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The Disappearance of Superfly

By brynna

Tuesday November 20, 2007

This old guy once told me that misrepresentation is the only form of representation. Bah. I say, misrepresentations make me sick. Ridley Scott’s biographical portrayal of ’70s NY kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) in American Gangster is an all too perfect example. Based on “Return of Superfly”, a feature interview by Mark Jacobson which originally appeared in the August 7, 2000 issue of New York Magazine, the film distorts and exploits an intelligent depiction of an interesting story in order to make a quick buck. Not only is the movie a 157 minute piece of crap, but anyone who can spell “Wikipedia” should recognize the striking dissimilarities between this film and everything that actually happened.

American Gangster is a perfect example of an important story being killed with production problems and studio red tape. Initially slated to be directed by Antoine Fuqua, the directer of the video for Coolio’s “Gangster’s Paradise” (and Training Day), he wanted to spend too much money (heaven forbid a film about New York should be shot in New York and not Toronto) so the studio swapped him for the guy who infected the world with White Squall. Suddenly, the film no longer held the prospect of helping everyone forget Halle Berry’s Oscar acceptance speech, instead becoming a blatantly whitewashed representation of what it is to be an American dickwad.

Black, white, red, white or blue, the film largely diminishes the racial barriers and cultural divisions that were such a large part of Frank Lucas’ life. Sure, sure, you have your standard historical representations of a 1970s Harlem in there – the n-word is dropped a few times and such – but this bullshit motif of “Americanism” running throughout the entire film kills any hope it ever had at being anything more significant than Hollywood pap. And I guess Scott, as the white devil, isn’t really allowed to give us anything else, lest he be labeled racist or accused of patroling beyond his jurisdiction—-pffft.

OK, OK, I understand that dramatization is an essential part of popular film. Otherwise, we’d just make documentaries and let the art-house kids snooze gleefully in their art-house seats. The term based on a true story is at play here. And fine, making a shitty movie would be one thing, but raping and pillaging the very foundation of quality journalism for the purpose of financial gain and public recognition is another altogether. When Universal bought the rights to the story of Frank Lucas, not only did they obtain the actual story within Mark Jacobson’s article “Return of Superfly”, they got every creative element used to form the piece as well. They had SO MUCH excellent material to work with, and completely ignored it. And why?

Jacobson’s beautifully written and researched personal introspection into Lucas’ character strives for a very deep truth. He presents a blurry morality in his description of Lucas’ relationships with both his environment and numerous acquaintances on each side of the law, and does so by presenting his contradictory moral ticks: the tension between his bawdy self-righteousness and haunting remorse; his scary ability to charm both journalists and judges; his laugh, rich with dominance and defeat. In his conversations with Lucas, Jacobson presents a scenario that makes the reader, regardless of their background or race, realize the influence of universal human greed and rethink their definition of social responsibility. Call me tickled pink.

But apparently even journalists value dollar signs. The fame brought to Jacobson from the use of his research allowed him to ride the film’s coat tales nicely. He secured a follow up interview with Lucas in a recent piece for New York Magazine preceding the movie’s release wherein he cough cough mentions how his article inspired the film. However, I have to wonder just how much the opportunities this film afforded him clouded his judgment of the final on-screen product. Sure, it’s a rare accomplishment for one’s writing to inspire a Hollywood blockbuster, but you have to believe that once Jacobson wises up and realizes what a piece of shit this film is and how much it undermines his work, he’ll relinquish his bragging rights faster than you can say “Johnny Depp” or “Blow.”

Lucas also approves of the film, expressing his contentment in a recent interview with MTV (yup, MTV. Um… sorry guys, but did this guy not kill people?) “As far as I’m concerned,” he raves, “it was top-notch. I wouldn’t change anything.” I’m taking bets on how much cash Universal stashed inside the seat of his wheelchair to get him to say this. Lord knows, being a famous ex-convict kingpin in the wake of the War on Drugs doesn’t pay all too well.

Neither, apparently, does the movie business, as studios continue to bust out formulaic hit after formulaic hit to ensure they cover escalating production costs. Any consistencies between this film and Jacobson’s interview become irrelevant; the dramatization and meandering necessary to make this a moneymaker destroy all emotional elements of this interesting story. Jacobson didn’t just provide us with old-black-dude proverbs and puns, many of which re-emerge in Denzel’s dialogue. He told the reader much more than the personal and disturbing stories of the drug trade violence and corrupt law enforcement institutions that are included in the film. No, “The Return of Superfly” is much more than that, and in a few short pages contains what American Gangster completely lacks in its two plus hours of violence, gore and kitsch. It has a soul.

External Materials:

The Return of Superfly

Lords of Dopetown (Nicky Barnes/Frank Lucas Interview)

MTV Interview