The Righteousness of Rage

My wife and I make it to the movie theater about once a year—maybe twice if we’re lucky and have a gift card. But even then, we attend merely as chaperones and financiers, dutifully setting aside our own cinematic preferences in order to allow our eager offspring the rare pleasure of stuffing buttery popcorn in their faces while taking in the latest animated kids’ movie on the big screen. It’s a parental sacrifice we’re willing to make. (Never mind that we were both recently reduced to tears at the end of Coco. We were only there for the kids, I swear!)

This week, however, a rare thing happened. We found ourselves on vacation without the little ones for a few days, and we decided to take the opportunity to go see a grown-up movie by ourselves like other normal adults. Seeing as though there aren’t a great deal of compelling options playing right now, we may have picked the wrong time to do that. But thankfully, Black Panther was still showing, so we grabbed some tickets and took our seats in a largely empty theater with a couple dozen other people who apparently were also running about five weeks behind the national movie trends.

I have never been a superhero buff. Frankly, I just don’t get the whole comic book thing. But I had seen enough on Twitter to know that Black Panther was much more than just a superhero movie. It was a celebration of African culture, a break-through achievement for black artists in Hollywood, and a provocative conversation about contemporary racism in the real world in which we live. The fact that there are superpowers involved is actually quite incidental to the larger story.

Having seen the movie now, I can verify that Twitter was right. It really is all those things. And more.

For me, what made the movie so intriguing was the complexity of the characters. It’s not your classic “good guy against bad guy” trope. The characters simply don’t fit into such easy molds. Sure, there’s a hero (T’Challa). And of course, there’s a villain (Killmonger). But in the end (spoiler alert!), it’s the latter who ironically succeeds in effecting positive change.

As a black man brought up in America, Killmonger has seen firsthand the manifold injustices of a racialized society, and these experiences have endowed him with a sense of prophetic anger. He hates the oppression he has witnessed. He longs to liberate suffering people of African descent all around the world. He loathes the imbalanced power structures that keep his brothers and sisters pressed down. Ultimately, it is Killmonger’s rage that rubs off on T’Challa, making him into the generous hero he wouldn’t otherwise have become.

In fairness, Killmonger gets lots of things wrong. (After all, replacing one form of oppression for another is hardly a positive solution.) But we can’t fault him for his indignation. Without it, the movie has no happy ending.

This complexity is what made Black Panther such a good movie. I walked out of the theater feeling torn and unsure what to think. I hadn’t been spoon-fed easy answers. Instead, I had been momentarily immersed in the intricate realities of racial hostility and invited to contemplate the legitimacy of the anger that centuries of such oppression can produce. I was left with a few haunting questions: What if a certain degree of anger is necessary to produce true societal change? What if informed rage can be righteous?

The very next morning, I awoke to the news that just a few hours after my wife and I had made our visit to Wakanda, police officers here in the real world shot and killed a young black man in Sacramento. Apparently, they thought he had been breaking windows. Apparently, they believed he had a gun. Apparently, they feared for their safety. As it turns out, the young man was in his own back yard. Unarmed. With nothing but a cell phone in his hand. But after twenty gunshots from two officers, Stephon Clark was dead, joining the growing list of unarmed black men who have died at the hands of the police in recent years.

It’s easy for people like myself to read a news story like this and simply move on with our lives. We’re often detached and desensitized. But this time, as I read about Stephon Clark, the rage of Killmonger was too fresh in my mind for me to simply move on. I lingered over the photo of this young man who had been reduced to a bullet-ridden corpse, and I wondered: What if the most appropriate way to respond right now is to be mad?

In the aftermath of other similar shootings (Ferguson, Baltimore, Minneapolis, etc.), there has been a consistent stream of criticism directed toward the “thugs” who take to the streets to express their anger. “Why would these morons loot their own neighborhoods?” it is asked. “Do they honestly think their actions will bring about good?”

But maybe the people in the streets are tapping into something more profound than we realize. Maybe there’s something righteous about their rage.

To be clear, rage can be a dangerous thing. When left unchecked, it can fly off the rails and become an uncontrollable force of destruction. But the absence of rage can be equally dangerous. It can breed complacency toward oppression and the listless acceptance of a corrupt status quo. Without a measured and virtuous sense of indignation toward injustice, power structures wouldn’t be held to account and change would never come.

As risky as it may sound, a true justice-seeking society needs a certain level of anger in the public sphere. Not violence. Not retribution. Not anarchy. Not hate. But a wholesome and relentless ferocity that flows from the place where deep convictions intersect with honest emotions in the experiences of society’s most oppressed individuals.

When applied peacefully and winsomely, rage can be righteous.

So, in light of this most recent tragedy, I’m doing my best to stay angry. Angry for the victims whose lives have been cut short. Angry for the families whose dads, brothers, and sons never came home. Angry for the black boys and girls who are being raised in fear of the police. Angry for the many upstanding law enforcement officers whose vocations are discredited by questionable actions like these. Angry for the cities being torn apart by suspicion, prejudice, and mistrust.

I’m trying to stay angry. Not because I want to champion revenge. But because I want to champion change. And if a little anger drives me to pray a little more fervently and love a little more faithfully, then that’s a change I’ll be happy with.

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