Blaxploitation was the first style of film to ever give African-American cinema a considerable voice and following in the mainstream. It peaked in the early 1970s and literally translated into a combination of ‘Black’ and ‘Exploitation’ films. The pictures were mostly defined by their depictions of ghetto life, fearless protagonists and their creativity in both amazing soundtracks and eye-catching posters. The formidable soundtracks and plot lines were amongst many of the reasons why Blaxploitation cinema tasted great popularity during it’s short spell on the radar of US cinema. Some of the big named hits included Foxy Brown, Shaft, Black Dynamite and Superfly.
The films mostly depicted and the characters constant uphill struggles against racism and the system in America. One unique characteristic of Blaxploitation cinema was that the phenomenal soundtracks often outshone the films themselves, both on a popularity and financial scale. All films were backed by entire albums produced by the biggest names in funk and soul in America. With soundtracks from such artists as Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Roy Ayers, Isaac Hayes and many more, it is easy to see why the films were adored and appreciated for the artistic masterpieces that they are. And, in my opinion, there are no two greater Blaxploitation masterpieces than Superfly(1972) and Shaft(1971). The two films funnily enough were produced separately by Gordon Parks (Shaft) and his son Gordon Parks Jr (Superfly) and both are nothing short of legendary and iconic cult classics. With two of arguably the greatest soundtracks not just in Blaxploitation cinema, but all of film completely, the two stories of different characters with “A plan to stick it to the man” stand high in the history of cinema we know today. Here is my comparison to try to determine which, for me, is the best Blaxploitation flick of all time.
Winner – Shaft
Both films depict characters in a similar situation in the sense that they want to escape from the current life they live. The standout difference is that they are on opposite sides of the law. Priest, the protagonist in Superfly, is a cocaine dealer looking to escape from the restraints of the underworld of drugs and violence. John Shaft of Shaft also wants to escape from the shackles of his life as an undercover police officer. With Shaft being leant on by all fractions of New York, it allows the story to take many twists and turns. As a police officer, Shaft can side with nobody, caught in the middle of street war between the mafia, pimps and police. The story of shaft takes many routes as he attempts to rescue the kidnapped daughter of one of the cities biggest pimps. Although the story in Superfly is still exciting, apart from the scattered run-ins with corrupt police and hustlers, it carries far more of a conventional structure as Priest’s ultimate outcome appears to be slightly more predictable.
Winner – Superfly
What some people may think Superfly lacks in plot lines, it certainly makes up for it by being an absolute cinematic spectacle. With amazing shots of Priest’s glistening Cadillac rolling down the streets, the jam-packed, rosy-red bar scenes and rich use of colour as Priest and his girlfriend Georgia stand clad in mink fur on a backdrop of a city covered in snow. Although Shaft possesses one of the best tracking shots of the two films as John Shaft struts his stuff through a busy New York, this one has to go to Superfly as the film is portrays a decadent array of mesmerizing shots and lights from start to finish.
Winner – Shaft
With both protagonists being as suave as it gets, it makes it especially hard to separate them. However, I feel that Superfly’s cool and slick image comes from the film as a whole, rather than Shaft in which it mostly derives from the lead character, John Shaft. In the most simple of terms, the straight-talking, lady-loving, hustler-beating policeman doesn’t give a fuck about anything. With every fraction of his world trying to crush him, both criminal and legal, John Shaft only emerges stronger. It seems like although the whole world is against him, John Shaft is one smooth motherfucker who is too strong to deal with and, as expected, he beats them all. “Hotter than Bond, Cooler than Bullitt” Shaft is the man.
Winner – Superfly
Without a shadow of a doubt, this is by far the most important category of them all. Considering as soundtracks play such a significant role in enhancing Blaxploitation cinema, it makes it all the more important to decipher which is the best out of these two. Both soundtracks contain absolutely jaw-dropping production and compositions. With Superfly’s soundtrack written and performed by maestro Curtis Mayfield, and Shaft’s score written and played by the one and only funk-god, Isaac Hayes, we have a serious comparison on our hands. One of the major differences between the two is that the soundtrack to Shaft is almost entirely instrumental, compared to the vocally laced majesty which is Superfly. Now lets not make any mistakes here, the soundtrack to Shaft is, and always will be, one of the most definitive soundtracks in the history of cinema. It’s secret weapons being ‘Soulsville’ and of course ‘Theme from Shaft’, the title track is an absolute classic known throughout the world. Some might even say that the track is more well known than the film, something that is certainly the case for Superfly. ‘Theme From Shaft’ famously starts out with lashes of funky guitar, bass and drums which eventually gets laced by lyrics describing the legend that is John Shaft. One of the opening lyrics is “Who is the man, who would risk his neck for his brother man?…SHAFT Can ya dig it?”, what better way to introduce a film?
However, for me, Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly is the real deal. The album is jam-packed with timeless and golden funk classics. An interesting fact about the Superfly soundtrack is that is one of the only films in history where the soundtrack outsold the film. It think it’s fair to say that this speaks volumes for the soundtrack rather than the film. Plot lines aside, we are talking about hell of an album. An album that includes such classics as ‘Pusherman’, ‘Little Child Running Wild’, ‘Freddie’s Dead’ and of course, ‘Superfly’. Described as being “full of tension but yet, triumphant” Superfly’s soundtrack aims to mirror the characters in the film, smooth, soulful but still bad as fuck.
Winner – Superfly
Another feature that goes hand in hand with the creative musical talent associated with Blaxploitation is the art. Each poster (see near beginning of article), as controversial they are, are about as eye catching as it gets. Often depicting guns, drugs, women, lavish clothing and cars, the posters were popular amongst both people who were and weren’t fans of the famous ghetto-flicks. If i was to attempt to compare the best Blaxploitation posters of all time we’d be here all day, there are simply too many to choose from. In terms of Superfly and Shaft, there is very little to separate the two when it comes to design, colour and boldness. The main reason the Superfly poster stands out more to me is due to the way it tells a story. The poster cascades behind Priest and reveals all the other aspects of the story. His girlfriend, his car, the other hustlers and of course, the city that is holding him down, New York.
With the comparisons coming in at 3 to 2 in favour of Superfly, we have our winner. ‘Super Hood, Super High, Super Dude, Super Fly!’
Watch Superfly and embark on Priest’s journey to escape the restraints of the drug underworld once and for all. Follow it up by delving in John Shaft’s world and witness him deal with the pressures of a criminally corrupt society in 1970’s America. Experience them both for yourself and you can be the judge.