Now Playing Black Panther
Chapter 5, Sin City
Though there had been rumors and fears that no one in Enfield would go to work or school on Monday…that, as on Sunday, the entire town would crowd in or around the Strand…it did not happen. Quite the opposite, in fact. People were so much excited to share their experiences watching or hearing about Black Panther that they flocked to familiar work and school settings in record numbers to commune with each other. Even employers and educators welcomed the heightened chatter because the spirit that attended it was so rare and energizing.
At the local Bigelow-Sanford carpet mill, supervisors joined workers on cigarette breaks and shared their favorite scenes:
“That car chase…you ever see anything like that?”
“Never saw cars like that.”
“And that rocket flying through that canyon? Forget Flash Gordon. I got dizzy just watching it.”
“I liked the waterfall fight.”
“Yeah, which one?”
“Both. It was like something in a Tarzan movie, only ten times better.”
“And when those rhinos showed up. How’d they do that? I didn’t see any strings or anything. How’d they do that?”
“Two guys in a rhino suit, I’d guess.”
The kids at Enfield High were into all that and more as they gathered in pockets around lockers and buses:
“Shuri, the sister character, was funny. I like how she always gives it to her brother.”
“Yeah, she is cool.”
“And how about those shoes she invented?”
“And that suit…that suit…that was the best…way better than Superman’s.”
“How about Batman?”
“Way better. But Catwoman. Now we’re talkin’. Man, those Colored girls in those tight suits. You could practically see everything.”
“Yeah, forget National Geographic…that was just plain graphic.”
“Graphic as all hell. I’d see it again just for those girls in those suits.”
“I have sin dreams about those girls in those suits. And I ain’t talkin’ venial sins neither.”
Little did any of them know that their chances of seeing it again hung in the balance as a long black limousine pulled up in front the Strand. As a chauffeur came around to open a rear door, Father O’Boyle scurried out to take a place at the rear of the car. Then both black-clad men stood solemnly as Archbishop Henry O’Brien stepped out. He sniffed the air around him and looked back at the crowd gathered across the street from the theater. It was smaller than the Sunday crowd and less boisterous. Like the crowd inside the theater at that very moment, it was somewhat older, more representative of Enfield’s senior and retired citizens with a sprinkling of folks from the mill’s night shift. The maturity level produced a respectful hush in honor of the visiting cleric who followed O’Boyle into the theater.
The lobby did not present the madhouse that greeted O’Boyle on his first visit, which both calmed and dismayed the priest. Although he didn’t want to lead his superior into the chaos he encountered 24 hours earlier, he did want there to be a scene to warrant the urgency he invoked to call O’Brien up from the Hartford Archdiocese.
“A matinee crowd it seems,” said the Archbishop, indicating that he was underwhelmed by O’Boyle’s alarm.
“It’s the film, your Excellency,” said O’Boyle in mild dread; then quickly turned to Rosemary behind the counter, “Rosemary. The Archbishop is here. We need to see your father.”
Rosemary cast a hurried look up at the clock and then a panicky look at the two clergymen standing in the middle of the lobby. She rushed to them and pushed them both against the wall featuring posters of the now obsolete double feature: The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Carmen Jones. No sooner had she gotten them out of harm’s way than the four big auditorium doors flew open and the crowd from inside poured out. Random comments reflected the more sober assessment of the film by the older crowd.
“That was very noisy,” said one elderly woman.
“I can’t hear you,” said her companion.
“All that killing and crashing around,” said another. “I don’t like so much killing.”
“I never saw so many Coloreds in one place in my whole life,” claimed an old man. “I don’t like it.”
“Women Negroes with guns and spears. Punching and kicking. Where will it lead?” asked another. “And those outfits. Very vulgar.”
Rosemary held the holy men against the wall, protecting them until most of the crowd filed out. Then Leo, Ellie, and Shep came through the doors, each pushing a wheelchair-bound patient. Ellie, in her nurse’s uniform, was the first to see the trio at the wall. “Father O’Boyle!” she hollered with a smile, leading the wheelchair caravan on a detour over to Rosemary and the Catholic clergy. There were introductions and greetings all around, which is when the religious professionals learned that some of the patients from the hospital where Ellie worked were bussed in to see the movie, and the theater staff learned that Father O’Boyle had called the Archbishop in to investigate Black Panther. With that sobering news, Ellie, Shep, and Rosemary pushed the wheelchairs out to their waiting transport, while Leo led O’Brien and O’Boyle into the auditorium to secure prime seats before the next showing. O’Brien asked for a Tootsie Roll, and O’Boyle went and fetched it for him. Leo excused himself to man the box office.
Soon O’Boyle and O’Brien were surrounded by another full house, most of it baptized and confirmed Catholic, near jubilation in anticipation of the movie it was about to see. With the dreaded scene of Shuri lifting her middle finger to her brother, O’ Boyle felt such embarrassment at having invited the Archbishop to witness this profanity that he wanted to drop to the sticky floor and hide under his gummy seat. Instead he sat there awash in guilt as O’Brien watched all 2 hours and 15 minutes of the movie totally inert.
Shep stood at the back and watched most of it himself again, except for a brief visit to the concession stand to see if Rosemary needed help. “How many times have you watched that now?” she asked him.
“I’ve lost track,” he replied.
“And you’re not tired of it?”
“Just the opposite. I’m awakened by it.”
“Shep Farrell, listen to you talking like a poet. I’m awakened by it.”
“It’s true. I never had a movie open my eyes like this. Not just to the sights and sounds, but the message. It has a deep message I think.”
“And what do you think that message is?”
“It’s about Colored people…how they’re treated. Slaves and all.”
“Oh, pshaw, slaves. There haven’t been slaves in a hundred years. You don’t know anything about Colored people.”
“I knew Paul Robeson when he lived over on Enfield Street.”
“That opera singer? You knew him?”
“He used to give free concerts to raise money for the Enfield Teachers Association Child Welfare Fund. My mom was one of the organizers. She took me backstage a couple of times to meet him.”
“I didn’t know that about you. He was practically the only Negro who ever lived here.”
“And his family,” Shep added. “His son went to Enfield High.”
“What was he like?”
“No. Paul Robeson. You’re the only person I know that actually knows a famous person. Tell me about him.”
“Well, he was a lot more like the Colored guys in this Black Panther movie than he was like Steppin’ Fetchit or Amos ‘n Andy. He was tall and powerful looking with this rich, deep voice. And, I don’t know, dignified I guess. Just the way he carried himself…like this T’Challa character…proud like.”
“But wasn’t he a communist?”
“I guess, but you listen to Killmonger and you begin to wonder.”
“The bad guy in the movie…Erik Killmonger.”
“Gosh almighty, Shep. You know all their names? I think you’ve watched that thing too much. Time to take a break. We all need a break…” and then she interrupted herself. “Uh-oh,” she said as the auditorium doors burst open and the audience emptied out.
The Archbishop and his priest made a beeline for the theater manager’s office. “Your holiness, this has to be quick,” Leo said in greeting as they walked in. “I have to help with the next wave.”
“The waves have to stop,” O’Brien told him. “You can’t keep showing this film. What’s the count?” he asked O’Boyle.
O’Boyle pulled out a small pad and read from it: “One extremely vulgar gesture…two swear words…I think…ahm….”
“Nipples,” declared O’Brien, cutting O’Boyle off. “Female nipples. The screen is full of them.”
“But they’re Colored girls,” Leo protested.
“They’re obscene,” O’Brien countered. “The Legion of Decency won’t stand for it. Do you remember your oath?” O’Brien cast a sharp, commanding look at O’Boyle who immediately recited the oath: “I condemn all indecent and immoral motion pictures, and those which glorify crime or criminals. I promise to do all that I can to strengthen public opinion against the production of indecent and immoral films, and to unite with all who protest against them. I acknowledge my obligation to form a right conscience about pictures that are dangerous to my moral life. I pledge myself to remain away from them. I promise, further, to stay away altogether from places of amusement, which show them as a matter of policy.
“Places of amusement, Mr. D’Aleo,” repeated O’Brien, underscoring the point once O’Boyle finished. “This theater…your theater. You know what I think, Mr. D’Aleo? I think the devil has taken over your theater. The devil trying to strike back at the Church for Fátima, where the Virgin appeared and which has now been sanctified by his Holy Father in Rome. Satan has turned the Strand into his own perversion of Fátima. Those images on your movie screen are satanic apparitions.”
“Dad,” said Rosemary, popping her head through his door. “All hell’s breaking loose.”
“Figure of speech,” Leo assured the clerics. “I’ll be right there,” he told his daughter. Then he looked around his office in befuddlement until his eyes landed on the sacks of money in the corner. He picked one up and handed it to Archbishop O’Brien, who at that moment was placing an expensive fur and felt black fedora on his head.
“What’s this?” asked the startled celibate.
“A donation to the Archdiocese,” said Leo, heading out the door.
As they watched Leo exit, O’Brien turned to O’Boyle and said solemnly, “This may call for an exorcist.”