At the end of the summer, we will still find ourselves without a major mainstream film with a central/title superhero of color. Comic fans know that Captain America will be black and there is still talks of a Black Panther film that sometimes looks as if it will never come to fruition. And a woman of color with her own superhero film: forget it. The only representation we have are fan films.
Like my fellow black geeks and nerds, this does disappoint me. Fans should not have to use their own resources in order to see themselves on screen when we so obviously will support a major production with a person of color in the lead. However, some fans of superhero films have grown up and at some point or another, attempted to create these representations we crave.
Robert Townsend is one of these fans.
Like most of the black-cast films I saw during my teen years, I was drawn to The Meteor Man after getting to know the soundtrack. I also knew Townsend from Hollywood Shuffle, The Five Heartbeats as well as Eddie Murphy Raw (yes he directed that!). But his superhero fantasy The Meteor Man was the first of his films I actually saw in the theater.
I don’t remember whether or not I anticipated its release. I may have gone with a friend to see it. What I do remember is that I enjoyed the film. At 14, though it had not occurred to me that black superheroes were largely absent from the screen, Robert Townsend sought to fill this void in his own way. He created his own hero with a plausible back story and his own ideas of how to use his powers.
Maybe hindsight tells me that this film is underrated. I only saw it perhaps once or twice when it was released. Luckily enough, I do have a stark memory of the film and remembered so many details when re-watching it 20 years later. Not too many things make such an impression on me that I can go two decades without seeing it but still remember it. But there were so many moments in this film that made it an undersung classic during the 1990s black film boom.
First of all, this film was a virtual who’s who of anyone who was hot at the time. Townsend not only included older stars such as Marla Gibbs, Robert Guillaume, James Earl Jones, Bill Cosby and Nancy Wilson, but he also cast Don Cheadle, Lela Rochon, Beverly Johnson, Jenifer Lewis, Sinbad, Tiny Lister and Eddie Griffin. However, I’m sure part of the reason I looked forward to seeing the film were the many music artists also cast in the film: Another Bad Creation, Cypress Hill, Naughty By Nature, Big Daddy Kane and skinny Luther Vandross among them.
Even though the soundtrack and casting drew me, the thing that stayed with me most was the point of the film: community. This film is all about the black community saving itself. Of course, the community leaders encourage Jefferson Reed (Townsend) to help rid the neighborhood of the influence of the local gang the Golden Lords, led by The Golden Lord Chief Simon (Roy Fegan). Jefferson has hints of Clark Kent as a mild-mannered substitute teacher and actually teaches his students to run away from fights as he had been taught.
However, he does not embrace his powers or their potential to help the neighborhood get rid of the criminal element at first. He only agrees after his landlady is severely beaten and the residents of the neighborhood are too frightened to tell who committed the crime. Only then does Jefferson agree to don his mother’s homemade costume and patrol the streets to protect his neighbors.
While I did enjoy seeing the superhero saving the day and bringing peace to the neighborhood, I more so enjoyed the one scene I think is emblematic of the entire film. During a montage in which community members are heard calling into a radio show to express their gratitude or dismay at the mysterious flying man patrolling their neighborhoods, Jefferson visits a vacant lot and plants a garden, which the newly united Bloods and Crips maintain for the neighborhood.
The reason this scene stayed with me for 20 years is because this is the type of thing I would love to see more superheroes doing. We mostly get the running into a burning building, diving into the sea or other such actions to save people in immediate peril. What we don’t see is the superhero trying to prevent everyday tragedies in the first place. Meteor Man uses his hands to make the soil good again then creates a free outdoor grocery store in a neighborhood that may be labeled as a food desert.
The vegetable garden scene exemplifies exactly the type of superhero I’d love to see more of: one who recognizes what truly ails the community then takes the steps to cure it, not get rid of the symptoms. Of course, The Meteor Man has many of the respectability politics and the problematic black-on-black crime narrative that have remained the focal point of conversations about inner city violence and poverty, but it does not suggest that the people in these neighborhoods need a savior.
In fact, one of the best things about the film is that it makes just the opposite suggestion. The people in the neighborhood have to come together as a whole to save themselves. This is made clear when the very people who urged Jefferson to save the neighborhood find themselves facing escalating violence when the Golden Lords retaliate against Meteor Man. They wrongly blame Jefferson and decide to take a vote to ask him to leave. However, Jefferson offers to leave on his own without making them take the vote, knowing this is best for the neighborhood since he has lost his powers.
So instead of getting rid of the gang terrorizing them, the community members decide to try to make a deal. Unfortunately, the Golden Lords ask for Jefferson’s head before he can leave. Of course, Jefferson goes out to face Simon after his powers have been depleted. The mild-mannered man who had always been taught to run away from a fight stands up for himself and his neighborhood. He loses.
But the community responds.
They do not allow Jefferson to become a sacrifice. They fight back. And if you look closely, you will also see that most of the neighborhood members are women. Not only do they realize that they cannot allow Jefferson to die for them, but they also realize that they themselves have to protect their own. Jefferson does regain his superhero powers and ultimately defeats an equally matched Simon, but the trouble does not stop here.
This is where Townsend makes a subtle but important statement about the real systematic structure that affects black communities. The Golden Lords are only an arm of an international crime syndicate that truly controls the underworld. Once again, it is not Jefferson who saves the day. He has reinforcements: the Bloods and Crips he helped unite. Not only are they tending a vegetable garden, but they are also now protecting their community－with guns. Even those of us who would spout violence is not the answer have to acknowledge the role self-defense plays in our own preservation as Townsend does here.
Townsend created his own superhero, but in the end, he does not taut this superhero as the answer. In a way, I think he simply uses the superhero as inspiration. What would we do to make our communities better if we have the means? Townsend seems to recognize that this is the true power of the superhero. After all, he did direct the 2000 television film Up, Up and Away that focuses on a black teen has to find his own importance in a family in which he is the only one without superhero powers.
It makes me wonder what Hollywood studios truly fear when they hesitate to make a superhero film with a person of color in the lead. With Black Panther, they have to acknowledge the true enemy of a rather utopian black country fighting to protect its people and resources who want to exploit them. And with a superhero based in an American context, can they ignore the structural inequalities that put so many communities in peril in the first place?
So while we wait to see Black Panther hit the big screen or support Maya Sokora’s Storm fan film, we should definitely remember that we have had our own superhero onscreen before. Robert Townsend has been one of the most important voices in bringing black experiences and lives to the screen for nearly 30 years and managed to do the one thing many black geeks have longed to do for years: he not only made himself a superhero, but he also made himself the kind of superhero he wanted to see onscreen.
Inda Lauryn had been previously published in Blackberry, A Magazine and Interfictions as well as had work featured in Black Girl Nerds and AfroPunk. She is currently working on a novel and countless other unfinished projects while occasionally blogging atcornerstorepress.wordpress.com