Each week, as new episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier release on Disney+, LTN writers will reflect on each episode. You can find all of their reflections here.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s episode five’s title “Truth,” is more simplistic (vs. “The Whole World is Watching You”) and not immediately related to the series (vs. “Power Broker”), but more piercing to the heart of our nation’s past and its current epidemic of racism, then any episode title thus far. And appropriately, Sam, Bucky, Zemo, Walker, and Karli are faced with the truth (and consequences) of their decisions.
The question of truth has haunted humanity for millennia. When Jesus said, “Everyone on the side of truth listens to Me,” Pilates’ jaded retort was, “What is truth?” My whole life I’ve been told influential people, especially in media, don’t believe in absolute truth, and yet, as seen in this episode, there are certainly writers having conversations with audiences about reality.
Truth and Arrogance
The episode opens with John Walker running, physically and mentally, from murder. Sam and Bucky follow, attempting to bring him in amicably. There is something deep inside us – a built-in desire for truth – that is angered by Walker’s justification of actions and unwillingness to admit who killed Lemar. We are briefly given hope as Walker starts to listen to reason but are saddened when his arrogance intervenes, thinking Sam is trying to steal the shield back. The ensuing battle is about more than arresting Walker, it’s over who controls Captain America’s shield: the symbol of America, for better or worse.The ensuing battle is about more than arresting Walker, it’s over who controls Captain America’s shield: the symbol of America, for better or worse.
The Prophet Isaiah
After defeating Walker, Sam’s quest for answers leads him back to the original super-soldier, Isaiah Bradley. Their conversation speaks volumes about current racial conversations, or maybe current unwillingness to have those discussions. Isaiah’s fictional serum trials represent the disgustingly true 40-year trials known as The Tuskegee Study.
Isaiah concedes he used to be optimistic like Sam then realized he could never be a heroic Black version of Captain America, not just because he wasn’t “blonde-haired, blue-eyed, stars and stripes,” but because the entire world had “been chasing that great White hope since [Steve Rogers] first got dosed with that serum.” Isaiah is alluding to the unfortunately sad truth of the “White Savior Complex,” clearly seen in superhero media.
Still Living in the 80s
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the 80s have a direct correlation to the 2020s, and this episode has some fun homages: Sam and Bucky’s final handshake, à la Predator’s Arnold Schwarzenegger’s and Carl Weathers’s famed #EpicHandshake, and jazzy music playing over a (boat) remodel or a rad training montage like Bloodsport. But the sad reality is that just like Bloodsport and other 80s films favored White Saviors, Isaiah is right, the Complex exists to this day.
The “White Savior Complex” is seen when a White person, often a man, saves non-white people from calamity not only because they’re incapable, but to amend his own guilt over racism, while simultaneously being selfishly rewarded in some way. David Sirota devotes the last quarter of his book Back to Our Future, to proving how damaging the 80s façade of post-racism has been in modern America. Agreeing with what Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates wrote, that series like The Cosby Show were incorrectly interpreted as reality, Sirota says, “Rather than being nudged toward self-reflection and remorse, white America was being told that Huxtable-level wealth was common among blacks; that such wealth was universally available to blacks who were willing to follow the Huxtables’ transcendent values; that whites deserve approbation for saving blacks from racism; and that because racism was supposedly eliminated, governmental initiatives to combat bigotry were obsolete” (196).
Isaiah ends his heart-wrenching life story with the words, “They will never let a Black man be Captain America. And even if they did, no self-respecting Black man would ever wanna be.” Fictional Isaiah is the spokesperson for real Black people with legitimate disenchantment of what modern America is truthfully like.
Somehow, we must be willing to acknowledge that although we weren’t directly involved in slavery or The Tuskegee Study, these atrocities happened and have forever affected both Blacks and Whites. But on top of that, we must be willing to consider that the 80s gave us the illusion of being post-racism, without actually transforming us or our society. It was “the works without the faith”: the façade we all wanted to believe. It was Rowdy Roddy Piper from They Live, duped into thinking everything was fine until he became the White Savior with magic glasses that could see the truth.Isaiah ends his heart-wrenching life story with the words, “They will never let a Black man be Captain America. And even if they did, no self-respecting Black man would ever wanna be.”
Not Investing in Bonds But Bonding
Returning to Louisiana in this episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier to protect his family from Karli Morgenthau’s threat, Sam decides that if the bank won’t loan him money (a biting indictment on our government and institutional unwillingness to properly help Black families) that he will reach out to his community. When the strength of truthful heroes is shown in the giving of their tithes of time, energy, and resources, Herculean moving man Bucky Barnes delivers a mysterious package. The two un-partners bond over boat repairs, flirting sisters, and sleepovers.
Identity and Legacy
After Walker’s trial, we’re introduced to Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (my daughter is adamant she’s the “Power Broker”), who enables Walker’s worth and identity as Captain America (underscored by the mid-credits scene). Val is the antithesis to a healthy, truthful, friendship seen in Sam’s sage advice to Bucky that no one, Steve or otherwise, determines who he is. That conversation between Sam and Bucky is, in my opinion, the most important scene in the whole show thus far. And it serves as a precursor to the conclusion Sam comes to with his sister Sarah regarding Isaiah’s worldview.
Sarah’s opinion on Isaiah’s perspective is where The Falcon and the Winter Soldier differs from 80s shows propagating false realities of America being post-racism. For example, Henry Louis Gates explained, “The social vision of ‘Cosby,’ …reflecting the minuscule integration of blacks into the upper middle class…reassuringly throws the blame for black poverty back onto the impoverished.” Whereas, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier gives two raw sides of the conversation that happens every day in reality, if we’re listening. The writers concede there is truth to Isaiah’s claims that if Captain America were real the majority of Americans would not accept his re-casting as a Black person. Some of the internet chatter I’ve seen, even though it’s probably subconscious, has been around how people don’t want to see anyone but Chris Evans as Captain America.We’ve made strides in cheering for someone who has been Black in origin from the beginning (e.g. Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther), but deep in our subconscious, there is something that unnerves many of us about watching a mantle like Captain America’s shield be passed from a White person to a Black person.
We’ve made strides in cheering for someone who has been Black in origin from the beginning (e.g. Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther), but deep in our subconscious, there is something that unnerves many of us about watching a mantle like Captain America’s shield be passed from a White person to a Black person. It’s easy to say, “I have no problem with Sam being Captain America” (and it looks like he will be – so excited!) and maybe in our heart of hearts we are truly accepting of the fictionalized representation but what about in our real lives. Truthfully?
Albert S Fu’s article “Fear of a Black Spider-Man: Racebending and the Colour-line in Superhero (Re)Casting,” acknowledges, “debates regarding canon and character…is deeply tied to how society frames issues such as race, gender, and sexuality.” Although many fans react favorably toward racial recasting, of concern are those adamantly opposed to the idea. Not only does it “reveal a great deal about fan communities and identity” but also means “some cases of race bending are more legitimate than others to fans…It begs the question: why does the skin color of some fictional characters matter more than others?”
This The Falcon and the Winter Soldier episode doesn’t undermine the truth of Isaiah’s claims, but Sarah’s view and Sam’s response give the other side of the story. A recognition that past racism existed and exists today, but also a desire to do something about it. “What would be the point of all the pain and sacrifice,” ponders Sam, “If I wasn’t willing to stand up and keep fighting?” And there we find a hopeful resolution to make tomorrow better.
As I said earlier, I believe Sam and Bucky’s final conversation is the most pivotal scene in the show thus far. It is at least one roadmap for race relations. Bucky acknowledges there is a problem and apologizes for any explicit or implicit bias on his part and apologizes for the current hardships people of color face. Sam acknowledges the apology and determines the best courses of action to take for the future. Bucky then pledges to support Sam, not by taking the lead as a White Savior, but by humbly taking the backup role, enthusiastically supporting Sam’s rightful lead and proposed plans for the future.
The Pathology Troubling This Country
As a White person, I can’t tell you how tired I am of hearing White people grab the spotlight to give their solutions for solving racism. I can only imagine how People of Color must feel. Personally, I am convicted that it is a partnership, with Black people leading and Whites supporting. For Whites to actually listen to their pain and to hear their solutions. In an attempt to do that, I want to shine the spotlight on Pastor John Gray. He says, “We are not going to be able to heal this at the legislative level…You can’t pass a law to change someone’s heart. That’s why this conversation has to happen in the Church.” We can adamantly agree by saying, “Yep, everyone needs Jesus,” but often what we mean is, “…And once they have Jesus they’ll look and talk and dress and think just like me.” The truth is that’s closer to the doctrine of Hitler than Jesus.We can adamantly agree by saying, “Yep, everyone needs Jesus,” but often what we mean is, “…And once they have Jesus they’ll look and talk and dress and think just like me.”
Since racism is a sin, the problem is spiritual and therefore cannot be fully solved with anything but spiritual solutions. Sure, we can make laws to control racists and to make the lives of the oppressed more equitable. After all, Paul didn’t say the Law was dead because laws are bad; in truth, they clarify where we fail. Paul meant Jesus fulfilled the Law, freeing us to love others. Yet a major problem in the American Church is that we don’t realize we need to get our own house in order. We’re so focused on worrying about how to control others through laws and politics, which do have their place in how we as a society dismantle systemic racism, but forget they are not the solution for change within the Church. This reform starts with you and me, with our relationships with the Holy Spirit and His leading us to work out our salvation.
If you’re White, consider the role of grieving and support for our Black sisters and brothers. If you’re Black, share your story as you have energy and pray that God would give you spiritual solutions to lead us toward defeating the sin of explicit and implicit racism. Our Savior Jesus has given us our roles; let’s be truthful heroes, leaning into the hurt and healing like Sam and Bucky in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.