With the critical and commercial success of Black Panther, the word "unprecedented" has become ubiquitous in recent pop culture discourse. True, there's never been a superhero film this big, this expensive, and with this kind of marketing push predominantly made by and starring black artists. But there have been other black superhero films, many of which are seeing their historical standing fall by the wayside in the mainstream conversation. Wesley Snipes' sterling work in the Blade films paved the way for all of Marvel's current success, not just with this recent outing. Even the otherwise divisive Spawn adaptation from 1997 was fronted by Black Dynamite's Michael Jai White. (The less said about Steel, the better.)
But if the gatekeepers of geekdom are going to engage in a Lensman Arms Race of what came first in the quest for diverse representation in the world of capes, we're going to have to dig deeper. No, we're not talking about 1993's Meteor Man, the underrated Robert Townsend gem that brought the Richard Donner Superman aesthetic to the 'hood. We've got to go back even further, to 1977's Abar, The First Black Superman, an absolutely unique curio in the history of black superheroes on the big screen.
Conceived by Louisiana pimp-turned-screenwriter James Smalley as a counterpoint to the blaxploitation movies of the era, Abar was designed from the outset to be a more cerebral exploration of a fantasy premise. The same way Shaft dramatized a redistribution of power — a black man with a badge leading a cop flick — Smalley wanted to know what would happen if a brother was gifted superhuman abilities. But the answer he arrived at is nothing like what you might imagine from a film made during this era.
Abar is the tale of two men: affluent scientist Dr. Kinkade (J. Walter Smith) and John Abar (Tobar Mayo), a local revolutionary who becomes his bodyguard. When the film begins, Kinkade has moved his family into an upscale, white neighborhood, upsetting the status quo irreparably. They experience a level of racism that, when presented inside this heightened simulacrum of the real world, borders on the comedic. Discrimination is no laughing matter, but director Frank Packard stages the harassment the Kinkades encounter with the same bluntness usually reserved for a Zucker brothers parody film. (There's a particular scene where a neighbor emphatically calls Kinkade's son a "pickaninny," which sounds more like a Chappelle Show sketch than anything out of a dramatic film.) Abar and his friends decide to take a stand and become Kinkade's personal security to ensure the doctor remains safe as the whites escalate in their efforts to scare his family away.
Kinkade and Abar are philosophical opposites. Abar believes the doctor's skills would be better served by moving to the ghetto with him and helping their people out, while Kinkade keeps the details of his research a closely held secret, refusing to extricate himself from a white space out of fear. Everything about the film seems concerned with their differing viewpoints. This is best exemplified in a pair of near-identical scenes where Kinkade's children ask each man for a bedtime story. Abar tells the kids about Deadwood Dick, a black cowboy who fought for what was his with necessary violence, while Kinkade offers an idealistic speech about racial equality.
This all comes to a head when the mystery of Kinkade's work is revealed. He's created a serum that bestows nebulously defined superpowers, but when it works on Abar, a man whose ideals are diametrically opposed to his own, Kinkade grows fearful he's created a monster. Here is where Abar forks from expectations. Given that this is an independently produced film from the late '70s, filmed in and around a functioning bordello, it wouldn't be unfair to assume the superheroic element of the movie to be exploitative and over-the-top. Perhaps Abar would don a garish uniform and start slugging racists through brick walls and flying over buildings and the like. But Abar is a very different kind of "superman."
Once his abilities manifest, Abar has more in common with Doctor Manhattan from Watchmen than any other costumed vigilante. Rather than the usual mixture of enhanced strength, speed, and durability proffered from super soldier-type serums, Abar's powers appear more like magic, with amorphous, reality-bending implications. Some of this might have been purely a production decision, as these powers were far easier to film on a low budget. Every time Abar does something superhuman, the camera cuts to an imposing close-up of his face, then cuts away to the intended target of his superior mind, letting the cinematic principle of the Kuleshov effect do the heavy visual lifting.
Though the film makes the audience wait a solid hour before getting to see Abar cut loose, the entire third act is an onslaught of his own making. In very quick succession, Abar defeats an entire crew of police officers by deflecting their bullets with his mind, then making them fight each other like Killgrave in Jessica Jones. But that's perhaps the only outwardly violent use of his powers. Rather than concocting some kind of supervillain for Abar to battle, he points his powers at the ills of the black community, with an expression of superhumanity that more closely hews to the existential than the action-packed. Meanwhile, Kinkade seeks to stop his creation — the Frankenstein to Abar's monster — to no avail.
Abar passes a group of men pounding forties and playing dice on the corner, transforming their booze to milk. He stops a young man from mugging an older woman before instantaneously turning a group of sex workers into college graduates. While passing a family of bougie blacks talking down on the ghetto over dinner in the suburbs, Abar replaces the food in their mouths with worms. By the time his gaze turns to the white neighborhood Kinkade lives in, his wrath turns Biblical, manifesting snakes and rats into the homes of these bigots, a massive scale reckoning that the film's conclusion implies is merely a start.
In 2018, it's an astonishing viewing experience to see the tone and complexity of an Alan Moore comic grafted onto the lo-fi aesthetic of a blaxploitation film, but Abar remains influential. Oh, sure, it's unintentionally hilarious at times, and the performances are more wooden than Groot, but Abar broke barriers in one very important way. Like Black Panther, it's a film less interested in an evil white boogeyman than in tackling the thornier topic of conflicting opinions within the black community.
By showing blackness as a prismatic spectrum of ideas and beliefs, it frees black characters on screen from being trapped inside a mythical monolith. Maybe Ryan Coogler has never seen Abar, but its fingerprints are still palpable on one of the biggest films of the year.