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Disney’s Falcon and Winter Soldier: a journey of racial reckoning made for today’s America | COMMENTARY

(L-R): Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and Falcon/Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) in Marvel Studios' "The Falcon and The Winter Soldier" on Disney+. Photo by Julie Vrabelová. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved. User Upload Caption: Sebastian Stan (L) and Anthony Mackie in "The Falcom and The Winter Sodier" - Original Credit: Marvel Studios/Disney+
(L-R): Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and Falcon/Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) in Marvel Studios' "The Falcon and The Winter Soldier" on Disney+. Photo by Julie Vrabelová. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved. User Upload Caption: Sebastian Stan (L) and Anthony Mackie in "The Falcom and The Winter Sodier" - Original Credit: Marvel Studios/Disney+ (Julie Vrabelova / HANDOUT)

If you want to see how widely and profoundly the discussion of racial reckoning in American life has come to permeate popular culture, check out “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier” on Disney+ this weekend.

The six-part series, which concludes with an episode that started streaming Friday, stars Anthony Mackie as Falcon Sam Wilson and Sebastian Stan as Winter Soldier James “Bucky” Barnes. They are characters from the world of Marvel Comics and Studios.

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Don’t let the word comics mislead you. This is not only a highly engaging action-adventure series about who will be the next Captain America superhero, it also offers an informed discussion about symbolism, race, American history, heroism and image. Seriously, if I was back in graduate school trying to get a Ph.D. in American Studies, I’d be looking at this series as the stuff of which dissertations are made.

The series, which scored the highest debut for the streaming service, which launched in 2019, has special relevance for local viewers in its depiction of misconduct by a member of the Baltimore Police Department in questioning the hero of the series on a city street. The treatment of the Black hero is the kind of behavior that led to the real Baltimore Police Department coming under a federal consent decree.

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The central story line is that of Wilson possibly becoming the next Captain America representing the nation as a soldierly ideal. He was handed Captain America’s iconic shield by Steve Rogers, one of the nation’s greatest military heroes, at the end of the 2019 Marvel movie “The Avengers: Endgame.”

Think of the shield as King Arthur’s Excalibur sword in the Arthurian Legends if you want a literary archetype for comparison. We don’t have epic mythologies like that any more; we have Marvel Comics, movies and streamed series. But they do the same kind of cultural work embodying our hopes, fears, fault lines and ideals as a nation in the stories they tell.

Wilson is uncertain about accepting the shield and becoming Captain America.

“It feels like it belongs to someone else,” he said cryptically when first given the symbol. In Episode 1, Wilson gives the shield to the government for museum display.

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Mackie, the actor playing Wilson, elaborated on those words in press materials from Marvel.

“Sam considers the shield a representation of the country that we live in,” Mackie said. “There’s a lot of trepidation as far as how does a Black man represent a country that does not represent him?”

Malcolm Spellman, head writer of the series, says of Wilson in those same press materials, “He truly believes that there’s an argument to be made that red, white and blue — stars and stripes — inherently represents oppression.”

Watching that play out on-screen at this watershed moment of racial reckoning with its demand for a more honest history of racism in American life is what makes this such a timely production.

In Episode 2, Barnes brings Wilson to Baltimore to meet a former war hero, Isiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly). In the mythology of the series, there is a serum that can imbue some soldiers with super strength and powers. Bradley, who is Black, was one of those soldiers during World War II and the Korean War. He was a super soldier and hero like Rogers, but he was not treated like one by the government and his story is mainly unknown.

After the war, he says he was locked up and used as a guinea pig for constant testing in an effort to extract the secrets of the serum from his blood. His account evokes the U.S. Health Service experiments in and around Tuskegee, Alabama, in which Black men starting in the 1930s were used to observe the effects of untreated syphilis. Some of the men were lied to and told they were being treated for the disease. Bradley’s words also recall the shameful way Black veterans of World War II were treated after the war ended and they returned to a Jim Crow America.

After being ordered out of his Baltimore home by an angry Bradley, Wilson demands to know how Barnes was aware of Bradley’s hidden history while he was not. As they argue in the street, a Baltimore Police Department squad car rolls up and two white officers get out. One of the officers asks if there’s a “problem here.”

“No, we’re just talking,” Wilson says. But his words are ignored and he’s asked for his ID.

“I don’t have ID … We’re just talking, ” Wilson says pointedly.

The policeman tells Wilson to calm down.

“Give him your ID,” Barnes says to Wilson.

“I’m not giving him (expletive). We’re just talking,” Wilson replies.

“Is this guy bothering you?” the officer says to Barnes, who is white.

“No, he’s not bothering me. Do you know who he is?” Barnes asks.

The other police officer whispers something in his partner’s ear who instantly apologizes now that he recognizes Wilson as a war hero. Before that, the scene is steeped in the kind of profiling, assumptions and harassment Black men are all too often subjected to by police. In this case, Baltimore City police.

In his hero quest, Wilson returns to Baltimore in Episode 5 looking for answers from Bradley.

“I need to understand,” Wilson says.

“You understand. Every Black man does whether you want to deny it or not,” Bradley says.

“Don’t do that bitter old man thing with me,” Wilson demands.

“If you ain’t bitter, you’re blind,” Bradley says. “I used to be like you until I opened my eyes. Until I saw men, Red Tails, the famous 332, fight for this country only to come home to see crosses burning on their lawns.” The reference is to the Tuskegee Airmen, Black aviators during World War II. They were known for their courage and by the red tails they painted on their planes.

Bradley explains how the government lied to his wife, telling her he was dead, while he was kept in captivity and experimented on for years.

“They erased my story, erased my history. But they been doing that for 500 years,” Bradley says. ”Pledge allegiance to that, my brother. They will never let a Black man be Captain America. And even if they did, no self respecting Black man would want to be.”

That’s some pretty thought-provoking, challenging and socially relevant dialogue for an entertainment program from Disney. And I say more power to it.

Despite Bradley’s words, by the end of Episode 5, Wilson appears to be in training to take on the shield and the title that comes with it.

Ultimately, his decision will matter in terms of the arc of the series, of course. But in the larger view, I don’t think it matters that much whether he does or doesn’t.

“The Falcon and The Winter Soldier” has already done its culture work. It is outstanding popular culture because of the way it connects to some of the deepest and most powerful currents of American life today with its core narrative of Wilson’s journey. It feeds off and amplifies for entertainment audiences the kind of discussion the nation is having in connection with events like the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin who was convicted Wednesday of murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd. It challenges viewers to reflect and re-evaluate what they think they know about race and history in the United States.

The series also speaks directly to what feels like a yearning for new heroes and leadership at this moment in American life.

Early in Episode 1, the need is voiced by a character saying, “We need new heroes, ones suited for the times we’re in.”

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In a preview in February, I wrote about the remake of “The Equalizer” with Queen Latifah, which has become the biggest hit series of the network year, speaking to that desire for new leadership in an increasingly multicultural America. “The Falcon and The Snowman” feels just as relevant and resonant in the same way.

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The arrival of Wilson on Disney+ and Latifah’s Robyn McCall in “The Equalizer” on CBS are two of the more promising on-screen developments of 2021. May more heroes like them follow in their steps and take up residence in our cultural lives.

David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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