Superman, Jesus, Moses, they’re all the same. Larger-than-life magicians who solve problems in ways human beings can not. What point is there to watching a super-being cure humanity’s ills, if we can’t emulate their methods. Jesus can feed everyone with magic fishes and send the bad guys to burn for eternity in hell. Superman is bulletproof and not only can he see your naughty bits with his X-ray eyes but he can incinerate your naughty bits with his heat-ray vision. Of what use to us are their approaches to problem-solving? They have nothing to teach us.
Frank Packard’s film Abar: The First Black Superman features a black superman who has almost unlimited power. He gets these powers from a potent mixture of divine forces, scientific advancements, and righteous radical politics. He can pretty much do anything he wants including perform miracles. At the climax of the film, he sends a plague of rats, snakes, and hurricane-force winds to the white suburbs which causes the residents to beg for forgiveness.
When considering how to deal with race relations in America plagues are of limited use. Sure, It’s fun to watch a suburban, white, soccer mom grovel at a black man’s feet but it’s a pointless exercise. A coerced apology has no value. It doesn’t change anything. Black Superman uses his psychic mind control powers to make a group of pot-smoking, dice-playing, black, youth go back to high school and get an education. It would surely be beneficial to society if everyone graduated high school, but hoping that someone will come along and magically make them do it doesn’t get us any closer.
If Abar The First Black Superman was a comedy or a satire none of these concerns would matter. Watching all of America’s racial problems disappear into thin air could be a funny premise, but Abar The First Black Superman takes itself seriously. The film contains numerous snippets of Martin Luther King speeches and the characters constantly argue over the best strategy to deal with the plight of the black community. The film is clearly meant to grapple seriously with race.
Ill-conceived as it is, Abar The First Black Superman is still a very interesting and even entertaining film. We follow Dr. Kinkaid’s struggle to complete his superman serum while weathering constant racist attacks. He keeps having to move because everywhere he goes white people harass him and his family until they leave. The house where he decides to make his last stand is an amazing amalgam of 70’s style decor. The bright red living room and bar seem to be lifted out of Bergman’s Cries and Whispers. Considering the budget for the film it is very likely that someone actually lives in the house and comes home every day to be assaulted by scarlet.
There are no adjectives sufficient to describe the dialogue in this film. All of the characters, regardless of who they are, speak with such stilted and purposeful enunciation it’s like watching elocution robots being fed a script written by thesaurus robots. Dr. Kinkaid’s wife asks the young “ghetto youth,” “You seem to be doing a great service for our people, and for us. What is the name of your organization?” The youth replies “Black Front of Unity” and Doctor Kinkaid’s chimes in, “Oh yes, I’ve heard of the BFU, Well, we are most grateful and will give every assistance possible,” In an attempt to infuse the dialogue with grit The BFU members awkwardly pepper their dialogue with carefully pronounced slang like “pigs” “crib” and “let’s split.” Picture A black Lawrence Olivier in a dashiki.
The plot is certainly unpredictable. Abar doesn’t become Black Superman until the film is almost over, and even then he is more like a creepy psychic that just stares at people to control their minds. Like the white superman, he is bulletproof. We see both Abar and Dr. Kinkaid repeatedly shoot a lab rabbit that has ingested the superman formula. They point their revolvers at the little cage and blast the poor thing from point-blank range but the little fellah just sits there munching his greens.
The film tries to address the use of violence as a means of social change but fails to present a clear message. Superman’s psychic powers are supposed to reveal the inner motivations of people and hasten the consequences of their actions, but that sometimes means they die in a car crash or fiery explosion, or find a giant python in their bed. When it comes to the natural consequences of our actions there just aren’t many courses of action that result in a jumbo size snake in your bed. I’m surprised the poor snake wasn’t driven off by the loud patterns of pink, orange, and white on the bedsheets which are in turn topped with green, orange, and white pillowcases. Those are some rough visuals to contend with.
The white people in the film are all portrayed as raging, moronic, racist assholes. Before Trump was elected I would have said it was a bit heavy-handed, but after Trump got all the raging, moronic, racist assholes to wriggle out from under their rocks it turns out there are far more than I realized.
The title of the film is intriguing because it implies that more black supermen are on their way. It gives the whole film a kind of Neitschzian subtext, but there is also a mess of Marxist and Maoist rhetoric smashed in there too. There is a lot of talk about bourgeois blacks who divest themselves from “the ghetto,” and the need to bring power to the people. The First Black Superman sincerely wants to help fuel the revolution but it can’t seem to make up its mind as to how.
The film was made in 1977. Martin Luther King had already been killed as well as Malcolm X and Fred Hampton. Creating an image of a bulletproof black savior is understandable but unfortunately, such a man does not and can not exist. Waiting for a magical savior to break your bonds or bring you fishes doesn’t get us anywhere.
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