Director X Wants You to Remember the “Fly” in ‘Superfly’

The famed music video director told us why his 2018 version is more 'Fast and Furious' than 'Sicario.'
May 28, 2018, 7:06pm
From left to right, Trevor Jackson as Youngblood Priest in Superfly (2018) and Director X | Images courtesy of Sony Pictures. 

Director X wants to make it clear that he’s about the “fly” in his Superfly remake _—_that’s it.

“As much as we need movies that reflect black culture in the state of black folks today, we also need some movies that are simply about black people doing fucking entertaining shit,” he tells me with a chuckle.

The Toronto-born film and music director would understand a thing or two about entertainment. It’s been an element of his work thanks to some of music’s most indelible images as gifted by his distinct vision: Drake’s drunk uncle BBQ-dance in “Hotline Bling,” Usher’s laser-heavy treatment in “YEAH,” a decade and change of hyper-visuals that gave him the rightful brass to claim his direction with the reimagined classic.

The original Superfly of course stood as one of the more enduring films of the Blaxploitation era (dealers, pimps, and fisticuffs against The Man). It fashioned itself in a lo-crime drama set by the vision of Gordon Parks Jr and a 1970s Harlem. African American dealer Youngblood Priest served as the main protagonist who spent a plot line’s worth trying to quit the game by any means necessary.

As a piece of history alone, the film helped shift the way blackness was portrayed on camera with an unfiltered cool and confidence as displayed through its imagery, music, and style.

Based on the most recent trailer, the 21st century update might feel like a world away from the era of the original, but the core of Director X’s reimagining remains the same. We’re still getting characters that carry the same names and motivations. Drug dealer Jackson Priest is now being played by Grown-ish star Trevor Jackson, who brings his own brand of youthful cool to the role. Right hand man Eddie is now being helmed by rising star Jason Mitchell who has proven range ( Straight Outta Compton, Mudbound, The Chi). And we’re still getting a city that encapsulates the standard for a 2018 level of cool: Atlanta.

As a fan of the original, I needed to quiet my own fears over the word “remake” by having an in depth discussion with Director X about his vision, direction, and how important it is for audiences to still come away with a sense of what made Superfly superfly.

When I first saw Superfly , I remembered how great it was, especially in how blackness appeared on screen, with a coolness and strength. What was your view of it as a film?
Well I knew about Superfly inherently and I always knew it as a classic piece of cinema. It meant something real, and it meant something to a lot of black folks around the world, which captured an earlier period of our times. There’s an immediate responsibility to get this right, and from the jump, you always knew you were stepping into a situation that’s well loved. With that comes way more responsibility—I have to do it right.

“Power never stopped a bullet,” narrates Trevor Jackson as the lead character. “No car can outrun fate. But if you can play the game by your own rules and win, that’s Superfly.”

Did the Blaxploitation genre have an influence on you artistically?
It wasn’t like the biggest influence in my life, but of course I knew about the genre. I’ve watched movies here and there. I honestly hadn’t watched Superfly before the script crossed my path, but I knew what it was about. I knew that Superfly was about a drug dealer that wanted to make a million dollars and get out of the game. Which is a lot to know about a movie that you’ve never seen from the 1970s. Even my knowing about that knowledge without having seen it spoke to just how powerful that movie was. I can’t really think of another movie with that kind of reach. I know what it’s mostly about, it’s not something you need to see without that information drifting your way.

Superfly defined a certain reality, from the looks, the language and the sound as it related to New York City in the 70s. You once said that Atlanta was the Harlem of today. Explain further about why you chose that city for the remake.
Well if you remember back in the day growing up, New York was the spot. If you were a local rapper in New York, you had albums around the world. You were world wide simply because you were from New York. That has shifted now, and it’s happening with Atlanta. If you’re hot in ATL, you’re hot everywhere. End of discussion. That’s what we took from this. How many years has the hip-hop awards been in Atlanta for instance. Sure, they just changed it to Miami, but no one ever said, why is it in Atlanta. It just made sense. It should be in Atlanta. For us, it’s what worked out culturally and production wise.

And just about everything you’ve done has had some tie to hip-hop and the culture (early artistry, spoken word, much music etc). We all know how iconic Curtis Mayfield’s music was to the original. So fill me in on the feel that we should expect in this reimagining?
The way we broke down Superfly was in elements. What are some of the elements that made Superfly, Superfly? The clothing, the hair, the music. When we thought about the music, I was like alright, the key to the music is that it had the vision of one person. One person served as a drive for that, so I wanted to repeat it. At the time I was doing a commercial with Future and told him to get involved in this thing that I was doing. And that conversation lead us down a road. I’m on a musical vision, so I didn’t want someone to come in and try to re-create what Curtis had done, or work off of the original music video. It was never meant to be that, so we didn’t do that. Instead, Future would be the musical vision for the entirety of this film and let that be what it’s going to be.

You also mentioned that you wanted to steer clear of political statements. That’s hard to do as a black artist. Tell me why you wanted to go in this direction.
Well look, Superfly is an action movie. We didn’t want to go in to make a political statement. This is a black man and it involves dirty cops just like the original, so there’s always going to be a bit of that inescapable commentary on the world today. But still, it’s an action movie at its heart. This is a lot more Fast and Furious than it is Sicario. (laughs) It’s a Joel Silver picture and production. The same man behind The Matrix, V For Vendetta, and Predator. You come there, you’re going to have a good time and eat your popcorn. It’s based in today’s world, so there’s always going to be that reality floating around. But try not to come to Superfly expecting Spike Lee dissertation (laughs). That’s not what we’re doing here.

That’s interesting. Most directors may feel pressured to pack in some social commentary in there, given the subject matter.
Well as much as we need movies that reflect black culture in the state of black folks today, we also need films that are simply about black people doing entertaining shit. Good guys, bad guys. Mess people up, drive the car, jump off the cliff, you don’t go to Fast and Furious and ask about Vin Diesel's commentary about social issues. Well this is a Joel Silver action movie with black folks. In this case, it’s what we feel was right for the film.

This isn’t your first feature length directorial film. But it’ll be one with a notable sense of brand recognition attached to it. When it’s all said and done, what do you want Superfly (2018) to convey?
For the hardcore Superfly fan, I think it’s important they know that all their favourite characters are here. If they really know the movie, one of the earliest scenes in the film is beat for beat like the original for instance. As much as we didn’t just do a re-creation, we do pay our fair share of homage. This was done on two levels. One, because it just worked for the story. But also, I wanted to tell the audience that knows what’s up that we’re treating this right, and we’re doing this right. We’re doing it for the people that have watched and know.

Watch Superfly in theatres on June 13th.

Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.