In Riley’s (The Great Deflategate Conspiracy, 2015) novella, a 21st-century movie finds its way onto a theater screen in small-town 1950s New England.
Projectionist Shep Farrell and manager Leo D’Aleo are preparing for another mundane day of work at the Strand Theater in the all-white town of Enfield, Connecticut, when something extraordinary happens. As Shep is preparing to screen what he believes to be Creature from the Black Lagoon, the film mysteriously threads itself. The theater staff is astonished to discover, when the movie plays, that it’s unlike anything they’ve witnessed before—because it’s the 2018 superhero film Black Panther. Also alarming is the fact that the projector refuses to stop running even after Leo and Shep cut the power. In 1954, the film—which racist Leo describes as “a bunch of half naked Coloreds flying through space and shooting up white people”—causes a significant stir, and white crowds flock to the uncanny spectacle. Word soon reaches the White House; Vice President Richard Nixon attends a screening, and when he finds that the film can’t be stopped, he deems Black Panther a national security threat. The dialogue in Riley’s deeply imaginative novella vividly captures the politics of paranoia of 1950s America. For example, Nixon’s report to President Dwight Eisenhower states: “it appears to me as if [Marcus] Garvey directed this motion picture from the grave.” Meanwhile, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover accuses the “agitator Paul Robeson” of being behind the film simply because the performer once lived in Enfield. Riley also draws a damning caricature of the Eisenhower administration and the era’s casual racism. For instance, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles says that he’s alarmed by a Black Panther character’s “Africanized hair,” stating: “What are we to make of that Alfalfa hair-do?” The political figures are complex, conniving, and well-rounded, but Riley pays significantly less attention to his protagonist, Shep, who feels insufficiently fleshed out. However, this is a minor criticism of a daringly inventive novella that charts society’s ongoing struggle with racial bigotry and the role of cinema in challenging such prejudice.
A fantasy tale with an ingenious and memorable premise.