‘SuperFly’: Director X on the Challenges of Releasing a Black Studio Film Post-‘Black Panther’

IndieWire spoke to the Canadian director, best known for overseeing music videos for Drake, Rihanna, Jay-Z, and more.

When Sony Pictures asked Director X to remake 1972 blaxploitation classic “Super Fly,” he had never seen the original. He had also never helmed a studio feature — just a 2015 indie (“Across the Line,” the story of an aspiring black hockey player), a Lifetime movie (“Center Stage: On Pointe”), and some of the most memorable music videos of the past 20 years, from Sisqó’s “Thong Song” to Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” viewed more than 1.4 billion times on YouTube.

However, while Director X created visuals for Jay-Z, Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Usher, Nicki Minaj, Justin Bieber, and Lil Wayne, “Lethal Weapon” and “Matrix” franchises producer Joel Silver struggled to get his “Super Fly” revamp made. “Joel had the rights, he had a studio that wanted to make it,” Director X told IndieWire. “The studio told him, ‘We don’t want to call it ‘Super Fly,’ and we don’t want it to be about anything that the original movie was about.'”

From that bizarre pronouncement, the unnamed studio commissioned a new script based on a Shakespearean tragedy. Sony picked up the rights in late 2017, but sent the old script to Director X.

Read More: ‘SuperFly’ Review: Director X Delivers a Fun, Swaggering, Violent Update of a Blaxploitation Classic

“They put the name ‘SuperFly’ back on the King Lear script and gave that to me,” he said. (Born Julien Lutz, the Trinidadian-Swiss 42-year-old christened himself “Little X” as a teenage hip-hop fan in Toronto, and graduated to a more mature moniker in his 30s). Even though Director X hadn’t seen the predecessor, he knew something was amiss. In “Super Fly,” Ron O’Neal played Youngblood Priest, a drug dealer who wanted one final, lucrative score that would allow him to abandon a life of crime. In “SuperFly” (the remake opted for a one-word title), a man descended into even more danger and corruption.

“I wasn’t immediately on board,” he said. “Honestly, when they first sent me the script, it was this weird — it had been through a very Hollywood process. They’d been working on it for about 20 years. So I was like, ‘Look, I’ll do it if we do ’Super Fly.’ We’ve gotta be true to the source material … We’ve all been through the experience of Hollywood taking something we loved, changing it, but calling it that thing we loved but it’s not … I didn’t want to do that. So, they agreed, and said, ‘All right, let’s do ’Super Fly’…There is where we took their script and basically started from scratch.”

Trevor Jackson and Jason Mitchell in SUPERFLY.

Trevor Jackson and Jason Mitchell in “SuperFly”

Bob Mahoney

Although they changed the setting from Harlem to Atlanta, “SuperFly” is now an adapted screenplay from Phillip Fenty’s 1972 script, with sole screenwriting credit going to “Watchmen” co-writer Alex Tse. In addition to Silver, rapper Future made his producing debut. (He also created the soundtrack, performing under his given name of Nayvadius Wilburn.) Executive producers were Matthew Hirsch, Hal Sadoff, Aaron Auch, and Steven R. Shore — son of the late Sig Shore, who produced the original.

The collaborators studied Gordon Parks, Jr.’s film, which left Director X somewhat stunned. He describes O’Neal’s protagonist as “hardcore” and “not a good guy,” who carries out a “revenge fantasy.”

“They’re snorting coke every time they turn around, the guy’s just threatened to put one of his worker’s girls on the fucking street,” laughed Director X. “But that’s part of the charm of the ’70s. The brutality and raw honesty of that era make that movie something … This is a Joel Silver action movie. The hero can’t tell his friends, ‘I’m going to fucking prostitute your girlfriend.'”

Thus, the filmmaker treated Parks’ tale as a beat sheet. Although the remake — still rated R — includes shootouts, strip clubs, and a threesome, it is a more humane movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. One of the main adversaries in the film is Snow Patrol, a gang that slinks around the South in head-to-toe Arctic wear; even their guns and Rolls Royces are white.

O’Neal was 35 when he stepped into the role of Priest; “SuperFly” star Trevor Jackson (“Grown-ish”) is just 21. “We shaped this to be a Hollywood movie,” said Director X. “[Priest] doesn’t kill people, he helps people in need, he’s trying to get out of the life, he’s a much more modern antihero than the original ‘Super Fly.'” (Later he observed, “Trying to make Joel Silver go and do a hard, gritty, independent movie, it’s not going to happen.”)

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5882237p) Ron O'Neal Superfly - 1972 Director: Gordon Jr Parks Warner Bros USA Film Portrait Super Fly

Ron O’Neal in “Super Fly”

Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Production was swift, beginning in mid-January. “It’s hard to get a crew at some points,” he said. “[In] key positions, some people weren’t comfortable moving that quickly,” although Director X was well suited for the job, thanks to the chaos of the music-video world that often packages luxury on tight turnarounds. Whereas some filmmakers claim “they didn’t want to draw the attention away from the story, blah blah blah,” Director X ensured “everything’s got a little extra shine on it.”

While promoting the project, Director X liked to describe the film as a good-time crowdpleaser. “It’s an escape with melanin,” he told Deadline at CinemaCon. “We’re light on moral lessons.” Yet the finished product includes the murder of an unarmed black man by a white police officer, and a capsized Confederate statue. “The social relevance wasn’t the driving engine, the entertainment was,” said Director X. “If you’re going into ’SuperFly’ all super woke and you want to get super serious about what this is, then this isn’t the movie for you.”

Trevor Jackson, Lex Scott Davis, Director X., Director, and Andrea Londo seen at Columbia Pictures 'Superfly' special screening at Sony Pictures Studios, Culver City, CAColumbia Pictures 'Superfly' special screening at Sony Pictures Studios, Culver City, CA, USA - 10 June 2018

Director X flanked by “SuperFly” stars Trevor Jackson, Lex Scott Davis, and Andrea Londo at a screening of the film hosted by Columbia Pictures

Eric Charbonneau/REX/Shutterstock

But perhaps leaning into the political elements would have helped “SuperFly” at the box office. Sony says the film cost $16 million, while Deadline sources said the actual budgets was in the low $20-million range. It had a sixth-place opening weekend, and has earned $11.4 million since debuting in 2,220 theaters June 13. “To be honest, I wish more people went to go see it,” said Director X. “Such is life.”

Read More:  ‘Superfly’ Trailer: Trevor Jackson Targets a Mexican Drug Cartel in Remake of ’70s Classic — Watch

He continued, “How do you market a movie that you know people will enjoy — you’ve shown it to people, you’ve tested it, and it consistently gets these high scores, and people come back, and have such a great time — but at the same time, to the general public, they perceive it as a step backwards? The audience just went to see ‘Black Panther.’ They put on African dashikis and went to the movie theater: They’re in a very different headspace. And then the next thing to come out from a major studio is a crime story.”

Director X has an unromantic take on his profession. “There’s a bit of this fantasy about what is means to be a director, and an auteur, and this power that you have over the picture and the scripts. I mean, they hire you to guide the process and guide the story, and by no means are you the final decision maker, especially in a studio picture…This is mercenary work: they come to me to do the job, I’ll do the job. But in this instance, it’s a fun action movie.”

“SuperFly” is in theaters now. 

‘Superfly’ Film Review: Remake Updates Blaxploitation Genre With Wit and Resonance

It doesn’t matter how smart you are if you’re constantly surrounded by armed stupidity. That’s the wise revelation that launches “SuperFly,” the new remake of the 1972 blaxploitation classic starring Ron O’Neal.

In both versions, a successful coke dealer named Priest decides to pull off one last job before retiring from the drug business, only to find himself in a Chinese finger trap: The harder he tries to get out, the more he’s pulled back in.

Helmed by music video visionary Director X (making his feature debut) and written by Alex Tse (“Watchmen”), “SuperFly” is a delightful surprise: funny, brutal, stylish, and thoughtful. It updates the blaxploitation genre with wit and resonance: Police brutality is an inescapable scourge in Priest’s Atlanta, and our hero dispatches one of his enemies while toppling over a Confederate statue.

Watch Video: Watch ‘Superfly’ Trailer for ‘the Hair, the Fashion, the Women and the Cars’

Sure, young star Trevor Jackson (“Grown-ish,” “American Crime”) can’t fill O’Neal’s effortlessly dapper, achingly world-weary shoes, and few movie soundtracks can rival Curtis Mayfield’s legendary album for the first “Super Fly.” But this is a remake worthy of its original.

Even its familiar themes eventually give way to greater complexity: The asset that gives Priest his edge in the streets is his discretion, i.e., the ability to stay under the radar. But as his aspirations grow bigger — there’s no greater ambition than leaving the drug life behind in Priest’s world — his friends want a bigger slice of the pie, a rival gang grows hostile, the cartel from whom Priest buys his product won’t let him retire, and the police catch on.

Also Read: Marvel Boss Kevin Feige on Ryan Coogler’s ‘Black Panther’: ‘Best Movie We’ve Ever Made’

Most compellingly, Priest’s best friend Eddie (Jason Mitchell, nearly stealing the picture as he did in “Straight Outta Compton) throws some cold water on Priest’s dream of leaving everything he knows behind. The debate between their opposing viewpoints, about whether it’s safer to run or stay as a black man in America, is brief but fascinating. As in the original, Priest’s final undertaking is complicated, yet wholly comprehensible.

And true to its roots, “SuperFly” is also about flair and humor, which it has in spades. This is a movie that knows how to make the most of an egg-white snakeskin jacket, as well as a supporting role by Outkast’s Big Boi. A dirty cop singing Chamillionaire’s “Ridin,’” about racial profiling by the police, had my screening howling in laughter. Similarly striking is the spectacle of the adversarial gang, Snow Patrol (led by Rick Ross and Allen Maldonado), in head-to-toe, toothpaste-commercial white: A swell of urban Stormtroopers in chalk-colored clothes, cars, even a hearse.

Also Read: Drake Addresses Blackface Image Used on Pusha T’s ‘The Story of Adidon’

Jackson isn’t particularly emotive on his own, but he has such stirring, naturalistic chemistry with his co-stars — Mitchell, Michael K. Williams (playing his mentor, Scatter), and Lex Scott Davis and Andrea Londo (playing the two girlfriends in his domestic triad) — that I feared for Priest’s loved one’s lives whenever they were on screen.

“SuperFly” is the first blaxploitation remake to come out of the gate this decade; newer editions of “Shaft,” “Cleopatra Jones,” and “Foxy Brown” are currently in the works. Despite the all-around excellence of “SuperFly,” I’m not sure we need to resurrect the 70s right now. But as long as we’re mired in franchise culture, you could do far worse than a double feature of “SuperFly” and “Ocean’s 8” — crime movies where the historically disenfranchised groups are finally encouraged to enjoy revenge.



Related stories from TheWrap:

The Black List, Lena Waithe and Eva Longoria Team With Macro to Promote TV Writers of Color

The ‘Black Lightning’ Discussion That Was Supposed to Be About ‘This Is America’ (Podcast)

Spike Lee Denounces ‘That Motherf–er’ Trump, Explains Charlottesville Scenes in ‘BlacKkKlansman’

‘SNL’: Donald Glover’s Lando Calrissian Addresses All Four Black People in ‘Star Wars’ (Video)

It doesn’t matter how smart you are if you’re constantly surrounded by armed stupidity. That’s the wise revelation that launches “SuperFly,” the new remake of the 1972 blaxploitation classic starring Ron O’Neal.

In both versions, a successful coke dealer named Priest decides to pull off one last job before retiring from the drug business, only to find himself in a Chinese finger trap: The harder he tries to get out, the more he’s pulled back in.

Helmed by music video visionary Director X (making his feature debut) and written by Alex Tse (“Watchmen”), “SuperFly” is a delightful surprise: funny, brutal, stylish, and thoughtful. It updates the blaxploitation genre with wit and resonance: Police brutality is an inescapable scourge in Priest’s Atlanta, and our hero dispatches one of his enemies while toppling over a Confederate statue.

Sure, young star Trevor Jackson (“Grown-ish,” “American Crime”) can’t fill O’Neal’s effortlessly dapper, achingly world-weary shoes, and few movie soundtracks can rival Curtis Mayfield’s legendary album for the first “Super Fly.” But this is a remake worthy of its original.

Even its familiar themes eventually give way to greater complexity: The asset that gives Priest his edge in the streets is his discretion, i.e., the ability to stay under the radar. But as his aspirations grow bigger — there’s no greater ambition than leaving the drug life behind in Priest’s world — his friends want a bigger slice of the pie, a rival gang grows hostile, the cartel from whom Priest buys his product won’t let him retire, and the police catch on.

Most compellingly, Priest’s best friend Eddie (Jason Mitchell, nearly stealing the picture as he did in “Straight Outta Compton) throws some cold water on Priest’s dream of leaving everything he knows behind. The debate between their opposing viewpoints, about whether it’s safer to run or stay as a black man in America, is brief but fascinating. As in the original, Priest’s final undertaking is complicated, yet wholly comprehensible.

And true to its roots, “SuperFly” is also about flair and humor, which it has in spades. This is a movie that knows how to make the most of an egg-white snakeskin jacket, as well as a supporting role by Outkast’s Big Boi. A dirty cop singing Chamillionaire’s “Ridin,'” about racial profiling by the police, had my screening howling in laughter. Similarly striking is the spectacle of the adversarial gang, Snow Patrol (led by Rick Ross and Allen Maldonado), in head-to-toe, toothpaste-commercial white: A swell of urban Stormtroopers in chalk-colored clothes, cars, even a hearse.

Jackson isn’t particularly emotive on his own, but he has such stirring, naturalistic chemistry with his co-stars — Mitchell, Michael K. Williams (playing his mentor, Scatter), and Lex Scott Davis and Andrea Londo (playing the two girlfriends in his domestic triad) — that I feared for Priest’s loved one’s lives whenever they were on screen.

“SuperFly” is the first blaxploitation remake to come out of the gate this decade; newer editions of “Shaft,” “Cleopatra Jones,” and “Foxy Brown” are currently in the works. Despite the all-around excellence of “SuperFly,” I’m not sure we need to resurrect the 70s right now. But as long as we’re mired in franchise culture, you could do far worse than a double feature of “SuperFly” and “Ocean’s 8” — crime movies where the historically disenfranchised groups are finally encouraged to enjoy revenge.

Related stories from TheWrap:

The Black List, Lena Waithe and Eva Longoria Team With Macro to Promote TV Writers of Color

The 'Black Lightning' Discussion That Was Supposed to Be About 'This Is America' (Podcast)

Spike Lee Denounces 'That Motherf–er' Trump, Explains Charlottesville Scenes in 'BlacKkKlansman'

'SNL': Donald Glover's Lando Calrissian Addresses All Four Black People in 'Star Wars' (Video)

‘Superfly’ Trailer: Trevor Jackson Targets a Mexican Drug Cartel in Remake of ’70s Classic — Watch

Produced by Future and “The Matrix” alum Joel Silver, the July release is the first feature by music video visionary Director X.

Best known for the music videos he has made for Drake, Jay-Z, and Rihanna, Canada’s Director X — real name Julien Christian Lutz — will debut his first feature this summer, a remake of 1972 blaxploitation classic “Super Fly.” Sony Pictures released the first full-length trailer of his version, “Superfly,” on Friday. “Grown-ish” actor Trevor Jackson assumes the role originated by Ron O’Neal: Youngblood Priest, a cocaine dealer with a knack for martial arts.

Director X shifted the film’s backdrop from Harlem to Atlanta, where shooting commenced this January (in another modernized twist, the protagonist prefers to be paid in cryptocurrency). The trailer opens with Youngblood, a hustler since age 11, prosperous and taking advantage of the city’s glittering nightlife. A wise mentor named Scatter (Michael Kenneth Williams, “The Wire”), supportive best friend (Jason Mitchell, “Straight Outta Compton”), and alluring girlfriend (Lex Scott Davis, CBS’ “Training Day”) keep him grounded.

Yet those comforts are disrupted when Youngblood finds himself at the center of a shootout plotted by a menacing new crew, clad head-to-toe in white and sent by a Mexican drug lord. Rather than retreating, Youngblood heads south of the border for a bullet-strewn confrontation, but not before disapproving Scatter turns a gun on him first. Eddie must remind Youngblood, “We black men, there ain’t nowhere safe.”

When re-examining the material of Gordon Parks Jr.’s “Super Fly,” a daunting challenge was living up to Curtis Mayfield’s beloved songs. Director X drafted rapper Future to produce the original soundtrack for his film, penned by “Watchman” co-writer Alex Tse. Prior to introducing “Superfly” at Sony’s CinemaCon presentation last week, the director told Deadline that his take is “light on moral lessons.” “This is an action film,” he continued, an appropriate choice considering Joel Silver, a producer of the “Lethal Weapon” and “The Matrix” series, is onboard.

Sony Pictures will bring “Superfly” to theaters on July 15. Watch the trailer below. 

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‘Superfly’ Helmer Director X On Making An Action Film That Is “An Escape With Melanin” – CinemaCon

“Superfly is timeless. It’s the definition of cool,” said Director X to open the Superfly portion of Sony’s slate presentation at the 8th annual CinemaCon confab. The time for X’s iteration of the classic film is different…

Superfly is timeless. It’s the definition of cool,” said Director X to open the Superfly portion of Sony’s slate presentation at the 8th annual CinemaCon confab. The time for X’s iteration of the classic film is different. It’s set in 2018 Atlanta unlike the original, which was 1972 Harlem. “One thing has remained,” asserted X, “The hustle.” Speaking with Deadline before the presentation, X contributed his decision to tackle this film as his first studio feature to its…

‘Superfly’ Trailer: Director X Moves The Action To Atlanta

If you weren’t around when Curtis Mayfield’s hit song from Superfly was inescapable in the early ’70s, this new trailer for Columbia Picture’s upcoming remake has some explaining for you.
“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.”
Based on the 1972 blaxploitation classic about a cocaine dealer looking to make one final sale, the Sony redo…

If you weren’t around when Curtis Mayfield’s hit song from Superfly was inescapable in the early ’70s, this new trailer for Columbia Picture’s upcoming remake has some explaining for you. “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.” Based on the 1972 blaxploitation classic about a cocaine dealer looking to make one final sale, the Sony redo…

Charles Parnell Cast In ‘A Million Little Pieces’; Sony’s ‘Superfly’ Adds Big Bank Black & Kaalan Walker

Charles Parnell, who currently stars in the TNT series, The Last Ship, has come aboard the Sam Taylor-Johnson-directed drama, A Million Little Pieces, joining Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Odessa Young, Giovanni Ribisi, and Billy Bob Thornton. The pic is based on James Frey’s 2003 novel, which follows a young drug-addled writer approaching the bottom of his descent. He submits himself to two months of agonizing rehab where he meets an eccentric band of inmates including a young…

Charles Parnell, who currently stars in the TNT series, The Last Ship, has come aboard the Sam Taylor-Johnson-directed drama, A Million Little Pieces, joining Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Odessa Young, Giovanni Ribisi, and Billy Bob Thornton. The pic is based on James Frey’s 2003 novel, which follows a young drug-addled writer approaching the bottom of his descent. He submits himself to two months of agonizing rehab where he meets an eccentric band of inmates including a young…

Trevor Jackson & Jason Mitchell To Star In Sony’s ‘Superfly’ Remake From Director X; Future, Steven R. Shore To Produce

EXCLUSIVE: Sony’s Superfly film is assembling a team aptly fit for its title. As Deadline previously reported, Director X is officially attached to direct the remake with Trevor Jackson confirmed to star as Youngblood Priest. In addition, Mudbound and Straight Outta Compton star Jason Mitchell has signed on to co-star as Eddie, along with Lex Scott Davis as Georgia, Andrea Londo as Cynthia, Jacob Ming-Trent (Showtime’s White Famous) as Fat Freddy, and Omar Chapparo as…

EXCLUSIVE: Sony’s Superfly film is assembling a team aptly fit for its title. As Deadline previously reported, Director X is officially attached to direct the remake with Trevor Jackson confirmed to star as Youngblood Priest. In addition, Mudbound and Straight Outta Compton star Jason Mitchell has signed on to co-star as Eddie, along with Lex Scott Davis as Georgia, Andrea Londo as Cynthia, Jacob Ming-Trent (Showtime's White Famous) as Fat Freddy, and Omar Chapparo as…

Director X In Talks To Helm Sony’s ‘Super Fly’ Remake

EXCLUSIVE: Director X (a.k.a Julien Christian Lutz) is in talks to direct the remake to the 1972 blaxploitation film, Super Fly, which is set up at Sony Pictures. Watchmen scribe Alex Tse drafting the screenplay, while Sony exec Palak Patel is producing with Joel Silver.  We hear grown-ish star Trevor Jackson is in the mix for the lead role of Youngblood Priest. The studio declined to comment.
The original was directed by Gordon Parks Jr. and starred Ron O’Neal as Priest…

EXCLUSIVE: Director X (a.k.a Julien Christian Lutz) is in talks to direct the remake to the 1972 blaxploitation film, Super Fly, which is set up at Sony Pictures. Watchmen scribe Alex Tse drafting the screenplay, while Sony exec Palak Patel is producing with Joel Silver.  We hear grown-ish star Trevor Jackson is in the mix for the lead role of Youngblood Priest. The studio declined to comment. The original was directed by Gordon Parks Jr. and starred Ron O'Neal as Priest…