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The search for black super heroes - Joel Hall

Ever since I was a kid, I've had a wild imagination and have always been drawn to the make-believe world of superheroes.

Over the years, I've amassed a sizable collection of obscure comic books, action movies, and graphic novels, featuring everyone from intergalactic warriors to gritty, urban crime fighters.

Like many young boys, I wanted to have some kind of super ability. I wanted to be able to scale walls and swing from buildings, like Spider Man, or at least be able to deliver an impressive super kick, like Chuck Norris. Throughout my childhood, however, I was subconsciously looking for superheroes who looked like me.

As I grew older, my subconscious desire turned into a conscious search for black superheroes. I came across several notable sidekicks (Black Vulcan from the "Super Friends" cartoon was pretty lame), but I was able to find a few superheroes who could stand on their own two feet.

"Bulletproof," the main character of the late 1980s cartoon "C.O.P.S." (Central Organization of Police Specialists) was quite intriguing to me, as was Todd McFarlane's "Spawn," despite the fact that Spawn had sold his soul to the devil. On the silver screen, Wesley Snipes was one of the first black actors I identified with as an action hero.

By the time I graduated from high school, however, I was still curious, because I believed there was a world of black superheroes I had yet to discover. In college, I finally had a chance to satisfy this curiosity when I was able to take a class on black images in media.

It was there that I was introduced to the blaxploitation film genre. The films were completely new to me, because the 1970s -- when the genre was in its heyday -- was a little before my time. Due to the high amounts of sex and violence in many blaxploitation films, I'm sure it is something my parents wouldn't have let me watch, anyway.

Since my college days, however, blaxploitation films have been somewhat of a guilty pleasure of mine. Sure, a lot of the characters in the films were pimps, drug dealers, and hustlers -- the kind of stereotypes the black community still battles against today. "Priest," the protagonist of "Super Fly," was basically a glorified cocaine dealer, and Pam Grier's character in "Foxy Brown" poses as a prostitute to avenge her slain boyfriend, and break up a sexual slavery ring.

While the characters are not often shining role models, they are some of the first popular examples of strong, black characters with abilities beyond the average person. Despite all the collateral damage, the characters take situations into their own hands, often on behalf of the weak.

There hasn't been a new blaxploitation film in a while, so I recently indulged in a screening of "Black Dynamite," featuring Michael Jai White. While the movie is a spoof, it stays very true to the genre and incorporates many of the shortcomings of low-budget, 1970s films, such as occasionally-visible microphone booms, out-of-focus lenses, and stock footage of exploding cars running off of mountain sides.

There is also a lot of humor, such as a council of pimps, featuring characters such as "Tasty Freeze" (played by Arsenio Hall) and "Cream Corn" (played by Tommy Davidson), as well as a kung fu fight scene with a character playing former president Richard Nixon.

While the blaxploitation genre is often misunderstood, I believe it was an early attempt to showcase black characters in control of their own destinies. I look forward to seeing more of those characters in the world of superhero fiction, as they are still needed today.

Joel Hall covers govenment and politics for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at jhall@news-daily.com.