The Psychotronic Zone
By Ed Garea
Abar, The First Black Superman (Mirror Releasing, 1977) – Director: Frank Packard. Writers: James Smalley (story and s/p), J. Walter Smith (scenario). Stars: J. Walter Smith, Tobar Mayo, Roxie Young, Gladys Lum, Tony Rumford, Rupert Williams, Tina James, Art Jackson, Allen Ogle, Joe Alberti, Dee Turguand, Nelson Meeker, William Carrol, Jr., James Dickson, & Richard Corrigan. Color, PG, 102 minutes.
As the Blaxploitation craze died down and talents were channeled into other genres of film, a few stragglers managed to release their products on an unsuspecting audience. One that truly stands out in all its awfulness is Abar, The First Black Superman, which was released in 1977, a collaboration between black writer-producer James Smalley and white director Frank Packard. The film began in 1973 as SuperBlack, the tale of an African-American superhero who brings peace and justice to the inner city while reconciling opposing forces. In the end it became Abar, after its protagonist, an inner-city activist who becomes a superman with God-like vision and omnipotence after ingesting an experimental drug.
Shot on the fly in Baldwin Hills and Watts, Smalley ran out of money roughly one-third of the way through filming. He was forced to sell the film to Burt Steiger and his Pacific Film Labs in part to settle the unpaid lab bill.
Finished in 1975, American International Pictures expressed interest in distributing it and there was even talk of a sequel. But negotiations fell through and the film sat on the shelf for two years before being acquired by Mirror Releasing, an exploitation film-clearing house. It received a very limited distribution throughout the South, and Mirror took the step of rechristening it In Your Face for release on VHS.
Cast and helmed by amateurs, Abar has the look of a low-budget feature shot on the run. Almost no one can act, the script is ludicrous, and the direction is lacking. The plot as such concerns scientist Dr. Ken Kincade (Smith), who moves his family into an all-white neighborhood in Los Angeles. At first, the neighbors think they are the help, but when they learn the family is to be their neighbors, they go ballistic: picketing in front of the Kincades’ house, throwing garbage on their front lawn, and lynching their cat (although rumor has it that the animal committed suicide after viewing the rushes).
Needing help, Kincade drives to the inner city, where he has his offices and recruits the aid of John Abar (Mayo) and his Black Front of Unity (BFU). Abar, a real badass who has pledged his life to protect black folks in their community, winds up being hired as a live-in full-time bodyguard, all the while complaining to Kincade that the doctor is abandoning his people by moving into a white neighborhood. Unfortunately, he can’t protect Kincade’s young son, Tommie (Rumford) from being run over by one of the local racists.
At his wit’s end, Kincade decides to amp up the work on a serum that will make a man indestructible. He works in his basement laboratory, and until now, has been experimenting on making super rabbits. He asks Abar if he’s like to take a sip or two, even shooting one of his super rabbits with no effect to convince our hero. But Abar turns him down; that is, until some crackers take a few potshots at him. Now he swings the stuff down like a bottle of MD 20/20. Not only does Abar become bulletproof, but he has also acquired psychic powers and abilities that allow him to battle racism and improve his neighborhood at the same time.
After seeing a murderous honky place a bomb in front of the Kincade home and drive off, Abar is able to telepathically move the bomb and place in the honky’s front seat, where it explodes in a frenzy of footage. But it doesn’t stop there. Oh no. After blowing up the honky, Abar turns his powers to helping the black community. He sees a bunch of bums drinking cheap wine and turns their bottles into milk. He sees a pimp beating on his ho and gives the victim the powers of a kung fu master so she can return the favor. When he sees a group of teenagers wasting their time getting high, he turns them into college graduates, complete with outfits. A preacher who is just about to get into his big, shiny new Cadillac finds the car transformed into a horse and buggy, though no one in the congregation even so much as notices. Seeing a purse-snatcher, he makes the thief run and run until, totally exhausted, he returns the purse. When Dr. Kincade’s Uncle Tom friend, Dudley, exclaims, “To hell with the blacks in the ghetto,” Abar transforms his pasta dinner into one of earthworms.
Returning to the doc’s place, Abar proceeds to give one of the best incoherent speeches in bad film history, telling the incredulous doctor that the serum “released from my soul an ancient wisdom.” His powers, you see, “are of a divine origin.” Abar is only a tool, “a mirror reflecting man unto himself. By controlling the mind, I can hasten the retributive forces lodged in his unconscious mind.” Wow. Ed Wood couldn’t have written it any better. After all this speechifying, Abar then goes out and unleashes a series of Biblical plagues on the white suburbs, including lightning and thunder, rats, snakes, and bees, finally sweeping the racist crackers away with huge gusts of wind.
All this has the desired effect on the neighbors, who fall over themselves to apologize to the Kincades for being such racists. One lady even goes so far as to tell them the reason why she was so hostile to their moving in was because she is really black herself; she just passes for white.
The film does attempt to introduce some rumination on social issues, and part of the dialog between Abar and Kincade is profound and rather provocative. But it is completely undermined by the poor script and the atrocious acting, editing, soundtrack, and direction.
First, the acting: To call J. Walter Smith’s acting horrible is generous. He sounds as if he’s absentmindedly reading his lines off cue cards. There is no attempt at dramatic inflection whatsoever. But he’s comes off as Laurence Fishburne when compared to Roxie Young, who plays his wife. Her emoting over the body of her dead son almost made me break out in laughter. The only one in the cast who seems to know his way around a film set is Tobar Mayo. He was in Charles Barnett’s excellent Killer of Sheep, and appeared on television, including The Jeffersons and Mannix. He’s also a co-founder of L.A.’s Open Gate Theatre.
Interestingly both writer-producer Smalley and director Packard also disappeared after this film was made. Abar was their first – and last – credit as writer, producer, and director.
The editing is a series of quick cuts to the next scene, often without warning. And the continuity is lacking. In the scene where young Tommie confronts the bomber, we see the bomber planting his device and setting the timer. Here comes Tommy with his cap pistol and chases the man off. Unfortunately, Tommie attempts to stop the car with his face and fails miserably, as does the cameraman shooting this stunt. Meanwhile, the film ambles on and we see and hear no more of the bomb. It just disappears.
The film’s mix of real issues (such as corrupt government aid programs, crooked cops, urban blight, and lending discrimination) and the atrocious execution of its plot make for one of the campiest films to come down the pike. Abar is for connoisseurs of bad cinema; those hardy souls out there who like their product totally absurd. Compared to Packard and Smalley, Ed Wood comes off like Orson Welles.