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Abar, the First Black Superman

Abar, the First Black Superman (1977)

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Abar, the First Black Superman (1977)

It may be true irony or simply a matter of balance that a movie intending to challenge Blaxploitation stereotypes was financed, at least in part, with prostitution money and filmed in and around a working bordello. Louisiana-born James Smalley was by all accounts a pimp who threw his personal industry and prodigious street smarts behind the production of an African-American fantasy film at a time when black actors, directors, writers, and artisans seemed to be coming into their own on the heels of such films as Shaft (1971), Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (19710, Superfly (1972), The Mack (1973), and Coffy (1973). Partnering with a white screenwriter/actor, Frank Packard, Smalley began casting in 1973 for SuperBlack, the tale of a negro superhero who brings peace, justice, and reconciliation to the inner city, in so doing initiating a project whose production would stretch on for years and in the end be taken out of his hands.

Upon completion, SuperBlack would bear the onscreen title Abar, a reference to its protagonist, John Abar, a street corner activist subjected to an experimental drug that turns him into a super-human of near God-like vision and omnipotence. Finished in 1975 but unreleased for two years, Abar would take on the alternate titles Abar, the First Black Superman and Abar, Black Superman in its very limited distribution throughout the southern states and later be rechristened In Your Face for the VHS market. Smalley's seed money had run out a third of the way into production, resulting in the property being sold to Pacific Film Labs proprietor Burt Steiger in a measure to settle unpaid lab bills. Though American International Pictures had expressed an interest in distributing Abar, Black Superman, and there was discussion of a sequel, negotiations broke down and the film was shelved until it was acquired by the LA-based exploitation film clearing house Mirror Releasing.

Shot guerilla-style in Los Angeles' exclusive Baldwin Hills - a destination-of-choice for middle class and affluent blacks often dubbed the Black Beverly Hills - and in post-riot Watts, Abar, Black Superman was cast and crewed with mostly first-timers - with some exceptions. Director Frank Packard had played bit roles in low budget films (perhaps most notably as a murderous lunatic in Mohy Quandour's The Specter of Edgar Allan Poe) while leading man Tobar Mayo (a stage actor who later co-founded the LA's Open Gate Theatre) had been the title character in the porn parody The Mislayed Genie (1973). Behind the camera, Ron Garcia had already directed the exploitation classic The Toy Box (1971) and shot a score of independent features that paved his way to work on the pilot for David Lynch and Mark Frost's Twin Peaks TV series and Lynch's theatrical follow-up Fire, Walk with Me (1992). Taking over for original editor Ann Mills after Burt Steiger assumed control of the film, Jack Tucker later cut the acclaimed miniseries Shogun (1980) and The Winds of War (1983), as well as A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988).

Recalling Abar, Black Superman at the distance of forty years, both Ron Garcia and Jack Tucker describe a turbulent production in which tensions often arose along the racial divide. For a scene in which a black motorcycle gang rides to the rescue of African-American homeowners besieged by their racist white neighbors (the film's principal location was an upscale, in-plain-sight bordello), Smalley and Packard hired actual gang-affiliated bikers; instead of riding off, as promised, at the approach of LAPD prowl cars called in to shut down the permit-less production, the gang stuck around to encircle the white officers, who elected to remain safely inside their vehicles. In postproduction, producer Smalley attempted to speed up Jack Tucker's editing process by staging a faux protest outside of the editing suites, alleging racism and resulting, yet again, in the arrival of the police and a near stand-off situation. Hired to stage a car crash gag was veteran Hollywood stunt driver and effects man Harry Woolman, known in the industry by a variety of nicknames - among them Black Powder Harry, Dynamite Harry, and Three-Finger Harry - though Abar, Black Superman's biggest pyrotechnical calamity occurred when the sound editor accidentally set his Afro on fire.

Though intended to offer a vocal rejoinder to Blaxploitation, Abar, Black Superman wound up remaindered to the "Chitlin' Circuit" of southern drive-ins, to sporadic TV broadcasts and bargain bin video cassettes. Scattered cinematic revivals and a subsequent DVD release helped raise awareness but critical response rarely rises above the level of amused contempt at the film's technical shortcomings (among them, a recurring musical motif that teeters on the cusp of plagiarizing the Mission: Impossible theme) and amateur performances. Yet when assessed on its own terms, Abar, Black Superman is admirably ambitious in its bid to give voice to differing opinions within the black community: to the inclination towards restraint (as embodied by J. Walter Smith's stoic research scientist Kincaid) and to the flipside of militant proaction personified by the eponymous Abar. Packard stages the film's penultimate setpiece under the Watts Towers, a potent symbol of the 1965 riots, but unlike William Crain's Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde (1976) - which also ended with a Watts Towers standoff between its martyr-monster and the LAPD - Abar, Black Superman forfeits the comfort of a genre copout to press for a climactic reckoning of Biblical proportions.

By Richard Harland Smith

Sources:

Telephone conversation with Ronald Victor Garcia, October 5, 2015
Telephone conversation with Jack Tucker, October 6, 2015
Interview with Ronald Victor Garcia by Jim Hemphill, American Cinematographer Podcasts, TheAMC.com, 2014
Interview with Tobar Mayo by Mike White, TheProjectionBooth.com, March 16, 2011
Nightmare USA: the Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents by Stephen Thrower (FAB Press, 2007)

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