An ahistorical claim has been making the rounds as of late, falling from the mouths and keyboards of people earnestly, yet clumsily, trying to explain why Black Panther has become a cultural juggernaut unlike anything we’ve ever seen. It goes something like, “This is the first ever big-budget comic book film starring a black superhero.” That’s a lot of qualifiers. And it’s not entirely accurate—sure, the movie’s budget is twice as big as Catwoman’s, but that feline-centered campfest was still made for $100 million in 2004, hardly a small, or even medium, budget at the time. Even ignoring those qualifiers, however, there’s a danger in inadvertently isolating Black Panther by ignoring its predecessors. Thankfully, a few have used the occasion to remind us that there have been movies about black superheroes long before Ryan Coogler and Disney brought us King T’Challa: Spawn, Meteor Man, and the Blade trilogy, to name just a few.
And yet before all of those exceptional characters made their way to the big screen, there was Abar, a character I only just recently learned about thanks to a great film series on black superheroes currently playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Abar, the First Black Superman, in fact, as the movie’s title handily spells out. A long-forgotten, low-budget blaxploitation flick from 1977, Abar is about the dissipation of race relations, consolation, segregation, dispensation, and more. It’s defiant, didactic, and occasionally delirious. The cast of amateurs seems to be competing for whoever can give the stiffest, most incoherent line reading of the fantastically terrible script. And you should definitely grab a friend or two, some intoxicants, and check it out.
Here’s the scoop: Dr. Kinkade (J. Walter Smith, also credited for the story) moves in to a posh, all-white Los Angeles suburb with his wife and two kids. At first, two nosey Gladys Kravitz types from next door, assuming that they are “the help,” greet the family pleasantly and inform them they are planning a luncheon for their new neighbors. But when Mrs. Kinkade reveals that they are, in fact, the new neighbors, the welcoming committee turns indignant. “I won’t let them!” an enraged Mabel retorts to her friend. “I won’t let them move into our neighborhood!” As she spews more hatred about burning the house down herself, Mr. Kinkade attempts to calm Mabel down by slowly reaching for her shoulder, but she tumbles dramatically to the ground and yells, “Get your black hands off of me!” Awkwardly abrupt dissolve into a loud group of white people picketing outside their homes, marching in circles and carrying signs.
As the demonstrators hold court and the community board plots to push the Kinkade family out of their home, in steps John Abar (Tobar Mayo), leader of the Black Front of Unity, a grassroots band of fly-looking motorcyclists who work to “help the brothers and sisters down in the ghetto” and preach nonviolent self-defense. (So basically, a fictionalized version of the real-life Black Panthers.) After hearing about the Kinkades’ troubles on the news, he and his team arrive at their home offering protection from the white people outside. But there’s a catch: Abar wants the family to consider moving back to the ghetto, so they can uplift their own people. Dr. Kinkade isn’t interested, and Abar and his men leave disappointed. Nonetheless, Abar returns sometime later, just in time to fend off a couple of white guys who are attacking the doctor on his doorstep. (He throws them in a garbage truck to the tune of that familiar wa-chicka-wa-chicka musical queue found in pretty much every blaxploitation movie.) From then on, the two develop a complicated relationship in which Abar agrees to protect the Kinkades’ home and participate in some tests the doctor is running for a prevention for heart disease (a leading cause of death for black Americans, especially). They constantly debate what is best for the black community and how things might be fixed as if they were in the middle of an after-school special.
Much like The Room, a good chunk of Abar is pretty slow going—though never not bizarre, thanks to an unforeshadowed death, a dream sequence in which the son imagines Abar as an Old West cowboy (“My friends call me Deadwood Dick, but my enemies call me Smart Black Nigger”), and the actors’ consistently delayed reactions to one anothers’ lines. But the last 40 minutes finally get us where the film really wants us to go. (Spoilers ahead.) It’s revealed that Dr. Kinkade isn’t actually working on a cure for heart disease but has developed a potion that can make a man in top physical condition—a man like Abar, it turns out—“indestructible” so that he can clean up the ghetto in one fell swoop. At first, Abar is resistant, but he soon changes his mind (although not before a surely unlicensed Martin Luther King excerpt is heard, for some reason) and drinks the serum.
This last act of the film is all over the place, with Abar realizing that the serum has worked on him after two cops shoot him for coming upon them as they plant a gun on an unarmed black man they’ve just killed. Abar’s unhurt and now roams the ghetto using his new superpowers for good. A guy steals a lady’s purse on the street and runs off? Abar squints hard and compels the thief, by telepathy, to run and tumble back to her, returning the bag. (Waka-chicka-waka-chicka.) A prostitute is being slapped around by her pimp? Abar telepathically confers on her the strength and skill to defend herself and beat him to the ground. (Waka-chicka-waka-chicka.) Troubled youths are hanging out on the street, smoking and shooting craps? The powerful mind of Abar sends them straight to graduating, emerging from a school in caps and gowns with diplomas in hand. (Waka-chicka-waka-chicka, then, generic graduation music.)
The most bonkers moment is saved for the end. Abar uses his powers to bring down a plague of biblical proportions upon the Kinkades’ white neighbors—powerful, hurricanelike winds (you should see the actors tossing their bodies around like rag dolls for extra effect), rat infestations, snakes in beds. He drives them all away, except for the aforementioned Mabel. She approaches the Kinkades in the middle of the street, meekly humbled. And then: “I want to apologize for the way I behaved when you moved in to Meadow Park. The reason I didn’t want you to live next door to me is because … I’m black, and I’ve been passing as white all these years and—”
The doctor cuts her off. “Yes, I know.” But how did he know? Well, in an earlier scene, Mabel fainted—immediately after calling their son a “little black bastard,” mind you—and the doctor was kind enough to take her in to his home and call her doctor to find out if she had any pre-existing conditions. It turns out she had—wait for it—sickle cell anemia.
She asks for forgiveness. The Kinkades look at one another and embrace her reassuringly, as MLK’s voice swoops in once again: “I HAVE A DREAM that one day my four little children …” They walk down the street together, happily, as a proud Abar looks on.
Abar, the First Black Superman is truly a cinematic marvel. It has its heart in the right place and fumbles spectacularly in every way possible—the painfully preachy dialogue, the scrappy special effects, the too long running time. But even if it’s not anywhere close to the achievement of Black Panther, it’s a fascinating product of the time and more proof that black superheroes have long existed outside the Marvel universe. And just like Black Panther, their superpowers are almost always political.