As a Marvel movie nerd, I’ve been loving the television series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. The series follows two members of the Avengers superhero team, Sam Wilson (AKA the Falcon) and Bucky Barnes (AKA the Winter Soldier), as they face personal challenges and team up to fight evil.
I expected the series to have the same escapist plot, high-energy action sequences, and snarky dialogue of the Marvel movies from which these characters got their start. I didn’t expect a series that would delve into the complexities of race in America and the heartbreaking reality of how Black men are so often mistreated in this country.
The series has been on my mind this week as I follow the trial of Derek Chauvin, whose murder of George Floyd last summer sparked worldwide outrage. As Chauvin’s defense attorney tries to convince the world that George Floyd would still be alive if only he hadn’t been so big and the crowd hadn’t been so angry, a fictional series offers a dose of reality by insisting that no matter how extraordinary a Black man is, racism still lurks around every corner.
As Chauvin’s defense attorney tries to convince the world that George Floyd would still be alive if only he hadn’t been so big and the crowd hadn’t been so angry, a fictional series offers a dose of reality by insisting that no matter how extraordinary a Black man is, racism still lurks around every corner.
Note: This article contains some spoilers about the first two episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Episodes release weekly, and episode three is available today on Disney+.
“You can’t paint me out as angry.”
Time and again, the media and the court system put Black people on trial for their own murders at the hands of law enforcement. The arguments are familiar: They didn’t comply. They were suspicious. They were big and threatening. They had the wrong ex-boyfriend. These accused, our society says, should display superhuman presence of mind. They should not question why they are being stopped. They should comply. They should be still. They should not be angry.
See, for instance, when Chauvin’s defense asked Donald Williams II, a Black man and mixed martial artist, whether he grew angry as he witnessed George Floyd die. The line of questioning seemed designed to paint Williams as angry and threatening, leaving Chauvin and his fellow officers with no choice but to react as they did.
“No,” Williams calmly replied. Refusing to be reduced to the “angry Black man” trope, Williams said in an even voice, “You can’t paint me out as angry.”
“I am calm.”
But what if we are angry, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier asks? While Chauvin’s defense attorney attempts to weaponize our anger, suggesting that to feel angry at injustice is to somehow be responsible for its violence, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier asks: Shouldn’t we be angry about vast injustices? Isn’t it rational to be angry? Must we, especially as people of color, be nice, calm superheroes to receive empathy – to receive justice?
These questions weigh heavily as the series follows Sam Wilson who, unlike many of the Avengers, doesn’t have superpowers. He is a regular Black man who uses fancy robotic wings to soar through the air fighting crime. Without his costume, his robotic wings, and the mostly white Avengers flanking him, Sam is not readily recognized in his everyday life. Instead, he is a normal Black man navigating the world and its many injustices.
While Chauvin’s defense attorney attempts to weaponize our anger, suggesting that to feel angry at injustice is to somehow be responsible for its violence, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier asks: Shouldn’t we be angry about vast injustices? Isn’t it rational to be angry? Must we, especially as people of color, be nice, calm superheroes to receive empathy – to receive justice?
And there are many. In the span of two episodes, he is denied a loan to save his family business, he encounters a Black would-be superhero denied the opportunity for public acclaim because of his race, and he is racially profiled by police officers who don’t recognize him as the hero he is.
As viewers, we’re invited to understand this anger, too.
For example, Sam learns about Isaiah, a Black, Captain America-like superpowered soldier who fought valiantly in the Korean War. Sam visits Isaiah at the behest of Bucky Barnes (AKA the Winter Soldier), a white man and fellow Avenger who is trying to atone for his past as a brainwashed assassin for bad guys. Isaiah soundly defeated a brainwashed Bucky back in the day, but, unlike Captain America, Isaiah was not celebrated as a hero for fighting America’s enemies. Instead, Isaiah was imprisoned and experimented upon. And unlike Bucky, who received a presidential pardon for the crimes he committed when his mind was being controlled, Isaiah did not receive a second chance from the country he fought to protect.
“You think you can wake up one day and decide who you wanna be?” Isaiah asks when Bucky tells him he’s changed from the killer he used to be. “It doesn’t work like that. Well, maybe it does for folks like you,” Isaiah says. In other words, for white people.
Hearing Isaiah’s story, Sam is angry; as viewers, we understand that this fallen hero fate could also befall Sam; what’s to stop his country from deciding he should be locked up too?
When Sam and Bucky leave, Sam confronts his friend about Isaiah. “So you’re telling me there was a Black super soldier decades ago and nobody knew about it?” he asks. Their conversation is interrupted by the squawk of a police siren.
An officer exits the police car and asks for Sam’s identification – and only Sam’s. When Sam asks why, the officer places a hand on his holster and extends another toward Sam as a warning.
“Sir, just calm down,” the officer says.
“I am calm,” Sam replies.
He is also angry, and we viewers are invited to feel that anger with him. Here is a man who has literally helped save the entire universe only to face racism back on Earth. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier reminds us that it doesn’t matter how good, helpful, cooperative, or calm a Black man is, he is still too often seen as dangerous. Even if you fight for your country, even if you save the entire universe, in the end, if you’re Black, the world will still see you as a threat. And if that’s the case for a superhero, how much more so must it be true for the rest of us?