o the white police commissioner, who also happens to be a drug kingpin, is poking his finger in the chest of our black hero, Priest, a dope dealer who made one last, big score and now wants out.

"What the hell do you want to quit for? What else can you do?" the dirty cop asks him. "You just want to be another two-bit black junkie."

"You don't own me, pig," Priest says, real cool.

The white cop pulls out a gun. But Priest lets the scumbag know that he's taken out a contract on him -- and on his wife and kids. Sort of like insurance.

"And all them honky pig partners you've got ain't gonna be able to protect your ass either," Priest says. "Nothing -- nuh-thing -- better happen to one hair on my gorgeous head. Can you dig it?"

And Priest strolls over to his Cadillac, gets in, drives off. The End.

They don't make 'em like that anymore.

Or at least they haven't. Not for some 15 years. The big-screen saga of Priest -- "Superfly" -- was released in 1972.

This Friday, "The Return of Superfly" arrives in theaters nationwide. White producer Sig Shore says he decided to revive Priest (with a young soap opera actor in the role, not Ron O'Neal) because a black writer showed him a script that "was such a beautiful extension of that character." Priest returns from exile in France "to rediscover his roots," it says in the production notes, only to get embroiled in a drug war.

But Shore, quite cagily, is also courting the black moviegoer's memory of a bygone time. A time when the screen abounded with the adventures of tough black men (and sometimes women) who made their own rules, kicked plenty of butt and always got the better of whitey.

Between 1972 and 1976, more than 100 films were built around black characters. A few, such as "Sounder" and "Claudine," were high-minded entertainments. But most had titles like "Boss Nigger" and "The Black Godfather." Occasionally the hero was a pimp, hustler or racketeer. They came to be known as "black exploitation" films -- low of budget and often low of ambition.

Pop-culture scholars have largely ignored these films. "There was nothing really intellectually challenging about them," says Tony Gittens, director of the Black Film Institute at the University of the District of Columbia.

But that's starting to change. Film historian Donald Bogle is preparing a blaxploitation retrospective for the American Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, N.Y., next February. Among the 16 movies he plans to screen are "Superfly," "Shaft," "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," "Coffy" and "Mandingo."

"I don't think there has been a real look at the ... collective statement of those movies," Bogle says. In his own 1988 encyclopedia, "Blacks in Film and Television," he dismissed most of these films as poorly made, though he now acknowledges they were "very important to the audience." And "they have lived on, in a strange sense, on their own."

Many who grew up during the '70s fondly remember the blaxploitation era. Keenen Ivory Wayans's affectionate 1988 parody, "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka," launched his own career as a Hollywood producer.

At the end of the song "Burn Hollywood Burn," Public Enemy's scathing attack on the white-run movie business, rappers Chuck D, Big Daddy Kane and Ice Cube cuss the prospect of watching "Driving Miss Daisy." Then one of them saves the day by saying, "Yo, I got 'Black Caesar' back at the crib. Y'all want to check that out?" (The indignant rappers apparently don't realize that "Black Caesar," a Fred Williamson gangster flick, was written, directed and produced by a white man, one Larry Cohen.)

The reference to a 1973 movie in a 1990 rap song tells us something. First, the VCR has turned yesterday's culture into today's. Dozens of blaxploitation titles -- such famous ones as "The Mack" and "Cleopatra Jones," such obscure ones as "The Candy Tangerine Man" and "Lady Cocoa" -- can be found on video store shelves. And they rent. Second, in its commercialization of macho posturing and a funky "street" aesthetic, blaxploitation actually foreshadowed rap. Ice Cube and Fred Williamson, Big Daddy Kane and Richard Roundtree, Chuck D and Melvin Van Peebles are united in an odd cousinship.

M.C. Ren of N.W.A., a group notorious for its violent and profane raps, remembers his father taking "the whole little family" to see blaxploitation movies at a Compton, Calif., drive-in. "I couldn't understand half the {stuff} when I was a kid," says Ren, now 21. "I caught up to that when I was older," on video. "Gangster {stuff} -- I can relate to that."

Is it any surprise that the "Return of Superfly" soundtrack album is full of hard-edge rap songs?

No More Goody Two-Shoes The closing scene of "Superfly" captures the essence of the black exploitation era. The outlaw as hero. A black man asserting his independence, in the white man's face. The depiction of the police, and white authority in general, as corrupt. Even the hero's unflappability and vanity. These elements would appear in movie after movie after movie, stoking the fantasies of the young black males who paid to see them.

But the most crucial element -- the black man getting away with it -- was originated by Melvin Van Peebles in his shocking, genuinely angry 1971 film "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," which is credited with triggering the blaxploitation explosion.

Van Peebles plays a sort of performing stud who is shaken from his political complacency when he witnesses two white cops brutalizing a brother. Sweetback beats those officers to death, and for the rest of the movie he's on the run. When he finally crosses the border into Mexico, exhausted and caked with dirt, these parting words are printed across the screen: "Watch out! A badass nigger is coming back to collect some dues."

"Sweetback," to the surprise of the movie industry, became a hit. And Van Peebles, who wrote, produced and directed it, became a hero of the black independent film movement, as well as a media star.

At first, though, he could only get two theaters to show it, one in Detroit and one in Atlanta. Van Peebles sat in on a Detroit showing and liked what he saw. "Brothers and sisters were throwin' popcorn and hotdogs -- yeah -- and screaming!" he said during a 1980 university colloquium, recorded in the book "Black Cinema Aesthetics."

He walked into the Atlanta theater expecting to find the same reaction. But "there was not a sound. I didn't understand." He took a seat behind an old black woman. Near the end, as Sweetback is pursued through the desert by police, Van Peebles heard the woman say, "Oh, Lord, let him die. Don't let them kill him."

"We were so used to our people losing in film that she could not believe he was going to get away with it," he said. "The most you could hope for was that he died on his own steam, that he did not die by their hands."

Warrington Hudlin, producer of the recent hit movie "House Party," was a freshman philosophy major at Yale when "Sweetback" came out. It's what inspired him to get into filmmaking. "The thing that struck me most," he says, "was at the very beginning: 'Starring the Black Community.' "

Hudlin was already caught up in the politics of the time. "The psychology of our community at that point {was} we needed a catharsis," he says. "It was all about black manhood asserting itself, black men carrying guns, threatening violence." As Hudlin recalls, Black Panther Party founder Huey Newton gave "Sweetback" a rave review in the party newspaper.

But more important than the movie's immediate revolutionary fervor was the way it shattered Hollywood's image of race relations. "In the '50s and '60s," Hudlin says, "we were victims and martyrs."

As in "The Defiant Ones" of 1958. Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis play escaped convicts who are shackled together, fleeing the police in the South. The two hardened cons, initially antagonistic, grow close during their ordeal. At the end, their shackles broken, Poitier hops a freight train to freedom, but the injured Curtis is unable to make the leap.

In a moment the filmmakers clearly intended as uplifting, the black man jumps off the train to help his white friend. But it's no use. The sheriff closes in. (As James Baldwin reported, black audiences reacted to Poitier's sacrifice by shouting, "Get back on the train, you fool!")

The post-"Sweetback" black hero "was not trying to be whitey's brother," says Donald Bogle. "There were none of these goody two-shoes, racially harmonious endings in {blaxploitation} movies. You had heroes who were part of a black community, and a community where we see some of the social ills of the period."

Ironically, he points out, "many of these films were not made by African Americans."

So many, says Hudlin, that "I don't even refer to them as black movies."

Black Stars, White Producers A black man, Gordon Parks Jr., may have directed "Superfly," but it represents the vision of Sig Shore, the white man who conceived and produced it.

Still, Shore says "Superfly" doesn't deserve the "black exploitation" label it got stuck with. For one thing, he says, when the movie was shot, it wasn't yet clear there was a big black audience to exploit. "Sweetback" was doing its thing, but MGM hadn't yet released "Shaft," the private-eye flick whose huge success convinced Hollywood that black action movies could be profitable.

Shore made "Superfly" for a mere $150,000. "Nobody would put up a dime," he says. When he took the finished film to Los Angeles, looking for a distributor, he "didn't have money for a hotel room."

Also, in Shore's view, "Superfly" was a serious film, "a very poignant story. I thought it would be a picture that would play in art houses almost."

Born in Harlem, Shore says he was fascinated with "the way {blacks} got into being hustlers on the street. In the Jewish ghetto, or the Irish or the Italian, the way a guy became a mob leader was that he was stronger than the other guys, or he was less reluctant to use a gun.

"It was different in the black ghetto," says Shore, now 71. "They did it with style. It was a competition of style. That's why I concentrated on all the style and the flash with Priest, you see. ... There is a very visceral relationship with young black kids who go to this film." Indeed, "Superfly" made wide-brimmed hats and coke-spoon pendants a fashion trend.

If you want to hear about exploitation, though, Shore will gladly tell you about Richard D. Zanuck, producer of such acclaimed films as "Driving Miss Daisy." Zanuck was a Warner Bros. executive when that studio picked up "Superfly." He left to partner up with David Brown, and the two produced a movie titled "Willie Dynamite," about a black pimp. "It was an absolute ripoff of 'Superfly,' " Shore says.

Zanuck and Brown won the 1973 Academy Award for best picture with "The Sting." But check out this ad line from their now-forgotten "Willie Dynamite," released that same year: "Ain't no one crosses Willie 'D.' He's tight, together and mean. Chicks, chumps, he uses 'em all. He's got to be Number One."

Disturbing Images The rise of a hard-edge street aesthetic during the 1970s was culture-wide, not just in the movie house. The paperback novels of Donald Goines, such as "Street Players," "Black Gangsters" and "Daddy Cool," sold by the tens of thousands. Black comedians cut loose with unprecedented vulgarity on popular "party records." And one of the decade's most memorable song lyrics (from William DeVaughn's "Be Thankful for What You Got") was about a Cadillac: "Diamond in the back, sunroof top, diggin' the scene with a gangster lean."

But it was the blaxploitation pictures that generated complaints.

"The images in some of those movies, they were disturbing then and they are disturbing today," says Donald Bogle. Especially the image of women, who were often "thrown in and out of bed" by the ever-ready hero. Even when a black woman was the star, playing a tough, assertive character, as Pam Grier did in "Coffy" and "Foxy Brown," the viewer still knew "she was going to get tied up, the blouse was going to pop open, the breasts were going to surface," he says, chuckling.

Ultimately, "they were fantasy films that touched on something real."

Warrington Hudlin puts it this way: "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" had explicit sex, explicit violence and revolutionist politics; most of the movies that followed "kept the sex and violence. Left out the politics." ("The Education of Sonny Carson" and "The Spook Who Sat by the Door" are among the few bold exceptions.)

Black audiences weren't the only ones being pandered to during the early '70s. Those were boom times for exploitation films in general: kung fu extravaganzas, gruesome shockers like "Texas Chain Saw Massacre," vigilante sagas, titillating "sexploitation" romps featuring pneumatically endowed cheerleaders, nurses or stewardesses -- in 3-D, even.

What bothered Hudlin about blaxploitation was that black activists were often the butt of ridicule. In "Superfly," Priest tells the neighborhood militant loudmouths to get out of his face until they're ready to take up arms. And in "Black Gestapo," one community organizer winds up a power-mad Black Shirt, his followers saluting him with outstretched fists while the soundtrack roars with chants of "Sieg Heil" from an authentic Nazi rally.

"I always thought that was an insidious thing about those movies, the attitude that {activists} were somehow frauds, that the quasi-criminals were more straight than the activists," Hudlin says.

Some people have a more fundamental objection to black exploitation films. "There were a lot of irresponsible people making movies then," says Charles Burnett, director of the current drama "To Sleep With Anger." "It was just these people's perverse fantasies. {The heroes} have nothing beyond violence. You don't see them really rescuing anybody. The society exists for these gangsters, you know, and you have this one individual out there... ."

He even considers those films culpable in part for today's high-firepower youth violence. "Kids are so impressionable," Burnett says. "I remember out in L.A. when kids started using those guns. It couldn't have just happened."

Essayist Stanley Crouch agrees. "I am very sure that there is a strong connection between the blaxploitation celebration of Afro-American criminality and the crime culture that we presently are beset by."

Fred Williamson, pro football player turned black action superstar ("Hell up in Harlem," "The Legend of Nigger Charley," "Hammer"), is used to such criticism. "Why limit your challenge to what you see in the black films?" he asks. "Why didn't people start with James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart and George Raft? In 'Little Caesar,' Edward G. Robinson killed more people in one {expletive} movie than I killed in all of my movies. So why doesn't somebody go back and examine their values? Don't just start with this little {five-year} spurt of black films."

Williamson blames organizations such as the NAACP for shouting down these movies before they had a chance to evolve. "The white press came up with the terminology 'black exploitation.' And then the blacks themselves jumped on it and said, 'Oh yeah, right, that's black exploitation!' "

The important thing about the early '70s, he says, was that black actors "were working, they were growing, they were learning how to be front-runners and to become stars, and not just to play demeaning parts or little small parts."

Indeed, much of the fun of watching blaxploitation on video is seeing the early work of many talented actors who have since established themselves in Hollywood. Billy Dee Williams (with an Afro!) as an urban revolutionary in "The Final Comedown"; Stan Shaw as a campy kung fu villain in "T.N.T. Jackson"; Dick Anthony Williams bringing resonance to the role of a safecracker/pimp in "Slaughter's Big Ripoff."

A New Wave? Now that Spike Lee has shown Hollywood once again that movies by and about black people can make money, and now that rappers are successfully merchandising a macho street aesthetic, could America be in for another wave of blaxploitation pictures?

Early next year, Warner Bros. will release "New Jack City," about the rise and fall of a contemporary black gangster. It was directed by Mario Van Peebles, Melvin's son. And it's got a rapper -- Ice-T -- in a featured role. Miramax will unveil "A Rage in Harlem," adapted by a British production company from a Chester Himes novel. Starring Forrest Whitaker, Danny Glover and Robin Givens, "Rage" tells the story of a woman from Mississippi trying to fence a trunk of gold in New York City.

But at least one major studio passed up the chance to cash in first. Sig Shore tried to get Universal to distribute "Return of Superfly" -- "I figured, hell, they're backing Spike" -- but had no luck.

The studio chief liked the leading man (Nathan Purdee) and he liked the plot, Shore says. Unfortunately, "he thought it was something that should have been made in the '70s."