The arts have rarely been kind to commercial activity, and visual media are no exception. Businesspeople are typically depicted as venal and immoral, and even when not playing the villain their line of work is usually at best incidental to the plot. Contrast this with myriad cinematic examples extolling the intrinsic heroism, righteousness, or worth associated with almost any other profession presented in television or film. Cops, cowboys, doctors, lawyers: they’ve all had more than their share of moments in the Hollywood sun. Accountants, shopkeepers, and investment bankers? Not so much.
Perhaps having themselves chosen artistic pursuits over a more “practical” career path, or simply resentful that their work must demonstrate commercial promise so that it might be funded, auteurs and other craftspeople working with video might be expected to indulge the conceit that the profit motive is corrupting, if not outright evil. While it is difficult to recall a television show or movie in which commerce is portrayed in a positive light, it is all too easy to conjure specimens of companies or businesspeople behaving badly. The China Syndrome? A potboiler about an intrepid reporter unearthing a coverup of safety issues at a nuclear plant. The Rainmaker? An evil insurance company cast in the role of corporate Scrooge, denying potentially life-saving coverage to a dying young leukemia patient. Boiler Room? One of many movies — or, rather, one of nearly every movie about Wall Street you can think of — illustrating the misuse of “high finance,” in this case through the activities of a pump-and-dump penny stock broker–dealer, in order to fleece individual investors in the service of self-enrichment.
It is thus timely that in this anti-capitalist moment, with ever-higher taxes and more regulation in prospect, and with corporate CEOs expected to kowtow to every progressive fad du jour, we celebrate the impending 50th anniversary of the greatest and most redeeming characterization of capitalism in all of cinema, 1972’s Super Fly. While generally thought of as an iconic exemplar of the “Blaxploitation” period in film — which it decidedly is — with an equally majestic soundtrack delivered forcefully by Curtis Mayfield, it manages to be both of, and yet slightly apart from, the genre.
Unlike Shaft and other films of its era to which it is often compared, Super Fly and its protagonist aren’t urban knockoffs of Dirty Harry or James Bond. Youngblood Priest (Ron O’Neal), the drug-dealing center of the action, is both entrepreneur and visionary, neither hero nor conventional anti-hero. He is portrayed sympathetically, notwithstanding the amorality of his chosen profession (more on this later), and while (spoiler alert) the narrative arc of the story is his desire to get out of “the game,” he’s neither low-life nor ashamed.
At its core, Super Fly is a rarity: an unvarnished, unabashed celebration of free enterprise. Moreover, its brilliance and conceptual genius stem from the fact that because Priest sells drugs — not just a criminal act in the early 1970s, but one disdained by polite society — his story can be championed artistically and still be “cool” in a way that a comparable tale of a conventional inventor or small businessperson never could be.
Priest’s origins are only alluded to indirectly, but it is clear as a young black man in New York City he is of limited means and prospects, with few legitimate ways of improving his circumstances. As Eddie (Carl Lee), his business partner, says in reflecting on their line of work: “I know it’s a rotten game, but it’s the only one The Man left us to play.” The movie finds him at his professional peak, and Priest moves easily between the high rises of the Upper East Side of Manhattan and much poorer areas of the city.
To leave a life of drug-dealing behind, he devises a plan for one final score — pushing enough cocaine through his network of dealers to earn $1 million for himself and Eddie. He realizes he has built enough capacity — a distribution network and sales force with significant customer reach — to deal a volume of product previously thought impossible. While he looks to a mentor for help in sourcing product, he’s the visionary who has developed both the business plan and an infrastructure that can be leveraged in service of his objective. When it turns out his new supplier is a corrupt deputy commissioner of the NYPD who seeks to control him (i.e., vertically integrate), he resists.
One must look beyond enterprise to find a moral compass, our contemporary ethos of “woke capitalism” notwithstanding.
As he implements his go-to-market strategy, a video montage of his dealers hitting the streets comprises one of the most joyous celebrations of free enterprise ever screened, and one that also incorporates various messages essential to a well-functioning market-based economy. In acknowledging that dealing is the only game “The Man” left them to play, Priest and his crew reinforce the notion that success in a form of commerce unsullied by societal strictures is neither limited nor determined by color, race, or creed. When one of his employees, Fat Freddie (Charles McGregor), shorts him on what he is owed, Priest gives him a second chance, but puts him to work — highlighting that business is business and that personal problems should remain at home.
The most powerful part of the montage sequence shows how Priest’s dealers serve every walk of life: a gay businessman, a construction worker, a middle-class black couple. The subtext is straightforward: we’re all the same, we have needs as consumers, and unfettered commerce meets them. While some may clutch pearls at a positive portrayal of recreational drug distribution and consumption, a critical lesson is subtly imparted to the discerning viewer: capitalism and markets aren’t the same thing as morality, nor should one expect them to be. Rather, free enterprise is an efficient — the most efficient — economic system for need fulfillment.
While glorifying a drug dealer gave rise to unease about the film at the time of its release in various quarters, including even Curtis Mayfield — who peppered “morality tale”–inspired lyricism throughout the film’s score — the movie is unsparing in declining to express a view on the morality of Priest’s profession. In other words, one must look beyond enterprise to find a moral compass, our contemporary ethos of “woke capitalism” notwithstanding. An irony of the film’s amorality about drug use in light of its looming anniversary is that the recreational use of marijuana is now legal in 17 states (along with Washington, D.C., and Guam), representing almost one-half of the U.S. population, a reality that could allow for the possibility of a reassessment of Super Fly’s market-friendly message without the overlay of its criminality.
Beyond its advocacy of market-based principles, much of the film’s other messaging reinforces individualism, accountability, personal responsibility, authenticity, and equality, all underpinned by a belief in commerce as a — or the only available — level playing field. When black nationalists look to shake Priest down, he leaves no doubt that he’s on to their grift:
Militant: Dig it, dope peddler. We’re out here building a new nation for black people. It’s time for you to start payin’ some dues!
Youngblood Priest: I ain’t givin’ you sh*t! I’ll tell you what you do, you go get you a gun and all those black folks you keep doin’ so much talkin’ about get guns, and come back ready to go down, then I’ll be right down front killin’ whitey. But until you can do that, you go sing your marching songs someplace else. Now we’re through talkin’.
There are subtle digs at other cultural totems. Priest has a radical chic white paramour for whom he expresses subtle contempt and seems to mostly use for access to well-heeled uptown cocaine customers, but he is ultimately only loyal to his girlfriend, with whom he plans his escape. His mentor, Scatter (Julius Harris), provides a cautionary tale against selling out — having allowed himself to be controlled by his corrupt NYPD supplier, there’s no going back. One of the more powerful scenes, all the more resonant in these times of media-fueled racial division, is when Priest seeks out assassins to put a contract out on the deputy commissioner’s life. He goes to the mob, who are gently caricatured in an exchange inside a restaurant shown without audio. But the message is crystal clear: while it might seem odd for a black drug dealer to go to the Italian mafia to take out a contract on a rival’s life, in the end there’s no racial angle — when you want the best, you hire the best (as he later expresses directly in the movie’s denouement). Merit, indeed, has merit. Moreover, there are no undertones to or hidden message in his interactions with the mafiosi; it’s a smart business deal, nothing more.
While Super Fly is a glorious paean to capitalism, it’s unfortunate that a culture rooted in aspiration, individualism, and free enterprise can’t or won’t laud such values more directly. While decidedly sexier when conveyed by Priest, the lessons and values are real no matter the manner in which they are communicated, and it is imperative that they be seen for that they are notwithstanding their delivery by an anti-hero.
In an age when so many look to fraying institutions of diminishing authority for answers or lack self-reliance, Curtis Mayfield’s lyrics to the song named after the movie remain anthemic:
You’re gonna make your fortune by and by
But if you lose, don’t ask no questions why
The only game you know is do or die.
Richard J. Shinder is the founder and managing partner of Theatine Partners, a financial consultancy.