Priest (Ron O'Neal) is a successful drugs dealer in New York City, but increasingly he is finding the life he is living less than comfortable. Events such as the time recently when he was jumped when going to a deal and had to chase after the junkies responsible to get his money back are leaving him dispirited, and when he finds himself demanding that one of his acquaintances who owes him cash turns pusher to pay him back, his sense of self-loathing is doing his mood no favours. Therefore he makes up his mind: he has to get out, abandon the dubious career that has been so good to him financially...
But that's easier said than done as you can imagine. Super Fly was interesting among the blaxploitation movies of the seventies in that it was not all about presenting outrageous situations and over the top thrills featuring African-American casts, it was more concerned with showing a realistic depiction of the days of a drug dealer, so while there was the odd action sequence and scene of suspense, that's not all there was to this. It was more of a drama, and at its heart a sharp-dressed Ron O'Neal was a charismatic new star who proved he could more than handle the pressures of carrying a movie, yet the film was to be his professional undoing.
Not that he lost his career, it's just that he found most of the parts he was offered were yet more drug dealers, and with the climate of American film not being as healthy for non-white performers as it is now, O'Neal was relegated to a ghetto of exploitation efforts which did little justice to his talent as a leading man. That said, better to be known for one fine performance in a big hit than not to be known at all if you're an actor, and this single role offered him a cult following that may not have been the equal of some of his contemporaries in this field, but was substantial enough to bring viewers to Super Fly decades after it was initially released.
However, if there's a part of the film that has endured even further than its lead performance, it's that soundtrack. At the time all sorts of soul music stars were offered a chance to write for blaxploitation, resulting in some truly excellent scores; Isaac Hayes' work for Shaft had paved the way, but the makers of Super Fly truly struck gold when they asked Curtis Mayfield to pen their tunes, resulting in an album that is no exaggeration to call a masterpiece. Indeed, while the film itself tends towards the slow side, you won't mind as long as Mayfield is playing over the action, with such classic tunes as the title track and Freddie's Dead adding a strong degree of depth and emotion to what could have been rather stark otherwise.
Shot during a chilly winter in New York - watch out for the snow on the ground in occasional scenes - the look of the movie is notably bleak and desolate, echoing the feelings of Priest as he reflects on the morality of his pursuits and schemes a way to get out of carrying on in this manner. The film was made on a shoestring, with a script that was half completed leading to improvisation to paper over the cracks, not to mention a lot of padding that nevertheless evokes a powerful atmosphere of urban decay as Priest spends his time cruising around the streets in his souped up Cadillac. The story goes that to get the electricity necessary to operate the filming equipment, it had to be leeched from lampposts, and many was the deal with gang leaders to gain permission to use authentic locations. Although as a story it was clichéd and undernourished, as a summoning up of a time and place, Super Fly is undeniably potent.