Black Heroism in Captain America: Civil War

“Hiiipower: the three i’s represent heart, honor and respect. That’s how we carry ourselves in the world, period. Hiiipower, it basically is the simplest form of representing just being above all the madness, all the bullshit. No matter what the world is going through, you’re always going to keep your dignity and carry yourself with this manner that it don’t phase you. Whatever you think negative is in your life. Overcoming that and still having that self-respect.

—Kendrick Lamar

The concept of black heroism in mainstream American cinema has had a long, complex, and rather disappointing history. Often times, the “token” character of color within the genre of superhero films exists to serve one of two purposes: as comic relief or the “good friend” (servant) of the main protagonist on their own path towards victory. 1998’s Blade, starring Wesley Snipes, helped to establish a cunning, determined, and undeniably masculine and capable black hero within a world where only he possesses the capabilities to defeat vampiric entities hell bent on conquering the world. That film went onto gross more than $131.2 million worldwide, was considered a huge financial success, and spawned two more sequels. Ten years later, Will Smith’s film Hancock, about a troubled amnesiac superhero struggling to rediscover his own sense of valor, grossed more than $620 million worldwide.

These two examples serve as proof that there is indeed an audience for black protagonists leading material within the superhero/fantasy genre. Yet when Marvel Studios began laying the groundwork to birth their most popular comic properties into a full fledged cinematic universe, it would took 7 years, 11 films, and over 9.3 Billion dollars in grosses before Kevin Feige (Studio Chief Of Marvel Films) and Disney decided it was time for Black protagonists to graduate from side-kick to lead. So when it was announced that Black Panther, the first Black superhero to debut in mainstream comics back in 1966, was to be featured prominently not only in Marvel’s 12th cinematic outing, Captain America: Civil War, but also star in his own forthcoming solo film, it was met with an outcry of jubilance….and also trepidation. This was not the first time a major Hollywood studio (Disney) had introduced a bonafide black “lead” character into the mythos of an enormously popular franchise, only to portray that character as an emasculated coward whose entire existence served to highlight the strengths of his white counterparts. And with that in mind, the less said about Finn’s character in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the better.

Has Marvel Studios given us a black hero that can stand side by side, and toe to toe (or claw to shield) with the likes of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Vision, and Hawkeye? Or was The Black Panther a bumbling nitwit whose previous occupation was that of a sanitation worker? Were we presented with a complex character whose motivations were sound, logic relatable, and heroism undeniable?

The answer is no.

We were given three.

Within the Marvel Cinematic Universe the character of Falcon (Sam Wilson) has appeared twice previously. Sam Wilson is the first African-American superhero to debut in mainstream comics (T’Challa, The Black Panther, is African) and he is considered Captain America’s oldest and most trusted friend behind Bucky Barnes. He has been adapted into the MCU as more or less the same, however the character has been afforded more respect during his long years of comic continuity as an equal partner to Steve Rogers, even taking on the mantle of Captain America when the original could no longer serve. As introduced in the film, Sam Wilson is loyal, unquestioning, and defers to Steve, all the characteristics of a great side-kick. His character however, is able to grow tremendously in this latest film. Sam’s thoughts and opinions regarding the consequences of the Avengers handling of the Sokovia Accords, and his own friend’s handling of his long lost buddy Bucky, is given weight. Gone is the guy who once quipped “I do what he does, only much slower”, and in his place is someone who is willing to give Steve a warning of common sense, all while continuing to support him. “Make sure you’re making the right move. Those guys that shoot at you usually end up shooting at ME too”. Here is a man who will not run from a fight nor stop supporting his friend, but he also will not fail to display a sense of self-worth in questioning whether or not the mission is worth the risk. Sam also does not hesitate in displaying his suspicions of Bucky Barnes.

After two years of searching, Steve Rogers has perhaps allowed not only his judgement, but also his moral compass, to lapse dangerously when it came to his last remaining familiar link to a time long since past. Steve continues to see Bucky through the proverbial rose tinted glasses while Sam sees him for who he currently is, a dangerous, unpredictable assassin who is 5 code words away from becoming a mindless killing machine. Sam is always at the ready, willing to help, but also to cautiously keep an eye out for signs of betrayal. This puts him closer to his comic book portrayal, a man deeply confident in his sense of loyalty, because that loyalty has to be earned. The best example of this is depicted during the movie’s climax, when Tony Stark comes to him needing information on Steve and Bucky’s whereabouts. Sam has been imprisoned, but no bribes nor threats from Tony will force him to turn on his partner. It is only after Tony comes clean regarding his intentions, and earns Sam’s respect, that Sam gives him the information, and only under the circumstances which benefit Steve the most. Sam Wilson, as portrayed by Anthony Mackie, is more than the Falcon who soars the skies performing breath-taking feats of aerial wizardry. He represents the Heart of the film, and a stirring reminder that loyalty should never come at the compromise of dignity.

James Rhodey, known as War Machine has had perhaps the most bizarre and troubling issues with portrayal and characterization of any individual within the current Marvel Cinematic Universe. Played by two different actors across 4 films, Rhodey’s first controversy came at the expense of Terrence Howard’s dismissal from the role amidst financial disputes and public incidents of racist remarks from C.E.O Isaac Perlmutter, which created a small wildflower of ill will towards continuity championing fans. Replaced by Don Cheadle, who is unarguably a stronger actor, the on screen chemistry apparent between Howard and Downey Jr. was not instantly and smoothly manifested between Cheadle’s Rhodes and Downey’s Tony. Moreover, it seemed that the dreaded “Rule Of Three” (an unwritten, unofficial rule within cinema that three black characters in a superhero/horror/fantasy genre film cannot all survive) would be placed in full effect when Civil War’s recent trailers and marketing seemed to showcase the death of Rhodes.

Don Cheadle has worked to ply his depiction of Rhodes as a man whose integrity is his defining trait. He forcibly took Tony’s own armor when the former was exhibiting extreme lapses in self control during the events of Iron Man 2. He proudly repurposes the War Machine moniker in favor of the Iron Patriot alias to serve as a symbol of bravery during Iron Man 3. As a career military man, Rhodes believes in order and serving the greater good. His intuition is that The Avengers are a necessary and important entity for National Security, but that there need to be established rules and guidelines so the team does not fall folly to doing more global harm than good. Rhodey signs the Sokovia Accords of his own volition rather than as a favor or out of loyalty, because it speaks to his sense of doing what is right. During the battle of heroes, Rhodey is not killed, but badly injured, suffering paralysis. Rather than allow this to paint him as a victim, the writers and Cheadle’s performance convey Rhodes’ understanding and welcome acceptance of the risks involved in Avenging. He is not a martyr, but a man whose virtue demands that he find a way to keep standing, keep fighting, and keep representing the ideals inner determination. Rehabilitating with Tony Stark by his side, Rhodey reaffirms his decision as indeed the right one, and in doing so he proves to the audience that his most indestructible armor is his Honor, and it can never be broken.

Chadwicke Boseman is simply a dynamic actor. If this wasn’t evident in his stirring and soulful portrayal of James Brown in 2014’s Get On Up, then it is on full display in every single frame of every single scene that he graces in Civil War. Boseman’s T’Challa (Black Panther) is valiant, fierce, intelligent, and a force of nature unlike anything we have seen on screen from a black superhero since Blade. The difference is that Boseman is also able to capture and channel the regality of Wakanda’s African King in a manner that is at once relatable and utterly exotic. His is a performance full of fire, as T’Challa rages against those who he feels are directly responsible for the death of his father T’Chaka. A death that could have come off as too hasty and rushed if not for the fantastic performances of Boseman and South African actor John Kani. In 120 seconds these two are able to establish a bond of love and respect between father and son which believably permeates throughout the film as T’Challa’s pain and anger transform into a single minded hunt for justice and retribution. Every word spoken is laced with purpose and meaning, every action taken is measured with grim confidence, he is his namesake in every sense of the word. He prowls and strikes at his prey with deadly accuracy, failure is not a word in the Wakandan language. He is no one’s comic relief, no one’s partner, and does no bidding but his own. He is given the respect afforded his status, is referred to as “Your Highness” several times, and wears his armor as other monarchs would wear a crown.

There is a decision made during the film’s ending that culminates his arc, and it has proven to be controversial as fans debate whether or not T’Challa’s decision to spare the life Helmut Zemo as he confesses his responsibility for the death of T’Chaka was in line with comic incarnation. In the comics, T’Chaka’s death comes under different circumstances, from a different villain (Klaw) and it is a huge factor in the origin tale of T’Challa’s journey towards becoming the Black Panther. Many have expressed belief that the death of T’Chaka should have been saved for the upcoming Black Panther film, and that as presented in Civil War, T’Challa should have either killed or detained Zemo to face Wakandan Justice. It is my belief that the filmmakers decision regarding the latter is sound, and they go to surprisingly great lengths to show T’Challa’s reasoning for not killing Zemo. T’Challa remarks that the recent examples shown to him of those being consumed by hatred are all the worse for wear, whether they achieve vengeance or not. T’Challa has witnessed hatred turn Tony Stark against Steve Rogers, which in turn threatens to destroy the entire Avengers Initiative. He felt his own hatred boil as he hunted down what turned out to be the wrong man in Bucky Barnes. He now sees Helmut Zemo, having lost family and country, as an emotionally scarred and bitter man, ultimately without purpose, and taking no joy in the apparent fruition of his plan. This is not the man his father would want him to be nor the King his nation needs him to be. His mercy is not that of a man forgiving a foe, but of a hero purifying his own soul. In this act T’Challa shows respect for the final conversation between he and his father, incorporating the idea of changing the instincts of one’s own nature for the betterment of one’s nation. T’Challa is given the respect of the writers, directors, and the actors, who all collaborated to bring such a thrilling character to life. In this Respect is found the true nobility of the human spirit.

In writing and portraying three dimensional black characters as heroic entities that represent the ideologies of heart, honor, and respect the creative team behind Captain America: Civil War, has undoubtedly set the bar. The token black character stereotype should be burned and buried alongside Bucky’s torn metallic arm, Tony Stark’s pride, and those who vote for Trump. The characters (and the actors who play them), are all phenomenal. Chadwicke’s excellent usage of an accent neither sounds forced nor like parody, and Mackie’s action scenes, along with Don Cheadle’s emotionally tinged yet indomitably delivered speech to Tony towards the end should be noted. This is a movie that black audiences of all ages can enjoy, and better yet, be proud to support.

5/5 stars

Note: this is not a full movie review for the entirety of Captain America: Civil War, rather a review and reaction of the black characters and how they are portrayed within the film. The given score is based upon how I expect the black characters to be depicted, portrayed, marketed, and executed.

By Alonge Hawes

Alonge Hawes is a writer from Stone Mountain, GA and the creator of the Blue Collar Hustle web series. in his spare time he enjoys studying African American history and obsessively deciphering the lyrics of Nas, Kendrick Lamar, and Common.