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Anthony Mackie On Representation, Role Models, and Becoming Captain America

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier star’s update of the iconic superhero takes the superhero genre into topical territory.

5/3/2021 10:08:00 PM

“The relationship between America and African-American men is a very tumultuous, abusive relationship,” says AnthonyMackie. “...[Sam] being Captain America recognize...the hardships and things that black men and women have gone through in this country...'

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier star’s update of the iconic superhero takes the superhero genre into topical territory.

.Even if you aren’t familiar with his comic alter-ego, Anthony Mackie is a familiar face. Over the last two decades, he's defused bombs in Kathryn Bigelow’sThe Hurt Locker, rap battled against Eminem in8Milemovies and television showsthat comprise the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For seven years and six films, he’s portrayed Sam Wilson, aka Falcon, the Air Force veteran turned superhero, who has served as a fan-favorite supporting player within the Avengers roster.

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This March, Mackie and his character graduated from his wingman post and took the lead in Disney+ breakout miniseriesFalcon and the Winter Soldier.The show, which ended its first season earlier this month, explores what it means to be a modern heroand

a person of color in 2021. It ends (spoiler alert) with Wilson stepping up to become the new Captain America and the first Black man to take up the mantle in a live-action production. Representation has become a media priority, but it’s still relatively rare for Black and Brown performers to serve as leads in tentpole franchise films, making Mackie’s ascension to de facto Avengers leader meaningful for the actor and audiences. “It poses questions. Now you have white kids who will look up a Black Captain America,” Mackie told me via Zoom. “I have four little Black boys, and now they’re also going to have a conversation with their white, Asian, and Latino friends. That’s what is most important. When you take the [familiar] and spin it on its head, what do those conversations look like?” headtopics.com

Diverging from the familiar iss current M.O. Its first two MCU TV spinoffs use their serialized format to expand the notion of superhero content while referencing a plethora of old media. IfWandaVisionwas the studio’s madcap overview of television tropes,

Falconhonors the tenets of summer blockbusters. In between its societal critiques, the show nods to the genre standards of the late 80s and early 90s. There are shades of Tom Clancy-style espionage thrillers each time Sam and Bucky Barnes chase superpowered terrorist group the Flagsmashers across international borders. Likewise, the banter-filled scenes that highlight their mismatched partnership nod to buddy cop action flicks like

Lethal Weaponand48 Hrs. In the comedy variant of that sub-genre, the one-liners are as frequent as the explosions, and every altercation serves as code for bro-y codependency.In its lighter moments,Falcon and the Winter Soldierveers in that direction with zingers and meme-able visual non-sequiturs. Programming that balances multiple genres and moods is the selling point of prestige TV, but it demands performers who can walk a tightrope. A Juilliard alum who cut his teeth in New York's theater scene, Mackie fits the bill. Still, putting on his winged-Cap suit for the first time was an emotional experience. “I called my sister and talked to her for a while about it,” he says. “There were so many things I wanted in my career growing up as a young actor. I didn’t go to Hollywood and say, “Make me a star.” I didn’t do some of these other things to get recognition; I worked for 21 years to get to where I am. [So] to have that moment of realizing that all of your hard work has paid off, it’s very humbling.”

Photo: Chuck Zlotnick, Courtesy of Marvel StudiosComics have a long history of social commentary—X-Men’sallusions to the HIV crisis,Black Panther’sdebut at the height of the Civil Rights movement—andFalcon and the Winter Soldier’sexploration of America’s history of white supremacy continues that tradition. Race informs every arc, whether it’s referenced via the indignity of Wilson getting pulled over by police for walking while Black or through the struggles of Isiah Bradley, a World War II-era super-soldier whose story directly parallels that of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the U.S. government’s history of experimenting on black bodies. Connecting to the news cycle within the fantasy of a world rife with Norse gods and time travelers could have been problematic, but Mackie credits screenwriter Malcolm Spellman for the series’ nuanced handling of real-world issues. “I was blown away by it—Malcolm went in deep on these characters,” he says. “I don’t know if anybody else would have had the balls to do that. The fact that we have Isiah Bradley in this series and [acknowledge] everything he meant not only to the history of America and the forming of Captain America is monumental. I don’t know if anyone but Malcolm would have had the balls to do that.” headtopics.com

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Bradley represents the abuses of the past, but it’s through Wilson that the complexities of being a Black man in 2021 are illustrated. Burdened with the understanding that his position as Captain America will be objectionable to those more comfortable with his blonde, blue-eyed predecessor, the character debates becoming the symbolic representation of a nation where people of color remain targets. “The relationship between America and African-American men is a very tumultuous, abusive relationship,” says Mackie. “’ It’s something that needs to be rectified and healed. So the idea of [Sam] being Captain America recognizes all of the hardships and things that black men and women have gone through in this country. Still, it’s also about the future and what we can look forward to for our kids to experiencing in this country.”

Father to four boys, Mackie has already gotten a taste of the youth reaction to his tenure as Cap. “My two littlest ones looked at the T.V. they looked at me, and they looked at the T.V., and they’re like, “Dad, that guy looks just like you,” he says. “And then they went back to playing with their Legos.” Toddlers may not be impressed, but the internet has been buzzing, especially since the announcement Marvel is developing a fourth

Captain Americafilm with a script from Spellman. In keeping with the studio’s reputation for secrecy, Mackie only found out about the project after the fact. “It’s funny when I saw that news, I was like ‘no one called me!’” With Sam’s trajectory a closely guarded secret, Mackie is eager to see where the character goes and what his message will be. “I think Sam Wilson is more so about unifying and equality,” says Mackie. “A Captain America for everyone instead of Captain America for a specific few.”

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'So the idea of [Sam] being Captain America recognizes all of the hardships and things that black men and women have gone through in this country.' 'It’s also about the future and what we can look forward to for our kids to experiencing in this country.” '...Still, it’s also about the future and what we can look forward to for our kids to experiencing in this country.” The FalconandtheWinterSoldier star’s update of the iconic superhero takes the superhero genre into topical territory.