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The Paducah Film Society Presents Blaxploitation Classic Super Fly at Maiden Alley Cinema on Feb. 20

The Paducah Film Society is screening the blaxploitation classic Super Fly, the 1972 film directed by Gordon Parks Jr., starring Ron O’Neal, on Tuesday, Feb. 20, at 7 p.m. at Maiden Alley Cinema. The PFS screens classic, cult, and foreign films once a month at Maiden Alley and invites members of the public to participate in after-film discussions and interactive programming. Daniel Hurt speaks with Murray State University Associate Professor of History Brian Clardy about the upcoming screening.

“It involves the story of Youngblood Priest, who is a drug dealer who had made a fortune selling drugs in Harlem and is trying to get out of the game,” says Clardy. “The role of Priest is played brilliantly by Ron O'Neill. And it was one of those iconic films in the 1970s that I remember as a child, teenagers flocking to the Fulton theater and theaters in Union City and Martin, Tennessee.”

While Super Fly is a drama, it also contains neo-noir elements and elements of social consciousness. “The character of Priest has a degree of social consciousness about him, even though he has sold drugs to people who look like him. He's constantly sticking it to what he calls ‘the man.' This idea of African American assertiveness and African American liberation was a major theme of many in the Blaxploitation genre,” says Clardy. “The concept of being able to define oneself, to name oneself and your own destiny. No one can determine your destiny. And in Super Fly, Priest takes his life back.”

The film is also iconic because it portrays its turbulent present with the fashion and music of the time on full display. One of the most important things the film did, according to Clardy, was provide Black audiences with a heroic figure in the same vein as Sean Connery’s James Bond or Steve McQueen's Bullitt did for white audiences.

“I think the idea of machismo and Black masculinity of both Priest and Richard Roundtree, who played John Shaft a year earlier, were two very strong and assertive characters. That was a big appeal to young Black men in the 1970s. You did have some very, very strong, powerful Black actors, even into the 1950s and 60s, but this was a little bit different. They were young, they were chic, they were hip, and they were cool.”

The film’s soundtrack, written and recorded by Curtis Mayfield, has achieved iconic status as an essential listen in the soul and funk genres. According to Clardy, it perfectly captures the grittiness of the 1970s that stemmed from the loss of optimism of the late 1960s after the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

“Songs like the title track 'Superfly,' 'Freddy's Dead,' and 'Pusherman' became the soundtrack of that era. But while Curtis Mayfield was in the Impressions, they made very aspirational music in the 1960s. You hear Cornel West quoting Curtis Mayfield all the time. Then, the 70s happened,” says Clardy. “With the 1970s, there was a more gritty, more urban environment where the old nonviolence tropes are pretty much gone. There was a new awakening and social consciousness about 'Black is beautiful.' Instead of wearing shorter hairdos, there were afros and butterfly collars and taking on this African nouveau type of persona, and Curtis Mayfield's music really reflects that.”

The film did receive some negative attention from Black audiences at the time of its release, gaining criticism for perceived negative stereotypes of the African American community. Junius Griffin, the head of the Hollywood branch of the NAACP, said, "We must insist that our children are not exposed to a steady diet of so-called Black movies that glorify Black males as pimps, dope pushers, gangsters, and super males." Clardy said that while people criticize Super Fly and other films made by Black filmmakers, the same could not be said of Francis Ford Coppola with his portrayal of drugs and crime in The Godfather.

“I can see where the NAACP in 1972 might think that because of the idea of drug dealers and pimps and murderers that feeds into old racist stereotypes about Black men. And that's probably the major reason why they came against it. They probably wanted to see more positive images of Black men,” Clardy said, “But we don't do that with a godfather, right? And The Godfather glorified violence and crime. The character of Vito Corleone gives sanction to allow drugs to come into the crime family business, and he's gonna help them with the judges and help them protection and all that. But we don't subject Francis Ford Coppola to the same type of scrutiny.”

Regardless of criticisms, Super Fly is seen as an iconic film for essential viewing for someone wanting to understand Black culture and the 1970s. Clardy said he hopes people will see the film, enjoy the story and soundtrack, and realize that the 1970s was a complicated but very cool decade. After the screening, Professor Clardy will lead a discussion of the history and impact of the film.

More information about the Paducah Film Society and upcoming screenings can be found on its official Facebook page.

The Paducah Film Society also regularly publishes a newsletter with historical context for its selections and upcoming repertory screenings at MAC. Subscribe to the newsletter here.

Hurt is a Livingston County native and has been a political consultant for a little over a decade. He currently hosts a local talk show “River City Presents”, produced by Paducah2, which features live musical performances, academic discussion, and community spotlights.
Melanie Davis-McAfee graduated from Murray State University in 2018 with a BA in Music Business. She has been working for WKMS as a Music and Operations Assistant since 2017. Melanie hosts the late-night alternative show Alien Lanes, Fridays at 11 pm with co-host Tim Peyton. She also produces Rick Nance's Kitchen Sink and Datebook and writes Sounds Good stories for the web.
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