The 1998 film Blade is often credited as the first African American superhero ever put to celluloid by film historians. This assumption is wildly inaccurate. The first film to spotlight an African American lead as a superhero was The Meteor Man, released in 1993. That particular film is often forgotten because it wasn’t nearly as successful as Blade, nor did it make the kind of money that would begin a franchise. The other reason it wasn’t successful is that it spotlights the very definitively difficult issue of black-on-black oppression.
For those of you who do not know what this term means, it refers to when one class of African American people looks down upon another class of people of the same race based on the fact that they approach the world differently. For example, in this film, the neighborhood works for teaching young black men and inspiring them. In contrast, the poor neighborhoods want to get African-American students in the drug game because that gives them the business acumen to have economic freedom. The concept of black-on-black oppression was a silent issue. The Meteor Man voiced concerns with this level of oppression and called for unity.
The Meteor Man stars Robert Townsend is Jefferson Reed, a teacher in a poor neighborhood in Washington DC. He has neighbors that he supports in various ways that all live in his same apartment building, and he is good at his job. Jefferson’s main struggle is that he is losing students to a drug gang called the Golden Lords. One night after work, he rescues a woman from being assaulted by the gang. As a result, the gang comes after him, and he hides in a dumpster. After alluding the gangsters, a meteor rains down and crushes his spine. He absorbs most of the radiation, and after being looked after at the hospital, his wounds miraculously heal, and he can go home, where he discovers that he has newfound superpowers.
These powers include being able to talk to his dog, see through walls, have super strength, and the ability to fly. The radiation also gives him the power to read any book and have its knowledge for 30 seconds. It goes without saying that Mr. Reed uses his newfound gifts to crack down on the Golden Lords. He also uses his gifts to enrich the broken community.
I look so fondly at a film like this, despite bombing at the box office and being basically ignored by history is because of how African Americans are represented in this film. Yes, the film gives the impression that drugs are bad, and gangs can result in people getting killed, but fundamentally the movie succeeds in a much bigger way by saying that despite these facts, the entire community should be working to inspire each other, not working against one another based on class.
Robert Townsend, who wrote, directed, and produced this movie, made it a point to make sure that all generations of African-American talent were spotlighted in this film. Names like James or Jones, Bill Cosby, Eddie Griffin, Sinbad, Luther Vandross, and Marla Gibbs. Not every part was pivotal, but every actor definitely had a voice in inspiring Jefferson Reed and the neighborhood he supported as well.
Movies like this aren’t made any more strictly because they don’t sell. The reason they don’t sell is that there’s not a big name behind them, and Robert Townsend wasn’t a huge name when he made this. This movie was instrumental in my childhood, allowing me to believe that inspiring others was more important than going after your own financial success, and it’s a principle that I continue to hold to this day. The Meteor Man may not be the success that Black Panther became but the message is just as important. Check it out when you have time.