[Today: Curtis Mayfield goes downtown…]
“White flight” was the popular term for the phenomenon of caucasians fleeing urban centers for the safety and comfort of the suburbs. America has experienced two pronounced periods of white flight – the first shortly after World War II, when the newly minted interstate freeway system unlocked the potential of living outside the city, and the second in the late-60s and early-70s, when the infrastructure of big cities like New York, Washington DC and Los Angeles was either burned out or falling into crumbling disrepair.
This white abandonment of downtown, USA had one immediate effect: the creation of semi-lawless concrete hectacres populated by pimps, pushers, hustlers and junkies. Crime rose throughout the early-70s in cities across the country, accelerating a cycle of flight and destruction. A secondary effect of white flight was the sudden need for cheap, black-oriented movies to fill up empty theaters throughout those cities. Blaxploitation film was pioneered by Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and legitimized by the Academy Award-winning Shaft. These movies featured heroic, gun-toting black men like John Shaft and Truck Turner, who wiped out the bad guys and won over the ladies while walking tall and flashing plenty of style.
The soundtracks to many blaxploitation films nodded and winked at inner-city issues while paying off movies that glorified the very violence that made living there such a nightmare. But Curtis Mayfield’s songs for Gordon Parks Jr.’s Superfly rise above the genre (and this movie) to truly capture what was going on in the American ghettos of the 1970s. ‘Pusherman’ and the title track take critical views of small-time hoods and their vices, and ‘Freddie’s Dead’ mournfully sounds the consequences of living within the urban blight. This vivid, intense, and moving album is Mayfield’s finest, and stands alongside What’s Goin’ On as the best social commentary in a decade that sorely needed more of it.