‘Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ Lets White People Off the Hook for Systemic Racism

For those who know American history, Truth: Red, White, and Black’s plot recalls not other superhero adventures, but the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments.

falcon and the winter soldier 2
(Photo: Julie Vrabelova/Marvel Studios)

For a show about masked villains, the Disney+ series “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier” is surprisingly frank in depicting American racism. In the first episode, a White bank manager thrills when he meets Sam Wilson, aka the Black superhero the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), but will not grant his loan request. In episode two, White police officers harass Sam, but they ignore his equally perturbed White partner Bucky, aka the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).

But the show missed its best opportunity to address systemic racism when it introduced Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly). In the series’ second episode, Bucky brings Sam to meet Isaiah, who received the same super-soldier serum that transformed diminutive Steve Rogers into the mighty Captain America. But where the White Rogers died a hero, the U.S. government kept the Black Bradley a secret. After completing his tours in Korea, Bradley was jailed for 30 years, where scientists experimented on him to recreate the serum.

“Do you know what they did to me for being a hero?” Bradley demands. The camera shudders as hurt and anger build on Lumbly’s face. “People running tests, taking my blood, coming into my cell,” he seethes. Pointing at Bucky, Bradley growls, “Even your people weren’t done with me.”

The moment draws a clear division between the way America treats its White and Black heroes. But it’s not as powerful as the comic book in which Bradley first appeared.

Written by Robert Morales and drawn by Kyle Baker, the miniseries Truth: Red, White, and Black features a group of Black GIs who were made unwilling test subjects by the American government. Although initially marketed as the story of the Black Captain America, the 2003 series focuses on five test subjects. Set in the early 1940s, the series follows standard Marvel continuity, in which super-soldier serum inventor Dr. Abraham Irskine died after Rogers’s transformation into Captain America, taking the secrets of his formula with him. In Truth, we learn that the U.S. government tried to recreate Irskine’s research by testing on Black soldiers.

falcon and the winter soldier cap america
(Photo: Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios)

For those who know American history, Truth‘s plot recalls not other superhero adventures, but the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments. In 1932, the U.S. Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control enrolled 600 Black sharecroppers in a program purporting to provide free healthcare. Instead of treating the 399 men who had latent syphilis, the government gave them placebos and observed the disease’s effects.

Morales and Baker replicate those horrors with pictures of the soldiers’ deformed bodies. As the men develop outrageous muscles, their heads become misshapen and their figures become grotesque. More importantly, the series highlights the human cost of the experiment. Morales and Bakers reserve the first two issues for scenes of the men in their normal routines. The men flirt with their wives, they argue with their fathers, and they shoot pool together. They trade stories and share laughter. The soldiers live their lives.

In issue no. 3, Morales and Baker cut between scenes of doctors experimenting on the men, and their families back home—receiving word that their loved ones died for their country. We watch their grief and regret, and we see the anger in Bradley’s new wife Faith, who rejects the lies and demands answers.

By the time Bradley, lone survivor of the experiments, makes his appearance as the Black Captain America in issue no. 5, there’s no sense of heroism. Draped in red, white, and blue, Bradley acts like Frankenstein’s monster as he attacks a Nazi prisoner camp. Baker devotes full panels to images of Bradley pulling off heads and slowly strangling his enemies. His humanity only returns when he finds the mangled remains of Jewish victims, subjects of Nazi experiments. Bradley discovers a group of captive women; but when he tries to free them, he inadvertently drives them into the gas showers they wanted to escape. In the last panels of the issue, the women desperately fight and claw at Bradley’s uniform, seeing no difference between a swastika and the stars and stripes.

At the end of “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’s” second episode, Bradley’s words weigh heavily on Bucky. “When Isaiah said, ‘my people…’,” Bucky says before Sam cuts him off. “Oh, don’t take that to heart,” Sam assures his White friend, “That’s not what he meant.” The episode goes on to other-worldly plans about super-spies, superheroes, and Hydra, the Marvel stand-in for Nazis. Essentially, the episode lets White people off the hook.

But Truth does not. When Isaiah finds the results of Nazi experiments, when the dying women rage against his star-spangled uniform, the comic draws a direct connection between the U.S. and the Nazis. The Nazis committed genocide, exterminating those they considered undesirable. They learned their tactics from the United States, which has committed all manner of evil against its non-White citizens.

falcon and the winter soldier anthony mackie
(Photo: Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios)

As a White American, I felt a little relief when Sam assuaged Bucky’s guilt. But as a Christian, my sins are not so easily forgiven. My God is a God of justice, who rails against anyone who diminishes humans created in God’s image. But my God also offers forgiveness to those who repent, even if I have benefited from that oppression.

In John 8, Jesus declares, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Despite its occasional recognition of systemic racism, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” does not tell enough of the truth to set me free. Truth, with its unflinching look at the history of American racism, comes closer, especially with its ending.

In the last issue of the series, present-day Captain America investigates American atrocities, learning horrible truths about the country he represents. We follow Captain America in the present day, as he investigates rumors of American experiments. Cap’s investigation eventually brings him to Bradley’s apartment in the Bronx, where he and Faith live with their grandson. Like his TV counterpart, the comic book Bradley was jailed and disavowed by the government. But in the comics, the Black Captain America is a celebrity among Black Americans. In a stunning two-page spread, Cap examines a will filled with photos of Bradley with legends such as Angela Davis, Richard Pryor, and Alex Haley.

In the final scene, Cap acknowledges and apologizes for the wrong that’s been done to Bradley. Admitting that it’s not enough, Cap returns to Bradley his ragged Captain America costume. In the last panel, the two Captains America stand together, posing for another photo to be placed on the wall.

It’s not hard to see those final moments as a roadmap for repentance. As a symbol of a country that has done so much wrong to its people, Captain America admits guilt, asks for forgiveness, and begins to make reparations. With its quick dismissal of White complicity in continuing racism, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” is not interested in repentance. But without repentance, White Americans such as me remain entangled in guilt and make ourselves enemies of God. Truth better points the way. And it’s Truth, when combined with the truth of God’s promises for restoration and forgiveness for those who follow Christ’s commandments, that can set me free.

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    Written by Joe George

    Joe George has written for Slate.com, Syfy Wire, and Star Trek.com, and he contributes regularly to Think Christian and Tor.com. George tweets too often from @jageorgeii and sometimes updates his website at joewriteswords.com.

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