With their fast cars, furs and fedoras, the heroes of 1970s “blaxploitation” are making a comeback on the big screen as Hollywood indulges its endless addiction to cinematic nostalgia.
Seen variously as a rich celebration of Black America or a regressive return to negative stereotyping, the movement is an attempt by filmmakers to relive the thrill of “The Mack,” “Foxy Brown” and other classics.
Next year, moviegoers can expect yet another reboot of “Shaft” starring Samuel L. Jackson, while Warner Bros. plans to remake 1973’s “Cleopatra Jones” and a new “Foxy Brown” is headed to internet streamer Hulu.
Hitting US theaters on Wednesday next week is “Superfly,” Sony’s remake of the 1972 classic “Super Fly,” a touchstone in black cultural history and perhaps the definitive blaxploitation film.
“Some of my favorite movies are remakes,” music video veteran turned filmmaker Director X told a news conference in Los Angeles at the weekend.
“‘Scarface’ is a remake, ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ is a remake, so I wanted the possibility to make a great remake of a classic film.”
Released on August 4, 1972, “Super Fly” told the story of Harlem drug pusher Youngblood Priest (Ron O’Neal) trying to score one last big deal before retiring from a life of crime.
– Cultural moment –
Trevor Jackson, best known for ABC sit-com “grown-ish,” takes on the role in the new version, while Jason Mitchell (“Straight Outta Compton,” “Mudbound”) plays his sidekick Eddie.
Director X gives the story the inevitable modern tweaks, including turning Priest’s duplicitous philandering with two girlfriends into a consensual “polyamorous” three-way relationship.
Drug-taking and gun violence, both central elements of the 1970s original, play a much smaller part in the remake.
The biggest swap, however, was the shift from Harlem to Atlanta, a city enjoying something of a cultural moment thanks to its burgeoning hip hop scene and a favorable tax regime attracting a slew of major productions, most notably Disney’s Marvel movies.
“The clubs in Harlem were famous worldwide. Even the drug dealers in Harlem were famous worldwide. It was really what Atlanta is today,” says X, who was born Julien Christian Lutz.
“If you’re an artist in Atlanta and you’ve got a hit record, you’ve got a hit record around the world. When we’re telling this story for today, we’re placing it in the epicenter of today’s black culture.”
X also replaced the iconic soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield, regarded as a landmark album, for the era-appropriate stylings of Atlanta-based rapper Future, who brought on board a team of local performers and producers.
Atlanta rappers with acting parts include Big Bank Black, Lecrae Moore, Antwan “Big Boi” Patton from the multiple Grammy Award-winning hip-hop duo Outkast, and Rick Ross, whose mansion was a key filming location.
– ‘Authenticity’ –
“We wanted to bring some authenticity for some of our key roles and that’s what guys like Bank bring,” said X. “He’s from Atlanta and knows this life. He is Atlanta.”
Blaxploitation gave African Americans an influential voice in Hollywood and presented new and empowering images of black culture on the big screen — but it had its critics.
The movies were seen as glorifying criminality and presenting the white perception of Black America rather than the real thing, especially since very few of the directors, writers or producers were black.
Often low-budget and of commensurately low-quality, blaxploitation movies had formulaic plots that typically involved drug dealers, pimps or over-sexed private detectives “sticking it to the Man.”
The female characters — often prostitutes — were lucky if they managed to keep their clothes on long past the opening credits.
Culture writer Michael Arceneaux questioned the wisdom of returning to these violent, often misogynistic films in a recent essay for online African-American lifestyle magazine The Root.
“When I think about black TV and film now — mostly television — there are so many examples of new and innovative storytelling,” he added, bemoaning the lack of imagination in remaking old properties.
“In a world in which ‘Insecure,’ ‘Queen Sugar,’ ‘Get Out’ and ‘Black Panther’ exist, why go back and dig into the 1970s crates for ideas?”