Saturday, July 23, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger's Dishonest and Cowardly Racial Politics

Captain America: The First Avenger is a serviceable movie that captures the feeling of a 1940's and 1950's Saturday morning serial and its director's previous cult hit The Rocketeer.

In terms of narrative quality, one can forgive Captain America: The First Avenger's casual disregard for the character of Bucky and how he just drops out of play halfway through the movie. I can also overlook the uninspiring action scenes that do not really feel like a Captain America film ought to, as normative and imprecise that phrase is, until the motorcycle chase in the last third of the movie.

But when viewed in total, it is hard to overlook how Captain America: The First Avenger lacks any real weight and is missing the intangibles that separate great comic book fare (The Dark Knight; Watchmen; Iron Man; Spiderman 2) from that which is merely run of the mill (The Punisher; Ghost Rider).

To this ghetto nerd comic book fan, Captain America: The First Avenger's deepest problem is how problematic, even by comic book standards, its romanticization of the past and the recycled mythos surrounding "The Greatest Generation" really is.

The movie's story is familiar. Captain America is Steve Rogers, a puny recruit who during World War 2 volunteers to become a super soldier by taking an experimental serum that will give him enhanced strength, endurance, speed, and other amazing abilities. With his childhood sidekick Bucky and the Howling Commandos, Captain America wreaks havoc on a group of high-tech Nazis named HYDRA, and their occult obsessed leader the Red Skull.

Captain America: The First Avenger applies a heavy whitewashing (or is that a "brownwashing?") to World War 2 that is distinguished by a deep commitment and dedication to an insincere multiculturalism and a childish flattening of historical events. More than simple dishonesty, the movie's keen attention to a forced quota of black and brown faces in a Jim Crow era was a distraction that took me out of the frame: rather than watch the film and be caught up in a World War 2 serial adventure, I found myself counting the conspicuous black folks in the foreground and background of almost every scene.

Just as X-Men: First Class also presented a lie of history that ignored The Civil Rights Movement, and the rich narrative possibilities those decades presented for storytelling given the comic book franchise's core themes of diversity and tolerance, Captain America: The First Avenger trips and falls into the same trap.

In a Jim Crow military there are black soldiers fully integrated as equals in fictional white Army units without a mention of tension or conflict. There are African Americans as equal partners in the most secret Allied spy programs of World War 2. Black and white folks sit side by side in integrated recruitment centers in New York City. Black and white kids play together in the streets of Brooklyn, a Nathan Glazer ethnic melting pot dream, all the same, united in childhood and rooting for Captain America and the good guys to win The Big One.

An important qualifier: As a viewer who is both a comic book fan and has more than a passing knowledge of the Black Freedom Struggle, I am not expecting, nor would I want, Captain America: The First Avenger to offer a treatise on the Double V campaign for African American freedom and full citizenship at home, and winning with the war against Nazism abroad.

Rather, my hope is for a film that works with these realities in order to enhance storytelling by adding richness and depth to a project--moves that make a movie more entertaining and not less. These are challenges and opportunities to be embraced, not run away from.

Playing script doctor:

1. There could have been a throw away line by Tommy Lee Jones' character that "his unit is the Army we need to beat the Nazis, every man and woman is the best, without exception. This is a war. We have no time for the trivialities of race bigotry in my unit!"

2. Peggy Carter, a female spy for the Brits jokes that she has had many doors shut in her face and thus has learned the value of persistence. Push that element harder by showing some WAVES or WACs in the film who are foregrounded in roles other than those of secretaries, dancing girls, and nurses.

3. When Steve Rogers comes upon the soldiers Gabe Jones (an African American) and Jim Morita (who is an Asian American) in a HYDRA prison, the film could go beyond the cheap joke about the latter being from California. The former could have said he was part of the all African-American Triple Nickels paratroopers, the famed Tuskegee Airmen, or the 761st Black Panthers Tank Battalion; the latter could explicitly state that he is a member of the legendary 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

4. Digging into comic book esoterica, Captain America's iconic shield is made of the rare mineral Vibranium. This sci-fi cousin to "unobtainium" is mined from the African country of Wakanda, a nation that successfully resisted a Nazi invasion in the Captain America comic books. Who is the leader of this small, yet highly advanced country? The one and only Black Panther.

Filmmakers more generally, and white filmmakers in particular, are often caught between a rock and a hard spot on these issues. They are often condemned if people of color are not shown in their films. They are also criticized by conservatives and others if they go "overboard" in such efforts.

My suggestions and appeals are rooted in a desire for sincerity and honesty. One need not make up history to satisfy the political correctness police, to broaden the commercial audience for a film, or to preempt complains that a movie is not "inclusive" enough. Likewise, and although for different reasons, we should be mindful of how the intentional omission of the diversity that is the human experience supports highly problematic conservative racial politics.

For example, the great HBO series "The Pacific" showed the African American marines of Montford Point without much fanfare or heavy handed evangelizing. The brothers were simply "there," albeit in the background, at the battle of Iwo Jima. Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" by comparison--a movie that is quite jingoistic despite its superficial pleadings to the contrary--chose to omit black and brown folks from The Normandy Invasion, lest their presence disrupt the whiteness of memory and the nostalgic lie that is "The Greatest Generation."

The Captain America comic book, in both its Ultimates, and Ed Brubaker run, has been great precisely because of the sophistication with which it approaches the issues of race and gender and how Steve Rogers, a metaphor for a changing America, grapples with a world that is quite different from the one he left behind in the 1940s.

Captain America is a living anachronism. The ways that he reconciles his nostalgic memories with the country's post-imperial present is one of the true joys of the character, and why Captain America has been one of the most compelling reads in recent years.

Captain America: The First Avenger throws that richness into the rubbish pile. By doing so, the movie missed a great opportunity to be a compelling story that solidly leads the audience to the upcoming Avengers film. Moreover, Captain America: The First Avenger insulted the intelligence and maturity of viewers by playing a lazy game with serious history, and hoping that its sleight of hand would go either unnoticed, or its faux history embraced by those either too young (or ignorant) or drunk on colorblind hallucinations of the past to know any better (or perhaps even to care).

Captain America: The First Avenger also commits one final, unforgivable sin. In a movie about a war against tyranny and genocidal evil, even within the rules of comic book fare and their requisite suspension of disbelief, Captain America doesn't even fight real Nazis. The crooked swastika present only for a seconds in the movie. Moreover, while Jewish folk are coded for and signaled to by Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve Roger's "mentor" Dr. Abraham Erskine being the most prominent example, there is no mention of the Holocaust or the death camps.

Politics is popular culture. Popular culture is also one of the ways that history and politics are taught to, reimagined, and understood by a people. Both do serious ideological work.

I am deeply familiar with the standard objection, that fantasy should be just that--"fantasy"--and that "the real world" should be replaced in our popular culture by an America as it "should have been"...and not the America that was and is.

The Captain America character deserves better than such a flat and dishonest depiction of history...even in a comic book universe. The audience deserves better as well.


Anonymous said...

At the end of the day its just a fun throw away comic book adaptation and means to begin pushing The Avengers film. If this was in away supposed to be a realistic and "gritty" retelling of the Captain America mythos I would agree with you but its not so I dont.

Big Mark 243 said...

I don't think Anon gets the point, which is why your critique is more accurate.... I understand the 'brownwashing' of these Marvel Characters (in 'Thor', a BLACK Hemidall..?) but if they were going to 'mulit-culturalize' the film, there should have been mentions made of the aforementioned units, so that an attempt could be made by linking the fantasy to reality...

... the thing that made 'Star Trek' so endearing was how the science was 'real' and how unapologetically they mixed the races on the show. But in 'First Avenger', the leaps of logic rivals the same kind of magical thinking that Tea Baggers like Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann take part in... complete departures from reality...

... thanks for making your review of the movie... you hit the nail right on the head as far as accuracy goes... I may have to add my own thoughts on the movie as well later today...

chaunceydevega said...

@Anon. You miss my point. My point was that these elements would make the story better, even within the aesthetic and universe it established. Folks sometimes forget that popular culture, as a product, object, text, etc. is the result of a series of decisions by the people involved. The writers, producers, and directors made a series of choices that reflect their individuals politics. The movie, even if "just" a comic book movie is doing serious ideological work. Moreover, "casual" and "fun" texts are often the most potent (and potentially subversive in their best examples) precisely because of how readers take them so lightly.

@Bigmark. Thanks for the cosign. I look forward to your piece as well. Some folks don't "get" how one multiculturalism and "diversity" can do some really pernicious and conservative ideological work. That is the deep game of colorblind politics where it is all myth making and superficial do-goodism but never addresses the real issues at play.

Shady_Grady said...

Thanks for the review. I will have to see the movie. Without having seen it my thought is that people were looking for ways to (ahem) "whitewash" things while still making an entertaining and inclusive (within certain limits) movie.

I just saw "Lincoln Lawyer" which takes place in modern times and in which the only black character is a chauffeur who calls the white man "boss" thru the whole movie and has criminal ties. So it sounds like "Captain America" won't be that bad in comparison but I'll look out for the issues you raised in your review.

Honestly I don't know if I'll even see it though because I'm just sort of down on white hero movies now. Unless the story/effects are really good I'm sorta burned out on always seeing white heroes/heroines and never seeing black versions of same.

I.e where is a black epic/adventure movie? Historical or fiction it doesn't matter to me...

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this review. I haven't seen this film yet; I will have your words in mind when I do.

I agree our works of imaginative fiction ought to respond to history instead of "improving" upon it. It doesn't have to be polemical or heavy-handed; it just can be the way the world is presented.

I understand the desire to create feel-good escapist fare. But to omit segregation entirely, in a film set in the Jim-Crow era US? To omit all mention of the Holocaust, in a WWII movie? I stare in disbelief.

BTW, I wouldn't call Ghost Rider or The Punisher "run of the mill." They are among the worst comic-book inspired films ever made.

Brick Layer said...

Hitting the nail on the head. Golden opportunity missed by Marvel to honor America's greatest champion,Could have added a sense of true patriotism among all, but it amounted to "lets hope they don't get pissed. Throw a black guy in there."

During WW2, these fools even had separate blood for races.

another halocene human said...

Agreed on everything except that I think it's the producers who are the prejudiced ones and they project their prejudice on the whole country. It's not like the actual 40's when you had tension between the creative types and the company censors over what they could show on the silver screen and not lose distribution in the South. Now it's all about stroking the backers' egos. The only way movies like "Precious" get made is when you have backers who come from a different background (sorry for that awkward phoneme repetition).

(Btw, uncomfortable fact: "Precious" turned a fat little profit.)

From what you've said it seems like this movie shits all over the original Captain America, which is totally fucking sad. It's like we're moving backwards. What a crying shame. I, too, saw the trailer and just about had a shitfit when they introduced the shield with no explanation. "The fuuuuuck???? Where's the Black Panther, poopyheads?" I said a little too loudly in the theater.

Well, at least I will get some good mileage out of hating this movie. The gall of those c888s888ers, and I am not talking about being good, giving, and game.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of thoughts that went through my head when I was watching the Will Smith "Wild, Wild West" film. It's supposed to be twenty years after the Civil War and a black federal agent is running around battling neo-Confederates, and not once did anyone use a racial epithet or disparage Smith's character simply for being black.

Vesuvian Woman said...

I love comic books as much as the next straight, hot-chick BUT, I'm suprised that you're surprised. What about The Rocketeer made you think this movie would be good? That movie is so blatantly useless that when I saw the preview for CA, I compared it to the Rocketeer not knowing it was the same director for either. The backlash of one set the pendulum to swing in the other direction. Same is true for the new X-Men, another movie I have not seen. Based on what is obvious to me: Hollywoods' long-standing inability to sincerely embrace jungle fever. They can go into the jungle and wreak all levels of chaos as long as they can return to their unhappy home of lies and lots of money.

What is so wrong with equality?