Racism and Marvel’s “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” by Sanaa Mirz

As a huge Marvel fan I watched almost all the Marvel movies. Growing up in a highly homophobic household while witnessing and experiencing the islamophobia, misogyny, and racism going on in the world, the MCU was one of my escapes. I watched the movies with my friends and as someone with social anxiety, it gave me a subject to start conversations. I no longer had to carry the cross of being ‘the black girl’ while watching Marvel movies. I became Sanaa, the girl who happened to be black and watched Marvel movies. 

One of the biggest things that attracted me to the MCU was not only their amazing special effects but how relatable some of the characters felt. I found a sense of individuality within the MCU. Therefore, while still reeling from the events of Endgame and grieving the end of an era as I liked to call it, I was ecstatic when I learned Falcon and the Winter Soldier would be turned into a series. I watched Endgame as soon as it came out in 2019 before the murders of more black people during the summer of 2020. I silently sat on the edge of my seat watching as Captain America handed Sam Wilson the shield. Watching that scene all I felt was pride and a little sadness as the shield was passed down. I realize now I was not a black woman aware of the implications and weight of that scene in regards to the world’s ugly history of racism. Rather, I was a wide eyed fan excited my favorite character was finally taking some time off for himself. I guess like many black fans of something that revolves around a white person’s narrative I made myself ignore the things that I as a person of color saw issue with.

Watching the ending scene of episode four only one thought popped into my head. That was powerful. Seeing John Walker carrying the shield dripping with blood I thought the writers understood the deep history of racism and white privilege. While this may seem hopeful at best and ignorant at worst, I thought for a moment that the writers understood. Looking at that bloodied shield all I could think of was how fitting of an image it was for America’s legacy and history. Seeing that bloody shield made me question whether ‘black me’ and ‘Marvel superfan me’ could coexist. I therefore went into watching episode 5 excited to see how the series would continue from an ending as powerful as that. 

During and after watching episode five the only thought that remained cemented in my mind was that the episode was not written for me or anyone who looks like me. While I understand what it is the series attempted to do, I would have rather they pretend racism didn’t exist in the MCU at all or write about racism in a realistic way. The episode felt like watching something written for white people about racism in a way that would neither offend nor implicate they had played any part in the racist structures of society upheld by white privilege and racism. Watching that episode I felt like I had walked into a shop, waited in line for ages to finally pay for a cupcake. Only to be pushed aside and have that cupcake given to someone who just entered the shop. Watching that episode I began to question my undying loyalty to the MCU and how I fit into it as a queer black Muslim fan. 

Watching episode five opened my eyes to how many microaggressions I brushed off in order to be able to enjoy Marvel movies. Before watching episode five I assumed racism did not exist because I could not count one single moment when the topic of racism had been broached. Steve Rogers fought alongside black soldiers even though Jim Crow laws still existed encouraging racial segregation on the baisis of white supermacy and racism. Therefore in reality there was no way Steve would have fought alongside black soldiers during WW2. 

While watching Sam’s conversation with Isaiah Bradley, revealed to be one of the first super soldiers I felt like I walked into a ‘racism made easy’ for white people. Sam Wilson is around 40 years old therefore he would have been alive during the murder of Rodney King among other murders of black folks by police. Yet the way the episode had been carried out the assumption would be that racism was a thing that belonged in the far past. The entire brutal and painful history of racism was reduced to ‘something that happened in the past’ within that episode. Sam took up a shield symbolic of an America that fights for the ‘greater good’. Yet what remains unsaid is that this is the same America that has beaten the blood, sweat, and tears out of people of color since the day it was founded through the torture and murder of Indigenous peoples. But Sam took up the shield within the same episode that it was revealed there were black soldiers who were experimented on and instead of becoming America’s symbol like Steve, they were ordered to be executed in secret. 

After being forced to see the abnormality of racism and depth of the trauma I have endured due to racism during the BLM protests of 2020 in response to police brutality, the bare minimum was no longer enough. Being stuck inside during the pandemic made me realize the way I bottled up my trauma remaining silent because I gave up. Racism existed long before I was even born therefore I doubted it would make a difference if I did anything because I saw my own experiences with racism not that painful in the face of others before me who had been lynched, drowned, burned and beaten. I didn’t think the racism I experienced counted as traumatic because I didn’t have physical scars I could show. Watching episode five it felt like every racist experience I had been through had been reduced to a “but hey, racism is over now”. As a black man in America Sam would have likely experienced it daily. Yet he made the decision to pick up Cap’s shield, becoming the next Captain America within one episode. 

Racism cannot be boiled down into one neat episode, nor is it an interesting plot subject. We live in a world where racism and white supremacy are very real and very real threats to the lives of people of color. I watched episode five while the Derek Chauvin trial was still ongoing and while I still fear for my life. I exit my home everyday looking over my shoulder trying to calculate whether a white person may see some of my actions as threatening. Seeing any police officer gives me severe panic attacks and I avoid walking home alone at night because I’m afraid someone could attack me for being a black woman. So no, racism is not an interesting subject but a thought I eat, sleep, and breathe with. I look towards the future with one eye while looking to the past with the other to make sure I don’t forget about the brutal history of racism in order to stay alive. 

I actually avoided watching the rest of the series for a long period of time because of the way episode five reminded me of how no matter of the way I and the people I love see me, I am nothing but a symbol or scapegoat to the rest of the world. My blackness will always be seen as a weapon or weakness and thereby I will always be a caricature of a human being if I don’t fight for the individual that I am. Episode five was a testament to the way that racism is approached in a way that would make white people comfortable even though BIPOC people are continuously belittled, harmed, and murdered. The reality is that racism is offensive. It is the oppression of people of color due to the absurd notion that white people are in all ways superior. Yet when we speak of racism we’re supposed to not mention who the oppressors are. 

Sam’s decision to become the next Captain America was his own as a black individual. His decision to take up the shield within one episode and the representation of racism as a thing of the past is however very tone deaf. Had racism been a subject addressed in more than one episode I could have understood and respected Sam’s decision. Instead, the strongest feeling I got from watching Falcon and The Winter Soldier was that try as hard as I may, I no longer fit into the MCU. The girl I was willing to ignore the colorblindness and microaggressions in my favorite movies in order to fit in and enjoy something. The woman I am demands more than the bare minimum. Addressing racism was the bare minimum and was due a long time ago. The way in which racism was broached however begs the following question. How does one go about explaining racism in a way that does not drench the plot in unnecessary black pain while remaining true?

Sanaa Mirz

Sanaa Mirz is a queer black Muslim woman and emerging poet/writer. Although Sanaa has been writing for years, she recently began publishing her work due to her strong belief in the importance of representation. Sanaa strives to create the representation of people like her she lacked growing up in order to show young queer Muslim kids that it is possible to live and thrive as they are.

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