As a lifelong comic book fan, I see a Black Captain America as a long-overdue revolution in popular culture — one that recognizes, rather than runs away from, the centrality of the struggle for racial justice to the larger American project.
For me, loving superheroes and loving history have always been linked. When I was young, my comic book fandom paralleled and intersected with my deepening love of writing, of reading fiction and of understanding Black history. As a budding intellectual, my fandom shaped my study of that history; for me, the most interesting comic books were the ones that reimagined the world of superheroes, parallel universes and intergalactic struggle — and presented them as being inclusive of the Black experience.
Those stories weren’t always the same ones featured at the multiplex. The first decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) began with the 2008 release of “Iron Man,” a blockbuster movie adaptation that made Robert Downey Jr. a box office star and launched a multi-billion-dollar global cinematic franchise. Marvel heroes, in contrast to rival comic book universes, were the ones who lived just outside your door, with real problems that allowed readers (and later filmgoers) to relate to the teenage angst of Peter Parker’s Spiderman or the battle with alcohol addiction fought by Tony Stark’s Iron Man (in the comics, but not film).
Captain America is arguably the most iconic comic book character of postwar American history. Blond, blue-eyed, and square-jawed, his alter ego Steve Rogers was an everyman whose heroic exploits as Captain America never acknowledged the domestic racial horrors that existed at home while Captain America battled Nazis and the Red Skull overseas.
On the surface, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” is a rollicking action-adventure, interracial buddy comic book series echoing films that might make Generation Xers smile or wince with recognition: “48 Hours,” “Lethal Weapon,” “Trading Places” come to mind. In actuality, the series deftly explores the impact of systemic racism in a world not unlike our own.
Wilson’s discovery of Isaiah Bradley, a Black man injected with the Super Soldier serum alongside hundreds of African American soldiers who had been unwittingly exploited, sends him on a rough road toward reconciling his love of country with the brutal fact that America has never loved him, or Black soldiers and citizens, back. Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes, Wilson’s White comrade, is revelatory in his willingness to listen, learn and try to comprehend the experiences of Black soldiers who loved the American flag as much as he does, but encountered a far different set of experiences they are still coming to terms with.
In a very real sense, their relationship mirrors the racial politics of our contemporary moment, with Barnes’ growing consciousness of how Wilson’s initial refusal to accept Captain America’s shield connects to a larger national history of systemic racism that he remained barely aware of until now. The series effectively honors the generations of Black soldiers who served valiantly, since the nation’s founding, in every single war America has ever fought, only to be humiliated, shunned and sometimes physically assaulted for wearing the uniform back home.
In the final episode, Sam Wilson recognizes himself as worthy of wielding Captain America’s shield — representing a flawed nation that he nonetheless loves with all his heart and soul. Wilson’s Black Captain America openly questions notions of American exceptionalism and boldly criticizes White supremacy in a bravura speech to political and governmental officials who are quick to praise his heroism but less eager to confront systemic racism and inequality. Anthony Mackie’s nuanced portrayal of Wilson’s inner turmoil, natural charisma and personal dignity reminded me of what might have happened if Sidney Poitier ever portrayed a comic book hero.