BLACK PANTHER(S)

Like the rest of the country, I went to see the Black Panther last night, on the first weekend it opened up. I don’t particularly like superhero movies, but a friend invited me to join her and her family, and I felt pulled to be part of what seemed almost a national wave of people going to pay tribute to a film about a black superhero, directed and acted by mostly a black cast.

There I am, one white female face in a sea of white faces (our part of New England is mostly white). By now the reviews are in. It’s a terrific story, acted beautifully, and visually gorgeous. I loved the movie’s strong women, their humor, poise, and grit.

There’s the black king, born and raised in a part of Africa never colonized, permitted to evolve in its own way, holding on to its traditions and ways of life even as it soars technologically. And then there’s the usurper, the man born in a poor Oakland, California neighborhood, who comes to claim the throne.

It’s to the credit of the movie that it gives him lots of sympathy despite his bad intentions. He’s the one who most fascinated me: the man half-in, half-out, a product of American urban slums leaving the only way he knows how, by joining the military and fighting in our wars around the world, becoming a highly trained killer, and finally going to his ancestral home. But he can’t relate to their way of life either, he’s a broken man. The king sees that brokenness, even has empathy for it, but in the end he has to play his role just as the usurper plays his.

A wave of white people in the Cinemark theater in Hadley cheered for the king and his people, cheered for the movie, and hope it will start changing things in Hollywood for African-American moviemakers. Breaking box office records this weekend didn’t hurt.

For me it was a call to the imagination, even a cry to imagine something better and finer for this world, something that could have been and still could be. A call to ignore those cynically content with things as they are, and imagine a different future.

I thought of the Black Panthers in the 1960s, and finally of the Angola Three, members of the Black Panthers who were put in solitary confinement in the Angola penitentiary in Louisiana for at least 25 years, two of them for at least 40. Forty years in solitary confinement! The warden of Angola explained he did this because the three were members of the Black Panthers.

A friend once told me that he talked with Anita Roddick, the English woman who founded the Body Shop, just before she died. He asked her what he could do for her, and she begged him to continue her efforts to free the Angola Three. He agreed, and as a result of work done by him, lawyers and advocates who wouldn’t let the cases die, some years later the three were finally freed, though one died immediately after release.

I met Robert King, the first of the three to be freed, in New York City and in my friend’s house, saw his demeanor and listened to him talk. Watching the movie last night about the Black Panther, I thought of him.