The Arena Stage production of “The Great Society” is a powerful exploration of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s political battles over civil rights and the war in Vietnam. It immerses you in the historical milieu of the turbulent 1960s and offers stirring portrayals of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael, two civil rights icons.
It is the same era that gave birth to the comic book hero Black Panther, who just made his debut as a big-screen protagonist.
Both the play and the movie offer viewers portrayals of men with strong ideological differences. How they handle the disputes could not be more different.
Actors Bowman Wright and JaBen Early show King and Carmichael disagreeing without being disagreeable. While King believed in nonviolent protest and racial integration, Carmichael became an advocate for black self-determination and armed resistance to white brutality.
A profound disagreement. But not enough to destroy their friendship, let alone make them pull out their “energy daggers” and go for each other’s throats.
“Martin and Stokely went to extremes not to attack each other in public and posed questions instead of making personal attacks,” said Early, a D.C. native who plays Carmichael. Early said Carmichael often praised King, even during a dispute.
“He said King’s tactic had only one flaw: ‘In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none,’ ” Early recalled. “That wasn’t an attack on King. It was a critique of a tactic.”
That is certainly not the case with Black Panther and his nemesis Killmonger.
Ordinarily, I would not make too much of a comparison between a historically based stage play and a fantasy superhero movie, which is being hailed for presenting an exhilarating “Afrofuturist” world where the smartest, most powerful people are all black. For a change.
That is all good.
With the play, however, you get the added benefit of seeing some of the backstory.
The timeline it covers, from 1964 to 1969, is instructive. That can serve as a mental marker for determining whether a futuristic movie is actually taking us forward. Or back.
In 1964, Carmichael graduated from Howard University as a philosopher and seasoned political activist, then joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He helped register black voters in Alabama and Mississippi. He was arrested 27 times.
He and King, then head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, became friends. In the play, we see them marching together in Selma, Ala. We also see King wrangling with Johnson to secure passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Carmichael becoming more disillusioned as white segregationists continue breaking the law.
In November 1965, Carmichael and SNCC members joined with residents in the rural black belt of Alabama to form a new political party. They needed a symbol for the organization, and Carmichael suggested a black panther.
At Marvel comics, writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby were combing the headlines for news about the civil rights movement. They were reportedly eager to bring current events into the pages of their comic books. And also keep up with the changing social times by creating some black superheroes. Eight months later, in July 1966, they debuted a radical new one called Black Panther.
In the early years, Black Panther appeared as a mix of King and Carmichael — not easy to anger, but explosive when he got mad. In 1973, with Carmichael now representing a pan Africanist “Black Power” struggle, Marvel added Killmonger, who was regarded by some as Black Panther’s evil twin. Killmonger, who burned with rage, lived in Harlem. That is where Carmichael grew up.
Now there is a play at Arena Stage that brings the past to life and a movie that moves it along into an imagined millennia.
But remember: The lessons of the past may be what you need to survive the future.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.