That’s Blaxploitation! 10: HELL UP IN HARLEM (AIP 1973)

I’ve covered producer/writer/director Larry Cohen’s marvelously manic work in the horror genre ( IT’S ALIVE! , GOD TOLD ME TO ), but did you know the low-budget auteur also contributed some solid entries to the Blaxploitation field? Cohen’s gangster epic BLACK CAESAR starred Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and was such a smash a sequel was rushed into production and released ten months later. HELL UP IN HARLEM picks up right where the original left off, as ‘Black Caesar’ Tommy Gibbs is set up by corrupt DA DiAngelo and shot on the streets of New York City. Tommy has possession of some ledgers with the names of all the crooked politicians and cops on his payroll, and DiAngelo and his Mafioso friends want to put him out of circulation for good. Escaping via a wild taxi ride, Tommy is back in business and out for revenge.

This enables Cohen to serve up a series of crazy/cool set pieces that moves the film forward at a dizzying speed. There’s an amphibious assault on the syndicate’s compound where the bodies pile up and the gangsters are force-fed soul food! You can’t have a 70’s flick without the obligatory sex scene, and Williamson engages in a sensuous tryst with the angelic Sister Jennifer (Margaret Avery, later an Oscar nom for THE COLOR PURPLE). A moody scene highlighting 42nd Street in its sleazy 70’s heyday (there’s even a movie poster for Klaus Kinski’s ’71 giallo SLAUGHTER HOTEL!) finds the traitorous Zach (Tony King) murdering Tommy’s ex Helen (Gloria Hendry) in a dark alley. Tommy chases Zach from New York to LA in an improbable scene that winds up in a Los Angeles airport. Tommy’s final acts of retribution include slamming a beach umbrella through the sunning torso of Mafia chief Joe Frankfurter, and other gruesome highlights!

HELL UP IN HARLEM has a massive body count, crazy cartoonish violence, tough banter, and even some brief  kung-fu action thrown in for good measure! Former NFL/AFL star Williamson was one of the genre’s most charismatic stars, looking sharp in those totally outrageous 70’s outfits, and runs through the film like an All-Pro defensive back (which he was!). Julius Harris steals the show as Tommy’s Big Papa, adding to his list of colorful characterizations in films like SUPER FLY, TROUBLE MAN, and LIVE AND LET DIE. He even gets his own theme song, the funky “Big Papa”:

The funk/jazz score by Fonce Mizell (who co-wrote many of the Jackson 5’s hits) and Freddie Perren (the disco anthem “I Will Survive”) features the gruff vocal talents of Motown’s Edwin Starr, whose hits included “Agent Double-O Soul”, “Twenty Five Miles”, and the classic track “War”, later covered by Bruce Springsteen. HELL UP IN HARLEM was obviously a rush job to capitalize on the success of BLACK CAESAR, but Larry Cohen doesn’t fail to disappoint his audience, cramming in action scene after action scene. It’s sexy and violent and complete nonsense, but somehow Cohen and his cast make it work on a shoestring budget and a warped sense of humor.

Now enjoy Edwin Starr lip-synching “War”, along with the funky gyrations of the SOUL TRAIN dancers:

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That’s Blaxploitation! 9: THREE THE HARD WAY (Allied Artists 1974)

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An All-Star Blaxploitation cast barrels their way through THREE THE HARD WAY, director Gordon Parks Jr.’s ultra-violent classic that dives into action from jump street and rarely lets up on the gas pedal straight through til the end. It’s the quintessential 70’s action flick whose thin plot only serves to weave a tapestry of wild action set pieces and well-staged stunt work courtesy of stunt coordinator Hal Needham and his stellar stunt gang.

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We’re lured into the action right from the get-go in a pre-credits scene of a desperate young black man escaping from a concentration-camp-like compound. He makes it to L.A. and contacts his friend, the BMW-driving, hot-shot record producer Jimmy Lait, played by NFL great Jim Brown . The kid is then assassinated in his hospital bed and Jimmy’s girl Wendy (Sheila Fraser) is kidnapped. A scene change lets us in on the plot, as white supremacist Monroe Feather and evil scientist Dr. Fortero have designed a “scientific” final solution to the race problem by spiking the water supplies of urban areas with a poison that kills only black folks!

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Jimmy then enlists two of his old pals to help foil the fiendish plot and save Wendy. Another football player turned actor, Fred ‘The Hammer’ Williamson, is studly Chicago PR man Jagger Daniels. Williamson was already a Blaxploitation icon for films like BLACK CEASAR and HELL UP IN HARLEM, and he and Brown have good screen chemistry (the pair would appear together in four other films). Then it’s on to Washington to recruit Mister Keyes, played by BLACK BELT JONES star Jim Kelly, whose incredible kung-fu moves made up for his lack of acting talent. These three bad-asses proceed to take on the villainous Feather’s army, winding up in an explosive finale that’s violent, bloody, and loads of fun.

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I’ve got to mention the titanic trio of topless female torturers who pop up, riding in garbed in red, white, and blue on matching Kawasakis to dole out punishment on a captured racist. They’re Countess (Playboy cover girl Pamela Serpe), Empress (Irene Tsu of HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI and PARADISE HAWAIIAN STYLE), and Princess (Marie O’Henry of DELIVER US FROM EVIL and DR. BLACK, MR. HYDE)….

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…and they’re a riotous highlight! They should’ve gotten their own film!

Crazy Jay Robinson, who played Caligula in THE ROBE and DEMETRIOS AND THE GLADIATORS, bring his oily talents to the role of Monroe Feather, and wasn’t even Oscar nominated (I know, I know, but he really is good in the part)! Familiar Faces include Charles McGregor (SUPER FLY’s Fat Freddie), Howard Platt (Officer Hoppy of SANFORD AND SON), Alex Rocco (THE GODFATHER), martial artist David Chow (who joins Kelly in a wild battle against some goons), and a young Corbin Bernsen. Richard Tufo composed the score, with songs by Curtis Mayfield’s old group The Impressions. Veteran Lucien Ballard capably handles the cinematography with his usual style.

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As far-fetched and unbelievable as THREE THE HARD WAY is, its non-stop action and likable stars kept me entertained all the way, and that’s exactly what I want out of a movie. It’s one of the definitive films in the Blaxploitation canon, and if you’re a fan like me, you’re gonna love this one. Get that popcorn ready, and enjoy!

That’s Blaxploitation! 8: SUPER FLY (Warner Brothers 1972)

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Pimpmobiles, outrageous fashions, and the funkiest score in movie history are only part of what makes SUPER FLY one of the best Blaxploitation/Grindhouse hits of all time. This low-budget film by director Gordon Parks Jr. captures the grittiness of 70’s New York in a way few larger productions ever could in its portrait of a street hustler yearning to get out of the life.

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Priest is a New York City coke dealer with all the outward trappings of success. As his partner Eddie puts it, he’s got “8-Track stereo, color TV in every room, and you can snort a half piece of dope every day… that’s the American dream, nigga! Ain’t it?”. To Priest, the answer is no. He’s tired of the hustle, the rip-off artists, and the deadbeats like Fat Freddie, and he’s got a plan to get out for good by scoring 30 keys through his mentor Scatter, selling them in four months, making a million dollars, and saying goodbye to the streets once and for all.

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But Priest’s plan hits a few snags when Fat Freddie gets busted and rats him out, triggering crooked cops led by a Deputy Commissioner to pull Priest and Eddie back in, making them an offer they can’t refuse to work for The Man. Eddie’s all for it, but Priest’s determined to quit after Scatter’s lugged by the cops and shot full of heroin, causing is death. Priest demands his half of the cash from Eddie, who promptly calls The Man. But once again, Priest’s got a plan to stick it to The Man one last time…

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SUPER FLY made a superstar out of Ron O’Neal- for a brief, shining moment anyway. Primarily a stage actor before this, O’Neal lights up the screen as the iconic anti-hero Priest, and gave him enough clout to direct the sequel, 1973’s SUPER FLY TNT. The sequel bombed at the box office however, and his subsequent film career saw him cast in mostly supporting roles: THE MASTER GUNFIGHTER (with BILLY JACK star Tom Laughlin), WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, A FORCE OF ONE, RED DAWN, and Larry Cohen’s ORIGINAL GANGSTERS, with fellow Blaxploitaion icons Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Jim Brown, and Richard Roundtree. Ron O’Neal, forever SUPER FLY, passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2004.

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The other cast members aren’t household names, but will be familiar to genre fans. Carl Lee (Eddie) appeared in GORDON’S WAR as well as the exploitationer  WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS . (He was also the son of boxer/actor Canada Lee, noted for Hicthcock’s LIFEBOAT and the boxing noir BODY AND SOUL). Sheila Frazier (Priest’s main squeeze Georgia) was in 70’s films THE SUPER COPS, THREE THE HARD WAY, CALIFORNIA SUITE, and tons of TV guest shots. The great Julius Harris (Scatter) has an impressive resume that includes TROUBLE MAN, BLACK CAESAR, HELL UP IN HARLEM, and the James Bond outing LIVE AND LET DIE. Charles McGregor (Fat Freddie) can be seen in ACROSS 110th STREET and COME BACK CHARLESTON BLUE, among others. Producer Sig Shore pulls double duty by playing the crooked Commissioner Reardon.

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Director Gordon Parks Jr’s dad was a famous writer, photographer, and filmmaker who practically single-handedly ushered in the Blaxploitation film movement with his mega-hit SHAFT. But while the elder Parks’ protagonist was a more traditional hero, Parks Jr.’s star is an outlaw, working outside the constrains of society. Not to mention SHAFT had a way bigger budget than SUPER FLY’s paltry $58,000. Both films scored big at the box office though, and a genre was born. Kudos must go to DP James Signorelli, whose photography of New York street life is outstanding, and whose memorable staging of a steamy, soapy sex scene between O’Neal and Frazier still sizzles. Signorelli has worked for decades now producing most of the filmed parody segments on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Any discussion of SUPER FLY wouldn’t be complete without spotlighting Curtis Mayfield’s amazing soundtrack. The former lead singer of The Impressions’ urban soul/funk provides the perfect backdrop for the film’s down-and-dirty mood. As big a hit as the film was, the soundtrack album was an enormous success. Even white kids like me used to cruise around listening to “Superfly”, “Pusherman”, and “Freddie’s Dead” on our 8-Tracks (yes, 8-Tracks!). Mayfield and his band even appear in the film, playing “Pusherman” at Scatter’s club:

Fans of Blaxploitation/Grindhouse movies who haven’t yet seen SUPER FLY are depriving themselves of a genuine 70’s classic. It’s one of those films that captures the times perfectly, and influenced future filmmakers like John Singleton (BOYS N THE HOOD) and Ernest Dickerson (JUICE). “The game he plays he plays for keeps/Hustlin’ times and ghetto streets/Tryin’ to get over” indeed!

More “That’s Blaxploitation!”:

BLACK BELT JONES

BLACULA

FOXY BROWN

ABAR THE BLACK SUPERMAN

The CLEOPATRA JONES Saga

TOGETHER BROTHERS

TROUBLE MAN

 

 

That’s Blaxploitation! 7: TROUBLE MAN (20th Century-Fox 1972)

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One of the earliest Blaxploitaion films is TROUBLE MAN, a 1972 entry about Mr T…

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…no, not THAT Mr. T! THIS Mr. T…

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Thank you! This Mr. T is played by Robert Hooks, a tough talking private eye who drives a big-ass Lincoln Continental and “fixes troubles” on the mean streets of L.A. T gets hired by gangsters Chalky Price and Pete Cockrell to protect their crap games, which are getting ripped off by masked gunmen. Things go awry when Chalky shoots one of the heisters, a dude named Abby who works for rival gangster “Big”. Abby’s body is dumped and word is on the streets T did the killing. Police Capt. Joe Marx puts the heat on T, as does “Big”, so T arranges a late night summit between “Big”, Chalky, and Pete at Jimmy’s Pool Hall .  “Big” arrives, but before Chalky and Pete do, some cops raid the joint. These cops aren’t what they seem, and gun down “Big”. T is framed again, and figures out the two hoods have set him up, so he goes out for revenge in a violent and bloody climax.

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TROUBLE MAN is noted for its score by Motown legend Marvin Gaye and not much else. It didn’t do well at the box office, but it’s not as bad as some say.”Routine” would be a good word to describe it. Robert Hooks was primarily a stage actor who’d broken the color barrier as the first black to star in a weekly TV dramatic series, N.Y.P.D (Bill Cosby in I SPY notwithstanding, which had as much comedy as drama). The cast is full of seasoned pros like Paul Winfield (SOUNDER, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN), Ralph Waite (THE WALTONS), Julius Harris (LIVE AND LET DIE), William Smithers (PAPILLION, DALLAS), Paula Kelly (SOYLENT GREEN ), and Bill Henderson, a jazz singer who acted in dozens of films and TV episodes. Others in the cast are Gordon Jump (WKRP IN CINCINNATI), Nathaniel Taylor (Rollo in SANFORD & SON), real-life pool shark Texas Blood, and former welterweight champion Danny “Little Red” Lopez.

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The problem lies in John D.F. Black’s script, which “borrows” heavily from his script for SHAFT, transplanting the character to the West Coast. Some of the dialogue is pretty lame: “You fuckin’ A-right I’m right!”, declares T at one point (Although my favorite line is when one of the henchmen says things went “like sippin’ whiskey… smooth as fuckin’ silk”).Black did much better work on the original STAR TREK series. The direction by HOGAN’S HEROES actor Ivan Dixon is pedestrian at best, only coming to life at the movie’s bloody climax. I think 20th Century-Fox had high hopes for TROUBLE MAN, but when it tanked at the box office no sequels were made.

TROUBLE MAN is just okay, but could’ve been much better with more inspired direction and a stronger script. It’s just kind of mediocre; take out the swearing and the blood, and you’ve got your basic TV detective show. Maybe that’s the route they should’ve taken, and turned it into a weekly series. As it stands, it’s one of the lesser entries in the Blaxploitation catalogue.

 

That’s Blaxploitation! 6: TOGETHER BROTHERS (20th Century Fox 1973)

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Many Blaxploitation films of the 70’s feature super-bad ass-kickers like Shaft, Superfly, or Cleopatra Jones, but the heroes of TOGETHER BROTHERS are a motley crew of street punks in this unheralded but well done film. Shot in Galveston, Texas, and featuring a cast of unknowns as the gang, TOGETHER BROTHERS is a gritty urban thriller about some boys in the hood on the hunt for a psycho cop killer. The movie gives a realistic look at ghetto life and street culture that’s as relevant today as it was forty years ago.

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Black patrol cop “Mr. Kool” is respected around the ghetto for being fair with its denizens, including young HJ and his posse. When he’s brutally shot to death by a mysterious assailant, HJ’s little brother Tommy witnesses the killing, and is so traumatized he’s rendered mute. HJ and the others (Mau Mau, AP, Monk) feel “the street owes Mr. Kool”, and begin their own investigation. With the aid of rival Chicano gang leader Vega, the two crews stage a fake rumble while HJ and Vega sneak into the police station and steal Mr. Kool’s arrest files, hoping for mug shots to show Tommy. No pictures are provided, so the gang takes names and search the streets, hitting the pool halls and whorehouses of Galveston for leads. They find a connection through drag queen Maria that leads them to Billy Most, a recently paroled convicted kidnapper and child molester. Billy Most became unhinged during his last prison bid, and he goes after Tommy, violently stabbing HJ’s prostitute girlfriend to death in the process. Now the chase is on as Tommy is stalked by the madman, with HJ and the others in hot pursuit to save the child and avenge Mr. Kool.

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As I said before, TOGETHER BROTHERS features unknown actors in the leads, and despite their relative inexperience, they do quite well conveying the bleak world of street life. Ahmed Nurradin is especially good as HJ, the gang’s leader. He’s tough on the outside, but shows tenderness toward little bro Tommy, who idolizes him. Among the more familiar faces, Mr. Kool is played by Ed Bernard, known for his television work on POLICE WOMAN and THE WHITE SHADOW. Glynn Turman (COOLEY HIGH, JD’S REVENGE) has a small part as a child psychologist. Lincoln Kilpatrick (THE OMEGA MAN, Soylent Green , THE MASTER GUNFIGHTER) is Billy Most, and his portrayal of the twisted, tormented killer is a tour de force that’s worth the price of admission.

William A. Graham got his start in episodic TV (NAKED CITY, 12 O’CLOCK HIGH, THE FUGITIVE, even a two-part BATMAN), before directing his first feature, the James Coburn Western WATERHOLE #3. Graham only directed a handful of theatrical movies, but truly made his mark in the TV Movie genre during the 70’s and 80’s, helming over fifty of them! Some of his better known titles are THIEF!, BEYOND THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE, THE AMAZING HOWARD HUGHES, CONTRACT ON CHERRY STREET (starring Frank Sinatra in a comeback role), WOMEN OF SAN QUENTIN, and CALENDAR GIRL MURDERS.

The funky score is by 70’s disco/soul maestro Barry White and his Love Unlimited Orchestra. White was born in Galveston, and knew a thing or two about the streets before becoming the velvety smooth bass voice of young lovers everywhere. TOGETHER BROTHERS is more raw and down-to-earth than your average Blaxpolitation film, with solid street cred and no jive, and a memorable villain in Lincoln Kilpatrick. It’s well worth your time, and deserves a chance to be rediscovered.

Other “That’s Blaxploitation!” posts:

That’s Blaxpolitation! 5: The CLEOPATRA JONES Saga

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Standing six-foot-two, the beautiful former model Tamara Dobson was Warner Brothers’ answer to Pam Grier. The first female action star, Grier was killing it at the box office with hits like COFFY and FOXY BROWN, and Warners’ cast the Amazonian Dobson in the title role of CLEOPATRA JONES (1973). While Dobson made a foxy badass mama in the role, she wasn’t a very good actress. Which is alright in the world of action films, as long as the violence comes fast and hard, and CLEOPATRA JONES delivers in that department.

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Our girl Cleo is a special government agent in Turkey helping to wipe out some large poppy fields (“Thirty million worth of shit”, says Cleo). This causes drug smuggling crime boss Mommy to freak out and seek revenge. Mommy is played by Shelley Winters in one of her patented over the top roles, wearing a series of bad wigs and screeching at the top of her lungs. Mommy sics her goons on Cleo’s pet charity, a rehab for addicts run by her boyfriend. When Cleo gets back stateside, there’s hell to pay as she takes down Mommy’s gang of cutthroats with the aid of her street friends.

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There’s plenty of car chases, kung-fu fighting, and close calls here, along with plenty of familiar faces. Antonio Fargas plays Mommy’s rival Doodlebug, a flashy dresser looking to cut in on her turf. Bernie Casey is Cleo’s love interest, Brenda Sykes a hooker, Bill McKinney as a corrupt cop, and Esther (GOOD TIMES) Rolle as a diner owner whose two sons, Malcom and Melvin, are kung-fu experts that help Cleo take down Mommy and her thugs. Even SOUL TRAIN impresario Don Cornelius makes a cameo appearance. CLEOPATRA JONES didn’t cover any new ground in the Blaxploitation field, but it did well enough at the box office to warrant a sequel two years later.

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1975’s CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD came next, and it’s one of the rare instances where I liked the sequel better than the original. This time around, Cleo’s in Hong Kong up against the villainous Dragon Lady, played by a spectacular looking Stella Stevens as a lesbian drug queen. Norman Fell is Stanley, Cleo’s liason/agent-in-charge, who warns Cleo to tow the line. Maalcom and Melvin are back, but this time they’re more of comic relief than kick-ass kung-fu fighters. The action’s handled by Dobson and her co-star Ni Tien (billed here as Tanny), playing a private eye who’s more than a match for Cleo. Hong Kong cinema legend Run Run Shaw is credited as co-producer, and he definitely knew his chop-socky action flicks (FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH, MAN OF IRON, LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES). CASINO OF GOLD is more a traditional action flick than just another funky Blaxploitationer, and could’ve continued as a James Bond-like series, with Dobson much better suited to the glamorous international spy role than street chick. But box office returns were poor for this entry, and Warners pulled the plug on the Cleopatra Jones series.

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Tamara Dobson’s film career went south after that. Her few remaining credits included a stint on the Saturday morning sci-fi show JASON OF STAR COMMAND, featuring STAR TREK’s James Doohan and the great Sid Haig as the cosmic bad guy. She died of MS in her hometown of Baltimore in 2006 at age 59, leaving behind her two CLEOPATRA JONES films as her legacy. Both are fun to watch, with CASINO OF GOLD especially as a precursor to what could have been. They’re definitely worth rediscovering for lovers of action and Blaxploitation movies. Thanks for the memories, Cleo.

 

That’s Blaxploitation 4: ABAR THE BLACK SUPERMAN (Mirror Releasing 1977)

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When TCM Underground announced they were running something called ABAR THE BLACK SUPERMAN last Saturday at 2AM, I just had to record it. For one thing, I’d never heard of it, and for another, it sounded so cheesy I knew I had to take a look. So last night (after watching the mighty New England Patriots vanquish their arch-enemies, the hated New York Giants), I settled into my recliner and pressed play. What I got was unexpected, and though the film is cheaply shot, with high-school level acting and no technical skills behind the cameras, it’s a game attempt at trying something different within the confines of the Blaxploitaion genre.

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Dr. Ken Kinkade, a researcher working on a top secret grant project, and his family move into an affluent white neighborhood, and immediately become victims of white bigotry. The neighbors protest outside the Kinkade’s home,  hurling garbage onto the lawn, until members of the BFU (Black Front of Unity) arrive. Led by radical John Abar, the BFU defend the Kinkades, but urge them to return to the ghetto and help their own people. Dr. Kinkade’s grateful for the assistance, but refuses to leave, despite having the family’s pet cat hung at his front door, and a coffin placed on his sidewalk.

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When Kinkade’s son is run down in the street by a hostile white, he reveals to Abar the secret of his experiments.  He’s developed a formula to create superhumans, ala Captain America. Abar drinks the potion and is transformed. But not in the way you’d think, and here’s where the film loses steam.  Instead of becoming a superhero battling the racists, he’s given “psychic powers” that turn cops against each other, winos into milk drinkers, a Cadillac into a horse-and-buggy,  and street corner hoods into college grads. Abar can also control the elements, and causes a series of plagues to befall the white folks (hurricane winds, rats, snakes). The whites finally learn to accept their black neighbors, and Abar walks off into the sunset as the credits roll with Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dram” speech playing him out.

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The producer, writer, and director were attempting a “message” film, and maybe with a proper budget they would’ve succeeded. As it stands, ABAR will go down as a gallant try. Have race relations improved since this late 70’s movie? I’ll leave that to the news channel pundits to debate. This is a film blog, not a political soapbox, so I’ll just say that if you’re looking for something out of the ordinary then catch ABAR next time it’s shown. It’s a thought provoking film mixing social commentary and sci-fi that is worth viewing despite the rock-bottom production values and  misleading title. You may be pleasantly surprised.