superfly,” however, feels stale in comparison as it offers nothing new or unique to the genre. As the movie went on, I kept wondering what the point was of remaking this blaxploitation classic. Many have said how the original glamourized crime and drug dealing, but this remake seems to do this to a shameless extent as the characters sport not only designer clothes, but designer guns which more lethal than the kind we usually see in movies. Whereas O’Neal’s Priest was moving through life the only way he knew how, Jackson’s Priest looks to live the life of the richest 1% in America as drug dealing provides what seems like an unrealistic route to it.

I cannot say I didn’t enjoy parts of “Superfly” as it is never the least bit boring, but this kind of movie has been played out too many times to where this remake serves no real purpose. After all these years, the most memorable thing to come out of the 1972 blaxploitation classic will be Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack, and even the filmmakers behind the remake could not escape this fact as one of his songs is featured here. If there was a reason to update this story for the year 2018, this is never made apparent here. Besides, there is bigger gangster for Priest to deal with in this day and age, and his name is Donald Trump.

* * out of * * * *

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Ti West and Gene Jones on Preparing for ‘The Sacrament’

The Sacrament movie poster

You may not know who Gene Jones is, but odds are you have seen him in at least one movie he has co-starred in. Many know him best for his role as the gas station owner who is subjected to one of Anton Chigurh’s terrifying coin tosses in “No Country for Old Men,” and he also appeared as Wild West Barker in “Oz the Great and Powerful” and co-starred in “The Odd Life of Timothy Green.” But after watching him in Ti West’s “The Sacrament,” it will be impossible to forget who Jones is as he gives us a character who seems sweet on the surface but is really a vicious devil in disguise.

“The Sacrament” follows a couple of reporters as they travel out to a commune located out in the middle of nowhere to find one of a long lost relative. Upon their arrival, they discover the commune is a technology-free zone called Eden Parish, and they meet Father (played by Jones) who is the leader and treats his loyal followers with tremendous warmth and care. But when these outsiders arrive, he quickly sees them as a threat and eventually convinces his followers to take a sinister course of action which leads to an unspeakable tragedy.

The press day for “The Sacrament” was held at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, California, and many who worked on this movie, be it in front of or behind the camera, participated in an informative press conference. Among those there was West who told us he wanted to audition Jones after seeing him play a pharmacist on “Louie.”

Ti West: There’s a scene where there is a woman waiting in line and asking all these inane questions to the pharmacist who’s not paying attention, and Louie (C.K.’s) waiting behind her and he’s getting bored. And then Gene eventually turns to her and is like, “Have you had a bowel movement today and was it soft?” And then she gets uncomfortable and then that’s the scene, and I was like, “That’s the guy.” So, what we did was that we tracked him down and then I asked him to do a quick audition. Most of the reason I asked him to do the audition wasn’t so much to see if it would be any good. I just wanted to see if he would not be into the material. So I knew that if he did the second audition that he wasn’t going to be uncomfortable with the subject matter like that because you never know if you don’t know people. Gene likes to say that the first audition wasn’t very good and that’s why I asked him to do a second one which is not true. But there was enough from those, just seeing him do it, to know what I had thought was going to happen was going to happen.

The plot of “The Sacrament” was largely inspired by the 1978 Jonestown Massacre when Jim Jones made the followers of the Peoples Temple commit mass suicide. When Jones first appears onscreen as Father, you can’t help but be reminded of Jim, especially with those sunglasses he’s wearing. But in describing his preparation to play Father, Jones shot down our assumptions of what he did to prepare for this role.

Gene Jones: It’s less than one day in Father’s life, and not a typical day. So, I didn’t do any Jim Jones research about what he read and how he interacted with people on a daily basis. What I tried to do was be a guy who was so nice, you would leave your family and you would leave your country and go with this guy. I never met Ti until I stepped onto the set. I did audition for it, but it was a video audition. Actually it was two auditions and Ti commented on those, and those comments gave me the freedom to go where I wanted to go which was in the direction of being so damn trustworthy and so avuncular and nice. A phrase that popped into my head a few weeks ago when I was doing one of these (press conferences) was I wanted to show you somebody who was evil but not mean. Somebody who believed absolutely poisonous things but was the nicest fellow you ever met.

West said when he first met Jones in the flesh was when he arrived at the movie’s set located in Savannah, Georgia. Jones’ first big scene was when he does the interview with the two reporters, and it involved a lot of work and memorization on his part. West was more than prepared for things to go wrong as he described this scene as a “massive undertaking,” but we all felt his astonishment at how things actually turned out.

Ti West: It’s the kind of production day that you dread because it’s a night shoot, there’s 200 extras, it’s 12 pages which is like six times more than anyone wants to shoot in a day and there’s just so many moving parts, and it was cued up to be a disaster. I remember on the very first take I hadn’t told the extras what to do yet, and you’ve got to keep in mind that the extras are just there for one night to be in a movie. They don’t know what the movie is about and they haven’t read the script. They are just like, “Yeah we’re in a movie!” They’re all seated and you figure that some of them aren’t going to be good and will have to move them around, but before we do any of that let’s just wing it. Let’s just try one where Gene comes in and we’ll tell them to cheer. He can come in and then start talking to A.J. (Bowen), and its 12 pages so if the lines get screwed up we’ll stop and then we’ll do it in chunks, and this is how we are going to get through this night. Well on the very first take, Gene came in everybody went crazy. He sat down, did a 17-minute unbroken take without dropping a line, got up, everybody cheered and he walked out, and all of the reactions from the extras were their genuine reactions. They weren’t me feeding them things to do because I just wanted to assess the situation, but the assessment of the situation was we don’t need to do anything because Gene nailed that so effortlessly, and then all the extras chimed in perfectly. Gene had figured out how he was going to do it, and all I had to do was just capture it.

Jones’ comment on how the extras fueled his performance was great because he made it sound like he was doing a play more than making a movie.

Gene Jones: I loved, loved the congregation, and there’s little variations each time you shoot. They were tuned to that and I didn’t have to say, “Give me an amen somebody.” They would give me an amen. They would just give it to me and they would nod, and it was just alive. It was like talking to a group of friends. They all chimed in and they were great.

In a business which can be so ridiculously youth-oriented, it is nice to see an actor like Gene Jones defy the odds. If this were a studio movie, executives would have probably forced Ti West to cast a young adult who was more demographically desirable. But in the end, there are certain parts only actors of a certain age can pull off, and this is one of them. Jones succeeds in giving us a villain for the ages as Father draws people in with ease and then destroys their lives for the most selfish of reasons.

“The Sacrament” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

Click on the video below to check out the interviews I did with Ti West, A.J. Bowen, Joe Swanberg and Amy Seimetz about “The Sacrament” for We Got This Covered.