Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Abar: Black Superman (United States, 1977)

Abar: Black Superman has bubbled up to the surface of the pop cultural conversation in recent weeks, thanks to the phenomenal success of Black Panther. Taking a cue from its title, some writers are calling it “the first black superhero film”, and I won’t disagree with that—though I will point out that it’s tag line at the time of its release was “the first black science fiction film” and that it is as much a tale of mad science as it is of costumed heroics. On top of all that, it is also a thoughtful examination of being black in America circa 1977.

The film starts with Dr. Ken Kincaid (J. Walter Smith) and his family moving into the all white Los Angeles neighborhood of Meadow Park. The neighbors excitedly queue up to meet the new arrivals, until it is revealed that the Kincaids are black, at which point they completely lose their shit. One woman insists, to Dr. and Mrs. Kincaid’s faces, that they are not in fact the Kincaids, but rather their maid and chauffeur. When the Kincaid’s correct this notion, the whole neighborhood explodes into a collective racist hissy fit.

Crude signs (“NO SCHOOL BUSSING”, “GO BACK TO YOUR BLACK GHETTO”) are made and brandished, the N word is tossed around like it is going out of style, the Kincaid’s two children are called “Pickaninnies”, garbage is thrown at the house, and one tubby nebbish with a swastika armband walks around giving the “sieg heil” salute. That night’s local news leads with “A black family has moved into the Meadow Park,” and soon the City Planning Commission is meeting to discuss ways of quelling the situation. It as if the entire city’s equilibrium has been knocked off balance by the movements of this one modest family.

Of course, thing were different in 1977, but Abar’s depiction of white racism in Los Angeles as being so naked and vocal doesn’t quite jibe with my experience of Los Angeles when I was living there in the nineties. Sure, it was a racist city; jaw-droppingly so. But its racism was more insidious in nature, more ingrained (one could even say “institutional”). People didn’t talk openly about being racist, like they did so preposterously in Crash. Otherwise they might taint the city’s liberal, easygoing image. Instead, divisions within the city’s populace were enforced by the unspoken social force fields that confined people within neighborhoods like South Central, Westwood/Beverly Hills, and West Hollywood and insured that many residents of those areas never ventured into or met anybody from the others. In contrast to such a diabolically elusive system, the screaming, self-identifying harridans of Abar come off as overly broad, ridiculous caracatures, stereotypes even. But if that’s the price white people have to pay for a hundred years of African American actors having to wear bones through their noses in countless cheap jungle adventures, then I’d say that we got off pretty easy.

Anyway, as the racism of the Kincaid’s neighbors is so virulent that it can be seen from space, it is not long before it comes to the attention of John Abar (Tobar Mayo) and his fellow social justice warriors in the Black Front of Unity, or BFU. A cross between the Black Panthers and the Hell’s Angels, the BFU hop on their hogs and head toward the Kincaids’. Of course, the sight of black people on motorcycles alone is enough to send the white protestors scurrying back into their homes like scared rabbits, whereupon Abar introduces himself to the Kincaids and is invited inside, whereupon we see that the Kincaid’s home, with its succession of richly upholstered, primary colored rooms, is more like the dance academy in Suspiria than any home in a white middle class neighborhood has a right to be.

Dr. Kincaid shows Abar to his beaker-filled basement laboratory and reveals that he is working on a serum that will give a man superpowers – that is, if he can find the right subject to test it on, hint hint. This is more than Kincaid has told his wife (Roxie Young), to whom he has only referred to this project in the most mysterious terms, telling her that it is of “such tremendous magnitude that one day it will alter the destiny of the world.”

After this encounter, Abar returns to Watts, where he is normally seen preaching on a street corner in front of a large sign that says “SLA AVENGE ‘NOW’.” He has agreed to act as the Kincaid’s bodyguard, but is not around to prevent one of the bigoted local crazies from disemboweling their tabby and hanging it from their front door. Soon after, Kincaid’s son Tommie (Tony Rumford) comes across a thug planting a bomb on the property. When the thug makes a hasty retreat in his van, Bobby takes off after him, only to be run down and killed by him. This proves to be the tearing point for Abar, who bursts into Kincaid's lab and lustily chugs down the serum, then heads out onto the streets of honkytown to explore his superpowers. In a weird twist, this somehow convinces Kincaid that Abar is a “psychopath” who needs to be stopped. Gun in hand, Kincaid takes off after him.

It has been amply stated that the acting in Abar is uniformly dreadful. I won’t disagree, though I will conjecture that the poor actors may have just been overwhelmed by the amount of dialog they were asked to recite, which is a lot. In this way, the film follows in the discursive tradition of black community (or “gospel”) theater, in which metaphorical representation is eschewed in favor of the characters having long discussions in which the play’s themes are laid out in a very on-the-nose fashion.

In Abar, the primary topics of discussion are whether Kincaid is betraying his people by moving into a white neighborhood, rather than staying in the Ghetto where he is most needed. When he is not urging Kincaid to move back to the ghetto, Abar engages with him in plural discussions of the relative virtues of Dr. Marin Luther King’s non-violent approach to protest and Malcolm X’s more confrontational one. This affords the opportunity for portions of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to appear on the soundtrack.

To be fair, not all of Abar’s actors are amateurs, although some clearly are. The children, in particular, have that dumbstruck monotone delivery typical of so many first-time child actors, coming off like twin versions Dee from What’s Happening. This is especially taxing on credulity when young Tony Rumford is required to exclaim melodramatic lines like  “I hate them! I hate them all! They killed our cat.” J. Walter Smith, on the other hand has an authoritative purr worthy of Morgan Freeman, and it serves him well in the scenes where he is debating Abar, though he has a tendency to turn to granite when more warmth is required. As his wife, Roxie Young, has the thankless task of playing the buzz kill spouse who exists only to hector her husband to give up doing his awesome experiments in his basement labs in favor of becoming a staid family man. Nevertheless, she projects an admirable kind of patient strength while modeling a colorful array of Afro-centric fashions. Meanwhile, Tobar Mayo's shaved head, delicate features and soft voice give him an alien quality that well serves his portrayal of Abar, who seems to exist on a plane above the petty squabbles taking place around him.

In keeping with Abar’s thoughtful tone, Abar’s superpowers, once revealed, turn out to be more mental than physical. This means that he can undo both white racism and the ghetto with his mind. In a dizzying closing montage, he goes from turning a bum’s wine jug into a quart of milk to willing a gang of truants to go to college and graduate, all in the course of a few seconds of screen time. Finally, he mentally commands a hurricane to descend upon Meadow Park and literally blow all the bad white people away. In the aftermath, the woman who earlier accused the Kincaid’s of being their own servants comes to them begging forgiveness, claiming that her hostility was due to her being a black woman passing for white. Kincaid patronizingly tells her that he was aware of this fact, and also aware of her Sickle Cell Anemia diagnosis. Burn.

Abar is the sole directing credit of one Frank Packard, who is also credited with playing "Jonah" in The Spectre of Edgar Allen Poe. Packard seems to have been infatuated with the interior of the Kincaid home, and is at his best visually when exploring it's assortment of bizarre color schemes and weird modish details. Aside from this, he does little to prevent Abar: Black Superman from being called a cheap and poorly acted film.

And let's be honest: It is. But, because of that, some people will tell you that it is also stupid, which it isn’t. True, its message does sometime get garbled by its limitations, but at least it has something to say. I’d choose it over Crash every time.

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