BAM pays tribute to warriors and survivors with 'Fight the Power: Black Superheroes on Film'

ScreenerBlog

Many of the heroes kicking ass and taking names in BAMcinématek’s 28-film series “Fight the Power: Black Superheroes on Film” (Feb. 2-18) share one chief superpower: They survive their battles. Chased down by racists and demons, posses and police, drug kingpins, queenpins and supervillains, they all manage—unlike any black guy in an Alien movie—to make it to the end credits intact, prepared to fight another day.

And while their counterparts of other Earth-derived and alien races might be off saving galaxies, these daughters and sons of the African diaspora, more often than not, have their hands full saving their neighborhoods, serving their cities and villages. They’re too occupied protecting their people to be off hunting down Tesseracts, or other Marvel movie MacGuffins. BAM’s Black Superheroes have to get things done closer to home.

It’s fitting that the major Marvel Studios comic-book adaptation Black Panther, which serves as inspiration for the Brooklyn BAM program, also features a superhero who has to tend home fires before jetting off-planet with gods and androids. In the case of Black Panther, home is the fictional African nation of Wakanda, a monarchy rich in a mineral resource that’s been mined for centuries, and carefully hidden from the outside world. And even there, on his home turf, the Panther is hunted.

Such is a running theme throughout history, and throughout this adventurous, genre-spanning film series: black humanity hunted and terrorized, or chained and enslaved. The powers worth fighting—racial hatred, inequality, oppression, crime and indifference—pose a distinct threat to black communities. In the real world, those communities need leaders like Harriet, Martin, Malcolm, Medgar and Rosa, heroes possessed of superhuman resolve and selflessness, who can be beacons of hope and progress. The real world produces precious few such true heroes.

So, fantasy supplies some wish fulfillment. In fictional worlds when the powers worth fighting seem too powerful, and the struggle for equality seems insurmountable by means of peaceful resistance, the broken and oppressed can turn to a superhero to fight their battles. While not every hero in these “Fight the Power” films strictly qualifies as a superhero in the “leaps tall buildings in a single bound” sense of the word, each of them wields a superhuman commitment to saving communities and lives, even if the lives they save are just their own.

Again, survival is a superpower, especially for the hero that opens the series, in Melvin Van Peebles’ landmark 1971 Blaxploitation flick, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Unjustly accused of murder and chased out of the ghetto, Sweetback outwits or out-fights cops, criminals and evil bikers in order to preserve himself and, notably, his prodigious manhood, in this X-rated, wildly experimental, politically incendiary sextravaganza.

The product of Van Peebles’ singular cinematic vision—he directed, produced, wrote, edited, scored and starred in the film—Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song stands as a testament to, if nothing else, the filmmaker’s superhuman commitment to telling the story of this anti-authoritarian protagonist. As an introduction to the issues black communities face in many of the series’ films, from poverty and discrimination to police brutality, Sweetback’s is an excellent choice to launch the “Fight the Power” program, although the movie’s raw, idiosyncratic production and repetitive pacing can feel at times indulgent.

There are similar drawbacks to Abar: The First Black Superman, the little-seen and equally strange 1977 Blaxploitation action-drama (also know by its home-video title, In Your Face) that’s paired with Sweetback’s. However, Abar merits a closer look for its still-trenchant exploration of the struggle. Starring Tobar Mayo as the eponymous radical activist who’s turned into a superhero by a doctor’s miraculous serum, the film opens on protesters in the hood demonstrating for better jobs and education, and against corrupt politicians.

More concerned with the message than with the action, which is sparse, the film takes its time arriving at the superhero transformation audiences have been trained to expect. And when it does arrive, Abar strikes a figure closer to that of Carrie than Kal-El, as he employs newly acquired telekinetic abilities to battle various blights of the ghetto: a ruthless pimp, a Cadillac-driving preacher, winos, muggers and dice-rollers. Abar strives to protect his people from the Man and from predators within the community.

Yet, his most radical act of superheroism is to hold accountable those middle and upper-class black folks who achieve success, then turn their backs on their poor brothers and sisters left behind. His message resonated through the Black Power movement, and remains a relevant, urgent plea for unity.

No man, woman or child left behind is many a hero’s credo, and the black superheroes featured in these films exemplify that ethos—none more so than the cowboy savior Buck, in the rousing 1972 western Buck and the Preacher, directed by and starring Sidney Poitier. Roaming the post-Civil War Western territories, Buck is dedicated to guiding intrepid black frontier folk, ex-slaves seeking a home of their own, towards their piece of the American dream.

The harsh, inhospitable landscape is especially unwelcoming for these innocent settlers, whose opportunities are limited, and whose lives and resources are constantly under attack by hostile whites who’d happily see black Americans returned to bondage. It’s up to Buck, an expert gunslinger with an extraordinary habit of appearing out of thin air, to deliver this wagon train from evil.

Enlivened by a remarkably socially aware script, a fine cast and score, and a broadly comic turn by Harry Belafonte as the duplicitous preacher in the title, Buck and the Preacher marks one of the series’ many highlights.

In the transcendent form of Poitier, Hollywood’s original black movie star, Buck epitomizes the intelligence and courage of a hero, as well as the physical strength and prowess that inspire fear and awe in others. As such, he has a brother in the capoeirista hero of the 2009 Brazilian martial-arts actioner released in the U.S. as The Assailant, but known worldwide by its hero’s name, Besouro, another highly entertaining entry in the program.

The “black beetle who flies,” Besouro, based on a real-life Afro-Brazilian legend, battles cold-blooded, gun-toting racist colonialists around a sugar plantation in Bahia in 1924. Hunted by the Man and forced to live as an outcast, his allegiance is to his friends and loved ones, still stuck working the plantations. His cause is for the dignity of all black people in Brazil, the last nation in the Americas to abolish the African slave trade.

His glorious, gravity-defying capoeira moves, devised by Kill Bill fight choreographer Huan-Chiu Ku, recall the most thrilling moments of wu xia epics like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, even if the performances here are not, in general, of that caliber. Still, the black beetle is a marvel to behold, and the film, directed by João Daniel Tikhomiroff, feels genuine in its reverence for Afro-Brazilian spiritual lore.

The movie’s sense of humor, on the other hand, is charmingly irreverent, an element of style that also animates 1973 spy comedy Cleopatra Jones. The “Fight the Power” series finds perhaps its apotheosis of black beauty and strength in the image of Cleo, portrayed by statuesque former model Tamara Dobson, peering off a Turkish hillside, delivering orders to burn down a field of poppies.

Featuring scenery-chewing supporting turns by Antonio Fargas and Oscar-winner Shelley Winters, not to mention Dobson’s boss fur and turban-filled wardrobe, Cleopatra Jones is the Blaxploitation flick, of the several included here, that perhaps best holds up as campy, post-modern fun. Though, as a fierce, independent woman who’s strong and sexy, Cleo stands beside the preeminent Blaxploitation heroine, Pam Grier’s Foxy Brown (1974), who’s also on hand to save her family and her hood from pushers, pimps and lowlifes.

The 2004 comic superhero not-quite adaptation Catwoman, starring another Oscar-winner, Halle Berry, had all the potential to extend Cleo and Foxy’s badass legacy of battle-ready black female superheroes into the new millennium. But the film, directed by one-named auteur Pitof, who hasn’t since been handed the keys to a studio feature, was a colossal disappointment financially, and to Catwoman’s comic-book fans.

Somehow not as bad but just as bad as it’s reputed to be, Catwoman seems an odd choice for this otherwise solid program. The weakly plotted tale of artist Patience Phillips, who has to die and resurrect to attain her power, is a stunning panoply of bad decisions, from the uninspired villain to the decision to scrap any shred of Catwoman’s comic-book alter ego, Selina Kyle. The film’s main achievement is that it enters rarefied so-bad-it’s-good territory, where it waits, like a mouse on a string, to be batted about by a game crowd of irony-slinging moviegoers.

Yet, regardless of its relative quality, Catwoman definitely delivers, on some level, wish fulfillment for a black audience who, exhausted from seeing depictions of their ancestors being whipped and beaten, can take pleasure in the sight of leather-clad Catwoman cracking the whip. Ultimately, she is her own master.

So too are the heroes of Shaft (1971), Black Dynamite (2009) and, in his own studied fashion, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), all powerful distillations of the lone black hero patrolling the inner city.

The future of the onscreen black hero also is powerfully represented, in writer-director Sharon Lewis’ Caribbean post-apocalyptic science-fiction feature Brown Girl Begins, which screens with Khris Burton’s intriguing short, “SO.CI3.TY,” set in the year 3050.

An actor who already in his young career has helped shape the future of the black screen hero, John Boyega, made his breakthrough film appearance in the 2011 London-set sci-fi comedy Attack the Block, another highlight of the series, and a treat to catch here on a big screen. Boyega stars as Moses, who starts out as a criminal before emerging as a planetary hero.

Moses’ story might easily be interpreted as the poignant journey of a flawed young man from a project flat who rises to the challenge of defending his friends, his life and his block. Except Moses and his crew aren’t fighting just racist cops and heartless drug dealers. They’re also battling an angry, hormonal horde of vicious alien space monsters, and no one is safe.

Written and directed by Joe Cornish, who would go on to co-write Marvel’s big-budget superhero adventure Ant-Man, Attack the Block is an action-packed, hilarious commentary on the social conditions that heroes in nearly every one of these films must face. The force that runs through Cleo and Abar and Buck and Besouru runs strong through Moses too. His hood is his cause, his people are his lifeblood, his battle starts at home—and he survives. Fight the power, brothers and sisters, for the future awaits.