Why a Black Captain America changes everythingRoundup
tags: film, racism, African American history, comics, popular culture, Superheroes
Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently, The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
Note: This op-ed contains spoliers for 'The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.'
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.
"The Falcon and the Winter Soldier," the six-part Disney series that culminates [spoiler alert] in Anthony Mackie's Sam Wilson becoming a Black Captain America, is important because it challenges notions of American exceptionalism that gloss over the most painful chapters in our nation's history. It also underscores the need to understand contemporary political crises as rooted in an origin story Americans have often stubbornly refused to acknowledge.
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).
However, until the February 2018 release of "Black Panther," the MCU looked mostly White. "Black Panther," with an overwhelmingly Black cast, brought a vision of Afro-futurism into mainstream American popular culture, which often falters when confronting the more complex and painful aspects of Black history. The move to diversify the superhero canon on screen -- along with "Black Panther," the Black female "Ironheart" introduced in 2016 -- has been emotionally thrilling, but also, to my disappointment, controversial.
Enter Captain America.
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