The Gender Security Project
What ‘The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’ Tells us about Race and History
Updated: May 12, 2021
By Vaishnavi Pallapothu
This post contains plenty of spoilers for The Falcon and Winter Soldier (FATWS), a Marvel Studios limited series that is streaming on Disney+/Hotstar. Readers’ discretion is advised.
Image Credits: Marvel
While race is an overlooked aspect of international relations, in FATWS, it is a central theme and one that keeps coming up in Sam Wilson’s internal conflict about carrying the legacy of the shield. In the first episode, Sam accompanies his sister Sarah to the bank where her application for a loan is denied. It was a telling moment and a reflection of reality in America about the difficulties for black people and small-business owners to navigate institutions built and designed by white people. In another instance of (not so) microaggression, Sam is questioned by the police for bothering Bucky while the pair were conversing on the street. If an Avenger can’t get a loan and is racially profiled by the police, what hope do the rest of them have? In the same episode, Wilson corrects a young black boy for calling him ‘Black Falcon’ and insists that the adjective describing his race is unnecessary. In the final episode, a bystander refers to Wilson as ‘Black Captain America’ and this flip between racializing and not racializing Sam is reflective of how blackness and heroism are rarely associated together in the MCU world.
FATWS introduces Isaiah Bradley to the Marvel cinematic universe (MCU), a black super-soldier who fought in the Korean war and whose history has been deleted by the US government. Isaiah’s story is “damning example of America's destructive relationship with Black bodies” as it is revealed that his blood was taken and his body experimented on in attempt to replicate the super soldier serum modelled after the white physical ideal. Later, he was imprisoned and tortured for over 30 years for trying to break out his fellow super soldier comrades when they were held hostage. Finally, Isaiah was declared dead by a sympathetic nurse and his records erased, allowing him to return to society and lay low in Louisiana although the past has left him with enough contempt, anger and trauma. Fans speculate that Isaiah’s story is a reference to the illegal clinical trials inflicted on black people throughout US history, particularly the Tuskegee Syphilis Study from 1932 to 1972. It is also a shocking parallel to Steve Rogers who did the same thing by disobeying orders to free his team from Nazis in Austria and was lauded a hero upon his return. Ultimately, the extreme difference in treatment of both of these super soldiers reveals plenty about the way black men are treated in the US and shows how the US government never wanted a black Captain America or a black man to represent the country – back then or even in the present.
The show is ostensibly about Sam coming into his own and taking up the mantle of Captain America as a black man. Bucky admits that when he and Steve Rogers had the conversation about passing on the shield to Sam, they hadn’t considered what it would mean for a black man to become an American superhero icon. Indeed, all of the conversations about what it means for a black man to become Captain America take place only between Sam and Isaiah, always as a side-conversation and never with white people. The onus of reconciling the legacy of the shield and the title is left to the black men, the victims of racism and oppression, and there is no emotional labour done by any of the oppressors. This finds striking parallels in international relations discourse and scholarship, where race is often discussed only among and pushed from the margins to the centre by people of colour, while white people largely ignore, side-line and render invisible race as a crucial aspect of the discipline.
Although Sam eventually takes up the mantle in the final episode, it is after plenty of internal debate. Sam’s experience is in stark contrast to John Walker’s entitlement to the title even though it was never rightfully his. From the moment the government announces he is the next Captain America, he flouts his arrogance and refuses to renounce the title even when he is stripped of it by the government. John represents exactly what white America thinks Captain America should be: a blonde-haired blue-eyed icon with an unbeatable military record and it is this exact entitlement that makes him think everyone around him, Bucky and Sam especially, should respect his authority. Whereas Sam, the black man, felt like the shield did not belong to him and felt the need to earn the title, John and Steve, were given the titles on a platter and without any of the baggage it carried. It is also interesting to see the parallels between Sam and his namesake, Uncle Sam, the national personification of the US. Even though Sam literally and figuratively is entitled to being Captain America and the representative of the country, he has to overcome tremendous discomfort and many hurdles before he is legitimately recognised.
Predictably, Steve Rogers is the yardstick with which both Sam and John measure themselves as worthy and deserving of inheriting the shield. Steve is idolised and presented as the perfect “good man” throughout the MCU even though he has also killed hundreds of people (innocent or not), not just Americans but foreigners and extra-terrestrial beings too. Ultimately, as writer and journalist Joshua Adams explains, “Rogers escapes most, if not all, the accountability about experiments the government did on Black super soldier Isaiah Bradley. The show doesn’t comment on the stark contrast between Rogers, who went back in time and presumably remained silent during eras like Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement; and Bradley, who was incarcerated and tortured for decades. In many ways, Rogers gets to remain a saint while both Wilson and Walker — to a lesser degree — inherit his sins, and have to reconcile his complicated legacy.” All of this is not surprising given that Marvel is funded by the Pentagon to engage in the military-entertainment complex to redeem the image of America’s defence sector. Indeed, Captain America is American propaganda at its finest and a symbol created by the US for the US to justify all of its actions as being the right ones, because they are carried out by the most righteous person that can exist. As Baron Zemo perfectly summarises, “The danger with people like him, America’s super soldiers, is that we put them on pedestals. They become symbols. Icons. And then we start to forget about their flaws. From there, cities fly. Innocent people die, movements are formed, wars are fought.”
Throughout the show, we get to know about what the shield means to different people. For Bucky, it’s not only his best friend’s legacy but also a symbol of hope, righteousness and justice. For Isaiah, it is an insult as evidenced in his dialogues: “Them stars and stripes don’t mean nothing good to me” and “they will never let a black man be Captain America and even if they did, no self-respecting black man would ever want to be”. For Sarah, the very title of Captain America does not represent her as she says “my world doesn’t matter to America, so why should I care about its mascot?”. Finally, for Karli and the Flag Smashers, the shield represents a country that is imperialist, interventionist and that cares for nothing more than advancing its own national interests.
Looking back at the origins of the shield, there is another dimension that comes forth. Howard Stark made the shield using vibranium that was presumably stolen from Wakanda or bought in a black market. In the scene when one of the Dora Milaje carries the shield after putting John in his place, as remarked by Emmy-winning writer Scott Woods, “The Dora Milaje took ALL the vibranium back for a hot second, just to remind America that whatever they got is on loan… just because we handed it to you doesn't mean it serves only your purpose. It must still serve the village. And when it doesn't, we can take it back.” It could also bring forward the concept of Ubuntu which underlines the importance of community and the belonging of personhood within a community. The implications of this small action today are perhaps allegorical to the sacrifices and suffering that black and native Americans have endured to build the country as it is today, yet they are never given their due nor treated equally to their white counterparts. The present America chooses to appoint a white man as its representative and these same white men occupy most of the echelons of power while BIPOC are completely left outside positions of power and discourse of the country.
The treatment of Isaiah and the larger history of black people in the country are huge motivations for Sam to become Captain America. He tells Isaiah, “We built this country. Bled for it. I’m not going to let anyone tell me I can’t fight for it. Not after what everybody before me went through, including you.” Isaiah replies, “Shit. I almost bought that”, echoing the idea that black liberation and dignity are irreconcilable with the American flag, and the shield by extension. Despite the resistance, especially from the government who convinced him to turn in the shield in the beginning of the series only to give it to a Caucasian man, Sam triumphantly becomes Captain America to show that a black man can be, whether they like it or not. Sam reclaims the shield and what it symbolises by acknowledging and honouring his predecessors in the process. In many ways, Sam is also reclaiming the idea of who gets to represent America. In the final episode, Sam memorialises Isaiah’s story in the Smithsonian museum, alongside Steve, Bucky and other war veterans, as a way of ensuring his history and trauma is never erased nor forgotten. This is allegorical to real-life war/genocide memorials and statues that preserve truthful historical accounts of injustices such as the Holocaust memorial or Comfort Women statues.
Sam reconciles the complicated legacy of the shield with his speech in the final episode “I’m black man carrying the stars and stripes. What don’t I understand? Every time I pick this thing up, I know they’re millions of people who are going to hate me for it. Even now, here, I feel it. The stares, the judgment. And there’s nothing I can do to change it. Yet I’m still here. No super serum, no blonde hair or blue eyes. The only power I have is that I believe we can do better.” While the subtext about race and racism is finally translated into text, his entire speech and stance was, as expected, ambiguous and centrist, deciding to fight the system from within rather that dismantling it all together like the Flag Smashers wanted to. Sam decides to step into the role of not as a nationalistic symbol appointed by the government, not as Steve’s successor but as a bridge between divides and as someone who fights for everyone.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, the US and the world’s larger reckoning with race, and the systematic inequalities exacerbated and laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic, one can’t help but feel that the very idea of Captain America is outdated and that needs to be retired in the modern day. While it was nice for Sam to acknowledge the troubling history of the mantle, one can’t help but feel that it will soon be business as usual. What difference is it going to make just because a magnanimous and empathetic black man is Captain America? While one could argue that it is meaningful representation, it is also Sam literally and figuratively wiping blood of the shield and returning to the status quo despite the repeated allusions that this is not desirable, particularly in the aftermath of a global catastrophe (the Blip in the MCU and the pandemic in real life). In many ways, Sam’s inheritance of the mantle and his commitment to centrism was allegorical to President Barack Obama’s tenure – while it was a huge step to have a black presidency, it can be argued that he only owned the position of power without putting in the effort to dismantle racist institutions.
Personally, I would have loved to see Sam destroy the shield as he wondered out loud and show up with a new shield or a new ‘weapon’, designed by the Wakandans who represent the potential of black people if they were not subject to centuries of oppression and colonisation. I would have loved to see him with a brand-new superhero title, one that is free from the imperial patriotism of Captain America. The current conclusion as it stands is that the system is not inherently flawed and the problem is only the few bad apples – an argument that has popped up too many times in current discourse about police reform, BLM and systematic racism. Had FATWS cracked the system wide open and made space for a more progressive and revolutionary world order, it would have challenged mainstream international relations and global politics to an extent that has rarely been done in pop culture.