Tag Archives: blaxploitation

Tryin’ to Get Over


by Hope Madden

The 70s blaxploitation classic Super Fly was no masterpiece, but it was a provocative time capsule of flash, style and soulful soundtrack. Any attempt to recapture the spirit seems doomed to failure.

But Director X, with a decades-long career in flashy music videos showcasing the same kind of decadent lifestyle first glamorized by films like Super Fly, has the cred to take a good swing.

Plus, he throws in some Curtis Mayfield just when you missed him the most.

It’s clear X and screenwriter Alex Tse (Watchmen) are fans of Gordon Parks Jr.’s first and most important film. Tse is mostly, surprisingly faithful to the original. Youngblood Priest (Trevor Jackson) is a successful drug dealer who wants out while he still looks good, but The Man and an assortment of less-controlled colleagues complicate an already difficult process.

Less provocative than the original by a wide margin, X’s vision still takes some hard-earned enjoyment in scenes of comeuppance that are, unfortunately, as timely today as they were when Ron O’Neal outwitted corrupt New York detectives 46 years ago.

The update is marginally more respectful of women and boasts an impressive supporting cast including the always welcome Jason Mitchell, the always intimidating Michael Kenneth Williams, and a great turn by Esai Morales.

Oddly enough, that splashy support, which enlivens the film immeasurably, also helps to showcase its weakness—Jackson. There’s no conflicted soul inside that leather duster and skinny jeans, no tormented mind beneath that pompadour. Sure, O’Neal’s karate and cape now seem embarrassingly of-the-moment, but his performance evoked a restlessness and internal conflict that Jackson cannot manage.

A clever new image built on the skeleton of the groundbreaking ’72 film, SuperFly does not manage to provoke, intrigue or satisfy in the same way as the original. It does have style, though, and something relevant to say.

Spike Lee’s Next Remake

Back in 1973, sandwiched between blaxsploitation classics Blacula and its sequel, Scream Blacula Scream, Philadelphia playwright Bill Gunn quietly released his own Africa-rooted vampire tale, Ganja and Hess. Critically acclaimed yet virtually unseen at the time, the film has been lovingly reanimated by Spike Lee.

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus follows wealthy academic Dr. Hess Green (Stephen Tyrone Williams) through a very life-altering couple of weeks.

As in G&H, Hess suffers an addition to blood after being attacked with one of the ancient African artifacts he collects. He soon falls for his attacker’s brassy ex-wife Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams).

Though Lee’s film is nearly a shot for shot remake of Gunn’s, he wisely cuts and tweaks certain scenes to effectively update themes and improve pacing.

Vampire tales are always metaphorical, and Lee certainly keeps with this tradition. While Gunn’s original used the traditional vampire movie tropes to examine the era’s racial and cultural tensions, Lee’s film grounds the same examination with more modern concerns.

The object of Gunn’s wrath was, among other things, the cultural imperialism of the white majority. Lee puts this on the back burner in favor of more parasitic epidemics. Lee likens the spread of vampirism to irresponsible sex, leaving its own form of neglected children and disease in its wake.

Lee’s version also has a little more sly fun with race relations, injecting the picture with welcome comic relief now and again. Rami Malek, for instance, is an understated hoot as Hess’s uptight, formal butler.

Lee has less luck with the rest of his cast, though.

Gunn’s titular characters – Duane Jones (Night of the Living Dead) and the stunning Marlene Clark – were charismatic romantic leads. Abrahamson has all the swagger but none of the smolder, while Williams lacks the passion and gravitas Jones wielded so naturally.

Williams is the larger problem. The film opens with breathtaking footage of the actor dancing across NYC – his fluidity and grace are gorgeous. His acting, on the other hand, is as rigid and unbreathing as anything you’ll ever see.

There are also simple storyline problems that Lee neglected to address, and without the compelling romantic relationship to distract you, they are more glaring now than they were in ’73.

It’s not Lee’s first or worst misstep with a remake, and Sweet Blood certainly holds up better than his 2013 remake debacle of Chan-wook Park’s classic Oldboy. That film may have suffered from Hollywood entanglements, a problem Lee sidestepped this time around by crowd funding. But his limited budget likely led to actors who were not quite up to the task.