Full disclosure: I was not what you would call “woke” until 2014.
Specifically August 9, 2014. The day Michael Brown was unjustly gunned down in Ferguson, Missouri.
I wasn’t asleep, per say. I had peeped what had happened to Trayvon Martin back in 2012. I had peeped how a simple trip to the corner store cost him his life. I had peeped that doing ANYTHING while Black could cost one their life. I had even peeped how the system had let his sadistic killer (he who I shall not name because his worth is equal to a speck of dust in my eyes as compared to Trayvon) get off scot-free.
I peeped it all.
I moved on. I internalized it and moved on because frankly, I wasn’t ready to unpack everything that I needed to properly understand why it was all so fucked up.
However, Michael Brown wasn’t as easy to move on from. There are a variety of reasons for why that was the case. Part of me believes that the racial climate at the PWI that I attend made it so that I could no longer ignore the injustices happening around me. Part of me believes that Mike being the same age as my then-college bound brother made it so that I immediately equated them with each other. My brother could have easily been Mike. I could have easily been mike. And then, there’s the part of me that saw that video of Lesley McSpadden (Mike Brown’s mom) crying out in pain over the unjust murder of her child.
I think that’s what did it.
There is something about a mother’s cries that haunt you. You need not even lay eyes on her face to hear the agony in her voice. And God help you if you do lay eyes on her face because you will never forget it. It is because of her cries that I could not and cannot “get over” Michael Brown.
So I woke up.
Since then, like many other woke folk will tell you, sleep is no longer a viable option. What do I mean by that? Well, let’s just say that I peep everything. Even the little things.
That commercial that just played in the middle of the Superbowl? Problematic. That music I used to pump severely? Oppressive. That TV show I used to like? Regressive.
I see the little cracks and bumps in everything, even if I don’t necessarily want to.
Such is the case for the beloved Captain America: Civil War.
Civil War is a good movie. A great movie even. At this point, I have watched it three times and enjoyed it all three times. It is my new favorite superhero movie not just because it improves on its predecessor but because I finally got to see one of my favorite superheroes of all-time—Black Panther—kicking major ass and taking names in a movie that was majority White.
That latter point is something I have come to expect (but not necessarily accept) from these types of movies (or movies in general, really). But Captain America: Civil War attempts to fix that…by utilizing Black pain and Black death.
Now, here’s the thing. As much as I am full of pride when I look at T’Challa and as much as I appreciate the existence of War Machine and Rhodey, their inclusion in this movie does not make up for the fact that Black pain and Black death are constructed as the biggest motivators behind the various protagonists in this film.
I know what you’re thinking.
“OMG LEX. THAT IS SO NOT TRUE. TONY WANTS TO FIX EVERYTHING HE BROKE BY BEING ACCOUNTABLE TO THE GOVERNMENTS OF THE WORLD AND STEVE JUST WANTS TO PROTECT BUCKY AND MAKE SURE NONE OF THE GOVERNMENTS OF THE WORLD CAN BASICALLY USE THEM AS WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION AGAINST A COUNTRY THEY DO NOT HAPPEN TO LIKE.
IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH RACE.
AND I ALSO DON’T SEE COLOR FYI.”
While that is a “passionate” defense, it is most certainly an erroneous one, especially if we start to line up the facts of the film.
Charlie Spencer: Say His Name
FACT: Tony carries a lot of guilt with him. A LOT. From the weapons of mass destruction he was funding up until Iron Man to the creation of Ultron that ultimately lead to the demise of Sokovia in The Avengers: Age of Ultron, this man is the personification of guilt. If you looked up guilt in the dictionary, you would probably see of picture of him RIGHT THERE, with his eyes watering and his bottom lip quivering as it always does when he feels guilty (i.e. his “guilt face” as my dearest friend AJ Parker put it).
Because of this, it makes sense that Tony was trying to find a way to make amends for all of these past sins at the beginning of Civil War. HOWEVER, as much as people want to credit his eventual sponsorship of The Sokovian Accords to him wanting the Avengers to be held accountable to a higher governing body, that sponsorship DOES not happen until Tony encounters the pain and wrath of a grieving mother during his visit to MIT.
Specifically, a BLACK, grieving mother. Played by Alfre Woodard.
Woodard’s character, Miriam, goes on to confront Tony about her son, Charlie Spencer. After shoving a picture of him in Tony’s chest, Miriam goes on to describe her son and his life in great detail. She recalls all his hopes and dreams and even lists off his accomplishments. And then, after she concludes, she unapologetically blames Tony for his death, as he was one of the civilian casualties in Sokovia during Age of Ultron.
Suddenly, just like that, Tony’s immense guilt morphs into White guilt.
I could probably argue that he could have been experiencing this for a minute, considering all the bombs that were created by Stark Industries and dropped on a myriad of Brown (and most certainly Black) countries up until Iron Man. But nothing makes it stand out more here than the immense pain of a Black mother.
Because of this pain, Tony’s standard levels of guilt are multiplied by a 1000 and he walks into the subsequent meeting for The Sovokia Accords with nary as much as a sassy look, much less his trademark snark. No. He sits in that meeting, internalizes everything General Ross is saying to The Avengers about their superhero excursions causing the world great pain, and he is the first one to jump up and co-sign the Accords.
The co-signing is also accompanied by him re-telling the story of Charlie to this overwhelmingly White room—sans General Ross. And if that isn’t an obvious enough point, we also get the obligatory looks of sadness and resignation on Rhodey (a Black man) and Sam’s (another Black man) faces as Tony continues with this story and resolves that they should sign the accords.
Of course, they argue a bit afterward about the merits of these accords, but I’d be willing to bet that half of the team’s mind was already made up after staring into the eyes of a deceased Black boy.
I find that kind of fascinating for a myriad of reasons:
1. Woodard’s character is canon and originally White.
In this film, Woodard portrays the character of Miriam Sharpe , a character during the Civil War arc who was canonically a White woman.
In that version of Miriam, Sharpe tearfully and angrily confronts Tony on the death of her son, Damien, and tells him that his blood is on his hands. It’s a well-done and powerful scene in a comic book arc that had a bunch of disjointed ones.
I am guessing the team behind Civil War wanted to include that scene in the actual movie as well, and thought it fairly appropriate to race-bend Miriam if only to somehow segue (subtly or not subtly depending on who you ask) into the national conversation about #BlackLivesMatter.
I think if this were the only instance in which Black pain was pointed out in the film, it might have resonated a bit more, but because it does not exist in a vacuum and because there are multiple instances of this sprinkled throughout the film, it comes off as exploitative.
2. What would happen if we take away Charlie’s credentials? Would his life suddenly not have mattered?
Hearing Charlie’s accomplishments listed by both Miriam and Tony was a weird experience. Coming from his mother, Mariam, it’s understandable. His mother worked, cried, bled to raise him up until that point. And raising any Black child in this country is not easy. At all. It never has been.
I don’t doubt that it was tragic in the least. It is tragic. But I really wonder if that sympathy or guilt would have been as strong if Charlie was not as decorated or accomplished. Would Tony and his friends have felt as strongly if Charlie was a regular ‘ol Black kid that happened to live in Sokovia? What if he was, as Fox News likes to say, a standard “thug”? What if we happened to catch Charlie at a point in his life that was, dare I say, unsavory ?
Would his life not have mattered then? Would it be worth less than the nigh “perfect victim” we got in Charlie?
I believe his life still would have mattered because all Black lives do. Even the ones people find “unsavory”. But I am not sure The Avengers would have agreed with me.
Lagos, Nigeria (and Other Instances of Black Death on the African Continent)
Prior to the argument over The Sokovian Accords, Steve (and his squad of Avengers) botches an extraction mission in Lagos that ends up causing a bunch of casualties.
After this happens, the meeting I previously mentioned takes place and Ross proceeds to list each and every city and country that The Avengers managed to make a mess in. We were taken back to The Hulk’s rampage in New York and the destruction of Sokovia via Ultron. And then we were finally were brought up to speed on the recent happenings in Lagos.
Of course, Lagos was not The Avengers’ first misadventure on the African continent. The last time we were in Africa, The Avengers were making yet another mess on the “African Coast” (also known as “That was really Johannesburg, South Africa, but we were too lazy to actually label it) due to the Hulk’s rampage through the city. That excursion in South Africa was conveniently left out of the presentation.
Interestingly enough, something strange happens with the presentation of Lagos. In the glorified PowerPoint that Ross presents on The Avengers’ gross destruction of cities, whereas the cities of Sokovia and New York are presented at the peak of their destruction (I.e during the act), we are shown the aftermath of what happened in Lagos. And that aftermath includes the death body of Black girl on full display for the entire room to see.
Half of me knows that the intended (if intentions really mattered—which they don’t) purpose of that scene was for Wanda to see the extent of her fuck-up in Lagos. But the other half of me knows that this is in keeping with Civil War’s already established pattern of using Black pain and Black death as a way to bring the pathos.
The Sacrifice of James “Rhodey” Rhodes
And speaking of pathos, I can’t really talk about pathos in this film without talking about James “Rhodey” Rhodes. As detailed in my review of the film, we’ve seen Rhodey before, but he finally gets more shine Civil War. However, this shine comes at the cost of him becoming “the heart” or the pathos of this film.
After going toe-to-toe with Steve about why The Avengers can no longer go unregulated (making that point much better than Tony ever could) and doing his best to enforce the parameters of the Accords without hurting any of his teammates, it is then Rhodey who ends up getting getting hurt and harmed in this battled between #TeamIronMan and #TeamCap. And this harm is done to him—accidentally—by fellow teammate, Vision.
Of course, this causes both sides to pause, especially when both Tony and Sam attempt to save Rhodey and fail miserably. And after this particular incident, Natasha warns Tony that if both sides do not find a way to cease fire, Rhodey will be “the best case scenario” in that the violence (and potential casualties) might get worse.
It is at that moment that Rhodey then joins various other instances in the film of Black pain and Black death being used to motivate The Avengers to take some course of action.
Why does this matter? Well, this is a precarious thing for the movie to play with especially in the case of friendly fire between Vision and Rhodey. In especially that case, Black pain and Black death is a direct result of White negligence. While many will be quick to argue that Vision is an android who is of no race, he is still Tony’s creation (by the transitive property of Tony creating Ultron who then partially created Vision).
This issue of White negligence actually gets hinted at a bit during the Accords meeting when Ross points out that The Avengers are US-based and have a penchant for ignoring sovereign borders. If explored, that might have touched on America’s past (and present) history with colonization and imperialism. It would have touched on the war that America has waged on Black and Brown bodies since the violent inception of this very country through the near extinction of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans (the latter point makes the coming Black Panther film that much more important).
But, of course, that exploration never happens. And that pathos is left on the surface. Barely scratched at.
Still, there is something to be said about these multiple examples of Black pain (and death), why they exist in this film, and how they actually bring the pathos:
Without the inclusion of them, “the deaths” in the film, that Ross and many others have tallied up, ring hollow.
It’s rather oxymoronic really. Black bodies in particular are so gawked at and simultaneously undervalued by the world-at-large that it makes no sense and some sense that they would serve as some strange “call-to-action” in this film.
To expound, in a post-Ferguson world, where technology allows us to basically know all and see all, we are constantly bombarded with images of Black bodies, Black pain, and Black death through various modes of media. If I wanted to do so RIGHT NOW, I could Google the infamous death video of, let’s say, Walter Scott, and watch it as many times as my bleeding heart desires.
And while it is painful for Black people to witness these videos for obvious reasons, it is and can be morbidly entertaining in that “Oh, wow! How very terrible!” way for those who are not Black. It can be entertaining for those who can detach themselves from the situation and for those who believe themselves to be looking at the situation logically. The media knows this too, otherwise, they would not loop the wrongful executions of Black citizens on TV News outlets like they are this week’s rad new Netflix special.
This “morbid entertainment” aspect is why I saw dead Black bodies strewn on the ground in Lagos and saw no dead White bodies strewn in the respective grounds of New York or Sokovia in the same manner. For all the stories we hear in the film about Sokovia being blown to hell and New York being torn through, not once do I see a dead White body. Not once do I see a little dead White girl staring back at me, eyes wide open, like I saw in Lagos.
This is why the treatment of Black bodies in Civil War is oxymoronic. Black [fictional] lives matter, the film guesses, but not so much that our dead Black bodies shouldn’t still be put on grotesque display. That our pain should not be broadcasted to millions. That our lives should not be used as bargaining chips and tools of compromise in political arenas.
Images From: Empire, Superherotaskforce.com, Fullact.com, Giphy, Moviepilot, Blogspot, Turner.com, Wesharepics.info, Thacolorgray.com, Unpacktherat.com, Fastcompany.net, The Huffington Post, Blogs.reuters.com, Myglowingscenes.com, Dailymail.co.uk, TNS