Guest post from Briana Ureña Ravelo.
To gear up for my Black Panther weekend starting today, I have been watching movies from the Marvel Comics Universe and the movie Abar: The First Black Superman (rereleased on video in 1990 as In Your Face), a 1977 Blaxploitation film credited as the first Black superhero movie. It is the story of a young poor Black organizer, Abar, part of a Black Panthers-reminiscent group of hip young militants called the Black Front of Unity, and an affluent Doctor Kinkade, on the brink of a secret scientific development, and his family newly located to a white neighborhood not to happy about the prospect of a Black family moving in. In fact, one woman, furious at the prospect of the illusion of a pure white community being destroyed, explodes and threatens the family with arson, assault and mobilization of the community against them.
Now to be sure, it is a low-budget Blaxploitation film of the corniest kind. In this review I won’t be touching upon the technicality or quality of the acting, writing, plot or action, because honestly it would end there, it’s all so embarrassingly shoddy and amateurish. Granted, there are moments wherein the poor quality adds to the comedic or narrative affect. One such moment is when the titular character Abar literally rides in on the side of a garbage truck to Dr. Kinkade’s rescue while funky 70s action music plays in the background, fights two white men who are assaulting Dr, Kinkade and throws them in the garbage, enlisting his garbage truck driving-accomplices to clean up the Kinkades’ yard and throws the trash on top of the discarded men, one of whom’s leg is sticking akimbo.
The dialogue, however bad it is, also yet has many gems. One is a conversation between Abar and Dr. Kinkade wherein Abar castigates Kinkade for being affluent, bourgeoisie and white-aspiring, accusing him of no longer caring for the poor Black people he comes from and that Abar fights for. Dr. Kinkade dismisses him and his “ghetto-preaching” and says he thinks change comes from the Black voting block. Abar then says that actually doesn’t do much to achieve change because it doesn’t guarantee good politicians of any background and the ones in office currently, Black and white, weren’t changing anything. Why would the more do it? Essentially, Abar was telling Dr. Kinkade to shove his liberal sensibilities up his ass, wake up and see the desperation felt in the hoods Kinkade wished to avoid for the sake of upward mobility and, instead, use his affluence to help and move back to the hood.
The film is filled with many such class critiques of the position that Dr. Kinkade and others like him have as an affluent Black people and their clear disgust and disdain for poor and working class Black people, their affluence named by Abar and others in his crew as being stolen from poor Black folks. Dr. Kinkade is painted as a traitor to other more marginalized ghetto folks, albeit a sympathetic one only trying to do what’s best for his family and help Black people in the long run. Narratives of Black sacrifice and and martyrdom abound and dance between honest tellings and Black pain porn.
An Afrofuturistic showcasing of scientific advancement as the key to lead Black people to a brighter liberated future lies in Dr. Kinkade’s experimentations that lead Abar to develop super powers and fight the ills that plague the Black community. Dr. Kinkade and Abar fight amongst each other and within themselves about tactics and perspectives and sacrifice. Does acting respectable, obeying the law and voting for change work best? Or does the impoverished demanding freedom and taking justice in their own hands from the bottom down by any means necessary lead to true change? Dr Kinkade’s lab has a poster of Martin Luther King, Jr. looming in the back and he and Abar have multiple conversations and exchanges about his method and legacy and their thoughts and struggles with it. Abar names that he doesn’t want to be a supernatural hero, perfect. He just wants suffering to stop but to still be flawed, passionate, human.
The white neighbors are apathetic and sneering at best and overtly racist, abusive, murderous (seriously they all have guns and bombs and try their best to take this family out and succeed in killing Doctor Kinkade’s son), self-interested, cruel. The politicians, including the Black ones, want no trouble and clearly lay out a plan to use the law and pay-offs to strong arm the family out. Police murder then plant a gun on black man they shot without reason.
At the end of the movie after he discovers Dr. Kinkade’s experimentations and drinks the potion that makes him superman, Abar, who was the cool militant voice of the film, strangely enough becomes a Black Respectability Politicking Jiminy Cricket in a suit with the ability to walk around and hypnotize dark skin poor Black people to stop pimping, partying, gambling, gangbanging, drinking and robbing each other. Even though he spent the whole moving decrying the respectability of Dr. Kinkade, he inevitably becomes an image of respectability himself. He does at one point magic away a clearly wordly pastor’s fancy car away and instead make him ride a horse and buggy, and turn the fancy meals of upper class Black people belittling the state of poor Black people into maggots and worms. There’s many moments where the story is super sympathetic towards the wildly savage and violent white people constantly attacking the Black characters, but Abar and his militancy shines through at the end when he enacts Exodus-style vengeance on the racist white people of the town via plagues.
It’s cliche, but infuriating to say that it shows that not much has changed, both in the frustration that is still facing the same challenges Black people over 40 years ago faced but also in really powerful and rooting sense that we are still telling and navigating Blackness, oppression, and heroism in the face of it through media. Overall, I was struck at how many parallels, good, bad and complicated, that could be made between this movie and existing depictions and narratives in Black media today, and in political struggles of this day as well.
Aside from just good ol’ blatant racism, part of the reticence from white people towards Black superheroes and storylines is racialized anti-Black perceptions of Blackness as burdensome. That is, Blackness does not easily allow anyone, Black, white or otherwise, one to fully escape and suspend belief to immerse oneself in an alternate universe that doesn’t in that universe deal and touch upon the realities of Blackness in one way or another. Whiteness, socialized as the default blank slate, can escape all definitions and under white supremacy fully embody everyone. In tandem it does not believe Blackness can be relatable to anyone who isn’t Black nor allow Black people to abandon the constraints of this world to experience and immerse themselves in comic book and movie world either. You have to, in one way or another, face, embrace, illustrate, grapple or full on put paint the town red with Blackness if you feature Black people in your story line. Abar does it poorly and heavy-handedly, with many missteps along the way, but there are still really good moments that feel current and relatable because it is dealing with Blackness in a superhero film where the problem is oppression and the supernatural element’s goal is to liberate Black people.
It shows that this alleged narrative burden of Blackness — of always being perceived through that lens — is not alleviated by trying to shirk it and be “colorblind”. Instead, by rejecting the notion that it is a burden in the first place, and embracing Black history and narrative traditions and using them creatively in a superhero film, it expands other people’s racist narrow scope of what Black storytelling can look like in that genre while rejecting Eurocentrism and “apolitical” whiteness as the norm. If being “colorblind” and assimilating doesn’t work as political, social and cultural policy why would it work on a narrative level? Abar deals with the realities of Black life and politics in the late seventies while playing the golem. Dr Kinkade, broken by overwork and the loss of his family, reflects and broods quietly with Abar on his porch about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his fear for their people. He says that while nonviolence is a noble goal, a “strong positive force” is needed to “counteract the evil of violence.” That strong positive force is his superman concoction he convinces Abar to drink and use for the good of his people.
And so our best media-literature, comics and film-has always worked to exemplify and describe, elevate and illuminate, grapple and claim, what and how to handle and depict Blackness, the Black experience and Black people. Do you talk about Black struggles and risk only showcasing torture porn stories of suffering, poverty, exploitation, rape, slavery, gang violence and drugs, or do you try to dance around it or skip it entire and accidentally fall into white-washing and sanitizing the Black experience? Do you tell white/European stories but with Black people in them (Idris as Heimdall in Thor) or do you actually try to depict and showcase a Black/African story? Should a white person write and direct that or should they always be Black? How do you do all of this creatively while dealing with real life pushback and racism towards your artistic choices?
I’m excited for Black Panther as it has established the goal to meet these challenge head on by being as Black as possible with as many hands on deck to tell those stories well and with complexity and power. While it is still a major movie in a white industry and a white comic book universe written by a white man (and debuting just before the Black Panther party did), many Black Panther comic runs have been in its more recently history have been written by Black writers, the director and screenplay writer of the movie are Black, and most of it’s cast is Black, unambiguously so. The soundtrack, designs, inspirations, politics are all very intentionally Black and decolonial.
Again, aside from the fact that it is technically poor film, Abar falls flat in many ways, like in its depictions of how to challenge and face white supremacy, oppression and exploitation, medical experimentation and and consent/autonomy, the typical misogynoirist erasure and usage of Black women and girls as objects in a larger storyline dominated yet by men, classism and respectability. I’ll be looking out for these same things and more when I see Black Panther. But the industry, political landscape and discourse has progressed and grown and changed a lot since Abar first was made and came out. Movies like Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok follow in a much more current manifestation of the tradition that centers Black struggle, culture realities in an alternative universe so as to both give an Afrocentric spin to popular and beloved mediums, archetypes and stories and also to tell decolonial tales with a futuristic edge that showcases powerful and illustrious worlds that are not empty of Blackness but full of it as examples for us in the real world. We use these pieces of fiction to describe, reveal, tell and connect with our true selves, display what our deepest struggles, loves, and desires and lead us as people into more brilliant and creative futures. So as a lover of stories, an organizer and an Afro-Latina woman, I can’t wait to see what Black Panther has in store for us.