Director X says his new ‘SuperFly’ is more fast and furious than ‘The Wire’
‘We need some antiheroes. We need diversity of characters. We deserve a mindless action movie too.’
There’s a moment in the 2018 SuperFly remake where Youngblood Priest (Trevor Jackson) has a go with Scatter (Michael K. Williams). It’s only the two of them: mano a mano on gym mats. Aggression is thick. They’re trying to best the other in a round of jiujitsu — teacher versus star pupil. It’s but a small scene in Director X’s feature film directorial debut, but it is the moment that sets Youngblood Priest on his adventure. It’s the scene where you learn the pretty brown boy with the relaxed hair, styled into a bouffant-looking silhouette, can throw down if need be. He’s a ‘hood superhero who can and will take on four guys all by his lonesome, and win.
But that scene also is a glimpse into how X brought new life to one of the pre-eminent blaxploitation movies of the early 1970s, which was directed by the legendary Gordon Parks Jr. In the original film, Super Fly, the protagonist (played by Ron O’Neal) does enter a gym, so this scene is in homage. But for X, it’s also personal.
“I definitely wouldn’t want to disrespect anyone by saying, ‘I fought like this guy …,’ ” he says with a quick laugh and a shrug — but when he lived in Brooklyn, New York, he had a fight club in his place where people would come over, pad up and spar. X is a fighter. And when he fought, his mind was clear and he imagined bright, crisp visuals — the kind you see in some of his more famous music videos for artists such as Drake. It was beautiful. And welcome.
“Which I think is why fighting is such a … it’s strategic,” he said. We’re in an edit bay on the Sony Pictures Studios lot in Culver City, California. “It’s physical. … You tap into the unspoken.” He pivots slightly to talk about a game he made up one time called 330: He and his friends would draw three 30-second sketches of each other. You pose for 30 seconds, then the other person draws you. They pose for 30 seconds, you draw. You realize that in the short amount of time you’re trying to make a good image, it’s next to impossible.
“It’s removing yourself from this end result and living in this moment. … It just seems to work for all things,” he said. “It’s the same thing when we’re sparring. There’s a Zen place of being aware and being in the moment and doing what you’re doing but not putting yourself ahead of the moment. … By being in the result you’re not in the moment, and if you’re not in the moment, you can’t do the work. You know?” And this was exactly how he created SuperFly 2018.
“I wasn’t making SuperFly like, ‘This has gotta be great! It’s gotta be a hit! It’s gotta be this!’ I never had a big hit when I walked into it thinking, ‘I’m going to make a big hit.’ But I’ve had big hits walking into it thinking about what I’m doing, and being completely focused on the job and vision of the thing.”
Julien Christian Lutz was born almost 43 years ago near Toronto. After an internship with Canadian music video channel Much Music, he moved to New York City. There, he worked under the tutelage of Hype Williams, an influential music video director who, along with music director Alan Ferguson, gave him a pep talk when X thought about giving up and going in a different direction. The two men got him into gear.
Then: “I went and bought all the books I could on filmmaking. Makeup, hair, lights, camera … and then the next time I did a very tiny little job, it was, ‘Scrim that light! Flag that unit!’ Whoa. I said that? And I was right? Oh,” he said. “It was my education, and needing a proper education because you’ve gotta learn the technical side. … That was the turning point. That was really the moment that set me on the path of knowing what I’m doing.”
And it’s a good thing too. The Canadian is of Swiss and Trinidadian descent, and he’s done much to create and shape African-American hip-hop culture for the better part of 20 years. Since 1998, he’s created and collaborated with artists such as Rihanna (“Work”), Usher (“Yeah!”), Kanye West (“The New Workout Plan”), Jay-Z (“Excuse Me Miss”), Kendrick Lamar (“King Kunta”), Nicki Minaj (“Your Love”) and, of course, countless Drake music videos, including “Hotline Bling” and the more recent “God’s Plan.”
His music videos are cinematic in approach — he’s helped elevate the genre, his work a throwback to a time when people set their schedules around when a hotly anticipated music video was premiering on MTV or on Sunday nights on In Living Color.
“I come from this stigmatized part of filmmaking where they’re, ‘Oh, music videos. Ugh. Really?’ But I’ve always embraced it,” he said. “That’s where the innovation comes from. This is the stuff that pushes all the boundaries. This is the place where a director has true freedom. I take that with me and put it in this. I’m unconcerned with people’s thoughts. There is no form of filmmaking that’s this free as what you [do] in music videos. It’s allowed me to hone my own style.”
He’s successfully transferred his style and work ethic to the new SuperFly. He also understands what’s at stake, especially after the success of Marvel’s Black Panther, which not only earned more than a billion dollars at the box office but also gave black folks a far different narrative to which to aspire on the big screen.
We were beautiful. We were royalty. We were technologically advanced. And we were superheroes. We are something, quite frankly, that we’ve never seen on film before. A film like SuperFly could feel contrary to this moment, considering that it centers on the drug game and the perils that that particular world brings upon the black community. And X knows this. He’s expecting such a conversation to happen around SuperFly.
He has an answer: This, like those glorious African superheroes from the fictional land of Wakanda, is fantasy too. And it’s entertainment. And he’s not trying to create an instruction book on how to further set back struggling neighborhoods; what he is doing is adding to the canon of black film, expanding the spectrum. He’s giving moviegoers options.
“I didn’t want to make a super real movie. I’m not trying to inspire young kids to make their neighborhoods worse,” X said. “This isn’t the movie to watch if you want some inner workings of the drug game. … I remember The Wire, the greatest TV show that ever happened, it also f—ed the ’hood up.” X says he’s toned things down on some sides and made the story bigger. “In the original Super Fly they snort coke to say hello. … They don’t even smoke cigarettes in [the updated film]. They smoke blunts, but I wasn’t trying to make [cocaine use] cool for a new generation. If we were making Sicario, yeah, then maybe I’d deal with functioning addicts. We’re not making that. This is a more Fast and Furious.”
This new film is set in Atlanta as opposed to Harlem. “There’s a Whole Foods on 125th,” he said. “You can’t do Super Fly with a Whole Foods around the corner. I’m sorry.” The director says that in 1972, if you were hot in Harlem, you were hot around the world, as it was the epicenter of black culture. “And that’s not what [Harlem] is anymore. The music and the culture of black folks emanates now from Atlanta. You got a hot record in Atlanta, you got a hot record around the world. You got a hot record in New York, you got a hot record in New York. So it made sense for this [film] to grow.”
Atlanta does makes sense. The cultural explosion can be partially attributed to the idea that a couple of decades ago, it seemed as if every famous black celebrity in music or in the world of professional sports had a home in Atlanta. “Black folks still run it, you know? When we were out there … when I sat with T.I., he was in the other room with Mayor Keisha Bottoms,” he said.
And his SuperFly is classical by nature. “I treated this like ‘hood Shakespeare. If you’re going to do Romeo and Juliet, there’s a few things that have to happen. Two groups of people don’t get along, two of the people from each group fall in love, a curse on both your houses, and then they die tragically. … You’ve seen all the different iterations of Romeo and Juliet, but they stick to those points. That is how I treated this. The city does not matter. There’s a bunch of s— that does not matter. What matters is Priest gets into an altercation with some kind of drug-related people that inspires him to want to leave the game. He goes to his mentor. He gets caught up with some cops. Freddie’s dead. You know what I’m saying? Now we’re hitting. This is the SuperFly story. That was the mindset.”
One thing that audiences likely will appreciate about this film is that it’s helping to give black films diversity. There’s representation on camera — and not for nothing, it’s introducing a new potential star in Jackson, who is best known from Freeform’s successful, inaugural season of Grown-ish, the A Different World–like spinoff of ABC’s black-ish.
“We need some antiheroes,” said Director X. “I love The Sopranos. It’s insane how much we love Tony Soprano with all the evil s— he did over six or seven seasons. We need that diversity of characters as well. We deserve a mindless action movie too.”