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Hollywood’s loyal opposition | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Does ‘Captain America’ blackwash history?

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Black soldiers did not fight alongside white soldiers in the U.S. Army in World War II. But you wouldn’t know that by looking at Captain America: The First Avenger. Says Charles M. Blow in The New York Times:

I watched the scenes of a fictitious integrated American Army fighting in Europe at the end of World War II, I became unsettled. Yes, I know that racial revisionism has become so common in film that it’s almost customary, so much so that moviegoers rarely balk or even blink. And even I try not to think too deeply about shallow fare. Escapism by its nature must bend away from reality.

Blow goes on to discuss the experience of the “Buffalo Soldiers,” the segregated divisions of African-American fighters, including the terrible discrimination they faced. This touches him personally, because his grandfather was one of those soldiers, and was so terribly impacted by his experience that he never spoke of it. Then:

That is why the racial history of this country is not a thing to be toyed with by Hollywood. There are too many bodies at the bottom of that swamp to skim across it with such indifference. Attention must be shown. Respect must be paid.

So as “Captain America” ended and the credits began to roll, I managed a bit of a smile, the kind that turns up on the corners with a tinge of sadness. I smiled not for what I’d seen, but for what had not been shown, knowing that I would commit it to a column so that my grandfather and the many men like him would not be lost to the sanitized vision of America’s darker years.

This isn’t personal to me, so of course, it’s easier for me to say this, but I’m not sure that depicted a fictitious integrated army in Captain America is a problem. There may not have been black soldiers fighting alongside white in World War II, but neither were there supersoldier programs, early flying cars, Nazi mini-submarines off Brooklyn, or ancient weapons of the gods misued by mad scientists. This is all entirely fantastical, and no one could possibly be mistaken otherwise. You could even argue that Captain America is taking place in an alternate universe: the 1942 New York City skyline here is certainly not the one we remember. Perhaps in this universe, the U.S. Army was integrated.

Were this a movie that pretended to historical accuracy, then of course inventing intergrated units would be a travesty. But this isn’t that kind of movie. It is an unabashed fantasy.

Does Captain America blackwash history? And if it does, it that a problem?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)


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  • Jim King

    This is just a lame rationalization for the laziness of the filmmakers. Tolkien said correctly that when creating a fantasy world its internal rules must be consistent and here that’s not the case. I’m fine with the advanced technology but this world is supposed to be otherwise the 1940s that really existed. This means no integrated units, and no women in positions of authority they could never have at that time achieved.

  • Jim King

    I don’t know why so many people think you couldn’t make a “fun summer move” that’s also historically accurate. Steve Rogers could have at least expressed his disapproval of that segregation – it would have been another way of pointing out his nobility and how perfect he was to be Captain America. Obviously some people must have thought that way or nothing would ever have changed. This movie is not like 300 which is intended to be pure fantasy. There are fantastical elements but overall it’s supposed to be the 1940s as they really existed.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    So, why is technological revisionism okay with you, but not cultural revisionism?

  • Jim King

    The technology is (partly) explained by the Nazi possession of the tesseract, but also because there’s the precedent of the comic books of the time. Apart from that technology it’s otherwise supposed to be the real world – with those few fantastical elements added to it. If they want to also have integration, address it in some way. Maybe in that world slavery never happened. Or if it did, there was no segregation post Civil War. It’s something that should be addressed. I remember an episode of Star Trek DS9 where Sisko was bothered by the holosuite version of 1960s Vegas because in reality black people weren’t welcome except as performers. The same with women – maybe suffrage began much earlier, they got the vote much earlier, etc., etc., and there would be nothing unusual with Peggy Carter being in that position of power. It seems like the real people who were so negatively affected by these things deserve the subject to be addressed in some way. With the advanced technology that’s not an issue at all. ‘Nuff said?

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    No, not “’nuff said.” You want your fantasy world in which the tech is more advanced that it was. Fine. But don’t deny other fans the fantasy world *we* want… one in which those of us who aren’t white and male get to have adventures and kick ass too.

  • Jim King

    Obviously, you didn’t read what I wrote. Or, if you did, then just as obviously didn’t understand it (probably a common occurrence). I can see you’re not worth wasting any more time on. What a moron.

  • Bluejay

    Is the debate around the “fictional racial integration” in Captain America really just a debate about the one black soldier on Cap’s team? Because that team is supposed to be the Howling Commandos, which has its roots in a 1960s Marvel comic, and which seems to have always been racially and ethnically integrated to reflect Stan Lee’s idealism (and, yes, revisionism). (Wikipedia: “Even in the early 1960s, Lee was obliged to send a memo to the color separator at the printing plant to confirm that the character Gabe Jones was African American, after the character had appeared with Caucasian coloring in the first issue.”)

    So while Captain America may have been revisionist in that regard, it was also historically faithful to the revisionism of its source material. For what it’s worth.

  • Jim King

    She punched him, but he should never have gone down. Maybe if she was built like a female shotputter or something, but not a woman her size.

  • Jim King

    You’re easily amused I guess. Do you know why American audiences wouldn’t watch a foreign film without subtitles? Because English has become the global language of business and diplomacy and everyone learns it. I do like the idea of Americans learning another language – Spanish is obviously a good idea – but where Germans, French, Chinese, etc., people can all learn English to communicate with each other we would have to learn dozens or hundreds of languages. I doubt that German crowd could have watched a movie in Mandarin without subtitles. Or French. Or Italian.

    As for replacing the Nazis with Hydra, I guess this is just part of the whole fantasy. The German soldiers are being fought by the non super soldiers. It makes sense Captain America is fighting the Red Skull rather than Hitler. I doubt it has to do with caring what Germans like because although it’s the fourth largest economy it’s more to do with population and there are bigger markets. A movie like this would do well if no German ever went to see it.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    Either you think the kind of fantasy you want to see is okay but that others want to see isn’t, or… no, that’s pretty much it.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Technological fantasy gets explained because it is essential to the story being told. If you don’t justify it, the plausibility, even accounting for willing suspension of disbelief, falls apart. I don’t see how justification, or lack thereof, of Gabriel Jones’s presence on Capt. America’s squad affects the plausibility of the rest of the story.

    I also fail to see how Jones’s presence violates any sort of internal rules. Derek Luke was, as far as I can recall, the only black actor to appear anywhere in the film. Given that we know for certain that this is an alternate history, then any changes to the history we know that are not specifically commented on are justified prima facie.

    Beyond that, if you’re going to use “there’s the precedent of the comic books” as justification, then allow me to remind you that Gabriel Jones is a character from the Marvel comics. He’s an original member of Nick Fury’s “Howling Commandos”, and is specifically stated to be the first black soldier integrated into a white unit. Of course that’s also a continuity in which Fury is white and a contemporary of Steve Rogers, as opposed to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where he’s African-American and born sometime between the early ’40s and the late ’60s. But it was established long before CA:TFA that the MCU varies significantly from the various Marvel continuities.

    And now that I’ve given you a lengthy and reasonable counter-argument: Wow, Jimmy, condescending douchecanoe much?

  • Jim King

    The difference between having the advanced technology and the fantasy of an integrated U.S. WW2 military is that a superhero movie must work for those with no knowledge of the comics and the general public knows by now that implausible or impossible technology is part of the deal along with routinely breaking or bending the laws of physics. It’s also often part of the deal, not just in superhero movies, that tweaking history a bit is accepted, but in small ways. If you do something big, you have to explain it. So, yes, in Sgt Fury they had the first integrated unit. They mention it in the comics because it didn’t really happen. They don’t say anything about it in the movie. And they should have.

    Wow, Jimmy, condescending douchecanoe much?

    Why? Because I dislike it when people can’t be bothered to read what I’ve written, and their reply reads like a reply to someone else? You might want to consider removing the cringeworthy word “douchecanoe” from your vocabulary, though. It is nice that unlike MaryAnne Johanson you commented on what I actually said. Even if you’re wrong.

  • Jim King

    What?

  • Jim King

    Showing the darkest side of the war wouldn’t have been necessary. They could have just mentioned that an integrated unit was unusual. Cap being in favor of it when others weren’t might’ve been another way to show his moral superiority.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    You’re still not making a compelling case that the presence of Gabriel Jones represents a story-breaking level of dissonance. The movie doesn’t feature black soldiers in every military unit. Just one guy in Steve Rogers’s hand-picked unit, which also includes a soldier of Asian descent, and a guy who wears a bowler hat instead of a helmet.

    Look, either you can use the comics as backstory or you can’t. You don’t get to have that both ways. Jones makes an appearance (and it’s hardly more than that) as a shout out to the numerous audience members who are familiar with the comics.

    No, I call you a condescending douchecanoe (a term I find wonderfully evocative without being egregiously vulgar and will continue to deploy, thankyouverymuch) because you assume you know what someone else reads, and that any disagreement could only come from not reading. I do note that you’ve gone back and, without any acknowledgement, edited your post to remove most of the inflammatory language, such as your suggestion that MaryAnn often misunderstands comment, and your admonition that she is a moron. Which kind of makes you a dishonest condescending douchecanoe.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    No namecalling!

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    the general public knows by now that implausible or impossible technology is part of the deal along with routinely breaking or bending the laws of physics.

    But implausible or impossible sociological tinkering is unacceptable in comic-book movies?

    I disagree. And I’ll reiterate: You are reaching for a justification for a sort of fantasy that you are comfortable with that you simultaneously refuse to apply to a sort of fantasy that you are uncomfortable with.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Mea culpa.

  • Jim King

    because you assume you know what someone else reads, and that any disagreement could only come from not reading.

    No, based on her reply she didn’t read what I wrote:

    don’t deny other fans the fantasy world *we* want… one in which those
    of us who aren’t white and male get to have adventures and kick ass too.

    I didn’t say anything remotely like that. Kind of the opposite, really, so I could be pretty sure she didn’t read what I wrote. Maybe she skimmed it and got a completely wrong impression. It was either that or she didn’t understand it. I’ve seen this since with her misreading of other people’s comments, so I guess it’s nothing personal.

    I do note that you’ve gone back and, without any acknowledgement,
    edited your post to remove most of the inflammatory language, such as
    your suggestion that MaryAnn often misunderstands comment, and your
    admonition that she is a moron.

    I figured after that I should give her the benefit of the doubt – that she didn’t misunderstand but just didn’t read it. Also, apparently she’s blocked others for less which is also why I changed it. Of course I knew the other version would already have been seen.

    Which kind of makes you a dishonest condescending douchecanoe.

    We’re permitted to edit our comments. It’s ridiculous to think every change must be acknowledged.

    that the presence of Gabriel Jones represents a story-breaking level of dissonance.

    It does, in the same way that Carter’s does because this is supposed to be the real world of the 1940s with some tweaks. Those tweaks must be explained. The technology is, the rest isn’t. No one even mentions it. For one thing, Captain America being in favor of ending segregation when others were against it might’ve been another way of showing his moral superiority.

    Look, either you can use the comics as backstory or you can’t. You don’t get to have that both ways.

    What I said was you can’t expect most people to know the comics. A small percentage of viewers will know about Sgt. Fury’s Howling Commandos and that it was the first integrated unit. They do explain the advanced technology as being partly the result of possessing the tesseract, aka Cosmic Cube (a name I would have preferred, but no big deal). They have to explain the rest. I don’t see how I’m trying to have it both ways.

    The movie doesn’t feature black soldiers in every military unit. Just
    one guy in Steve Rogers’s hand-picked unit, which also includes a
    soldier of Asian descent, and a guy who wears a bowler hat instead of a
    helmet.

    They don’t need to explain the Asian guy. If you watch Band of Brothers one of the interviews was with an Asian guy, who was part of the all-white 101st Airborne. So it must not have been an issue. For some reason. I also don’t think they had a problem with Native Americans serving alongside whites. As for the guy with the bowler hat, although I would have liked that to be acknowledged. I read an article recently that Sikh police officers in England want armored turbans. Why not a WW2 era helmet shaped like a bowler? It’s a comic book movie so that little tweak I could accept easily. It would never have been allowed in reality but I don’t mind these little tweaks. For the record I would have liked them to have shown a lot more black soldiers if they were going to pretend that integration was already and accepted reality.

  • Jim King

    But implausible or impossible sociological tinkering is unacceptable in comic-book movies?

    If it’s not explained, yes. As I said, the technological tinkering was explained.

    I disagree. And I’ll reiterate: You are reaching for a justification for
    a sort of fantasy that you are comfortable with that you simultaneously
    refuse to apply to a sort of fantasy that you are uncomfortable with.

    I’m arguing for consistency in a fantasy world. Tolkien was correct when he said a fantasy world must have consistent internal rules if any story told in that world is to have any meaning. Whether or not you like his work, whether or not you’ve ever read anything he’s written, that makes logical sense.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    There’s a lot of daylight between responding with “That’s not what I said” and responding with “Either you didn’t read what I wrote or you didn’t understand it.” And only one of those is condescending.

    We’re permitted to edit our comments. It’s ridiculous to think every change must be acknowledged.

    Editing to attempt to dump your shitty behavior down the memory hole is dishonest. In fact, it is the entire reason the acronym “QFT” exists on the internet.

    It does, in the same way that Carter’s does because this is supposed to be the real world of the 1940s with some tweaks.

    Unless you’re arguing that the entire movie fails the plausibility test, this is where we get the impression that you’re ok with some fantasies but not others.

    Captain America being in favor of ending segregation when others were against it might’ve been another way of showing his moral superiority.

    At that point of the film, does Rogers’s moral superiority need to be spelled out that explicitly? That is to say, does this addition add anything to the story that hasn’t been firmly established? In fact, I’d argue that his inclusion in the unit does a better job, according to the rule of “show, don’t tell”.

    What I said was you can’t expect most people to know the comics.

    They don’t need to explain the Asian guy. If you watch Band of Brothers…

    So, it’s not ok to expect the audience of a Captain America movie be familiar with the Captain America comic (which has been in fairly continuous publication for 70 years), but it is ok to expect them to be familiar with Band of Brothers (which ran on premium cable for 2 months in 2001)? That’s what I mean by trying to have it both ways.

  • Jim King

    There’s a lot of daylight between responding with “That’s not what I
    said” and responding with “Either you didn’t read what I wrote or you
    didn’t understand it.” And only one of those is condescending.

    I acknowledged the only two possibilities. There’s nothing condescending about that.

    Editing to attempt to dump your shitty behavior down the memory hole is dishonest.

    I didn’t do that. I knew she’d already have seen it. I regretted writing it and figured since at the time there had been no replies it was fine to take it out. Since I don’t care whether you approve or not I don’t think I’ll bother putting it back in, but if you want, include it in your reply to this if you make one.

    Unless you’re arguing that the entire movie fails the plausibility test, this is where we get the impression that you’re ok with some fantasies
    but not others.

    I think I’ve been very clear on this. The changes made to the technology were explained. The others I mentioned, like an integrated military, were not. Both should be.

    At that point of the film, does Rogers’s moral superiority need to be spelled out that explicitly? That is to say, does this addition add anything to the story that hasn’t been firmly established? In fact, I’d argue that his inclusion in the unit does a better job, according to the rule of “show, don’t tell”.

    With the technology, they partly told by showing. Movies do this all the time. They might’ve been able to do that with the subject of integration if it wasn’t for the fact that, as you said, he’s the one black guy we see. Also, telling doesn’t mean just coming out and stating it. As for Rogers’ moral superiority, I’d suggest that his position on that might’ve done more for him than the other things. When another applicant at a recruiting station says that the reporting on the war “almost makes you think twice about joining up,” Roger’s immediate, flat “No” just makes him look stupid, not brave, since courage isn’t about not being afraid. His unwillingness to back down from a fight that didn’t need to happen is also not a sign of moral superiority, but stupidity. Even his repeated attempts to join up when he knows he’s massively unsuited, and that he could help the war effort some other way, and that his unsuitability might’ve got other people killed, doesn’t convey moral superiority but, again, stupidity or at least recklessness.

    So, it’s not ok to expect the audience of a Captain
    America movie be familiar with the Captain America comic (which has been in
    fairly continuous publication for 70 years), but it is ok to expect them to be
    familiar with Band of Brothers (which ran on premium cable for 2 months
    in 2001)? That’s what I mean by trying to have it both ways.

    It wouldn’t be okay to expect the movie’s audience to be
    familiar with Band of Brothers, no. Good
    thing I didn’t suggest that! Whew! Instead, what I did was give Band of Brothers
    as an example of how there was not any problem with Asians
    serving alongside whites – in other words, there was no reason
    the movie should be expected to acknowledge it, whether or not the audience
    would be aware of it or not. Since
    blacks in reality weren’t permitted to serve alongside whites, showing them
    doing so in this movie is a bit different and should be acknowledge. I really don’t see why you had trouble with
    that. It’s all about the consistency of
    the fantasy world. So, again,
    I’m very, very obviously not trying to have it both ways.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I acknowledged the only two possibilities. There’s nothing condescending about that.

    Heh, irony. Another possibility (among many): she’s responding to an implication of what you wrote that perhaps you’re not even aware of.

    They might’ve been able to do that with the subject of integration if it wasn’t for the fact that, as you said, he’s the one black guy we see.

    Don’t you think a single exceptional case is easier to get away with than a wholesale revision? Do you think a fully integrated U.S. Army in WWII would be more plausible than one member of Captain America’s team?

    Instead, what I did was give Band of Brothers as an example of how there was not any problem with Asians serving alongside whites

    That’s still citing an outside source to justify events in the movie. And you’re insisting on audience familiarity with one thing, while insisting on a lack of audience familiarity with another, without explaining why this would be true. Why can audiences, at the Captain America movie, be assumed to know about this interview in Band of Brothers, but have never even heard of Gabriel Jones?

    I think you’re also over-estimating the average American’s understanding of racial issues in the World War II era US armed forces. If you don’t believe me, talk to George Takei.

    And, no, I don’t agree that this has anything to do with internal consistency. The alternate history explicitly established in the movie neither requires nor precludes the idea of a black soldier serving with white soldiers. What it does do is signal that this is, in fact, an alternate history, so we should not be surprised when things are the same as in the real world. So, again, why is this particular alteration out of bounds?

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    Maybe she skimmed it and got a completely wrong impression. It was either that or she didn’t understand it.

    I read what you wrote, and I understood perfectly well what you were saying. And then I translated back to you what it sounded like to me.

    I’ve seen this since with her misreading of other people’s comments, so I guess it’s nothing personal.

    Translating your words so that you understand how they sound to me is not personal, no. But it is most certainly not “misreading” your comments.

    apparently she’s blocked others for less which is also why I changed it.

    I don’t remember what you wrote, but a commenter has to be a colossal asshole before I ban someone. In the long history of this site, there have been only a tiny handful of people I’ve banned. You *are* trying my patience, but I don’t ban people for that.

  • Jim King

    Heh, irony.

    Yeah, that’s not irony, dude.

    she’s responding to an implication of what you wrote that perhaps you’re not even aware of.

    No, that’s not one of the possibilities. The idea is ludicrous.

    Don’t you think a single exceptional case is easier to get away with
    than a wholesale revision? Do you think a fully integrated U.S. Army in
    WWII would be more plausible than one member of Captain America’s team?

    Said I already said so, yes. And I justified it. All you did here was ask a question I’ve already answered.

    That’s still citing an outside source to justify events in the movie.

    No, it isn’t. It doesn’t matter if they’ve seen it or not. I was giving you a real world example. It doesn’t matter that it was from someone interviewed for Band of Brothers. Band of Brothers has absolutely nothing to do with it.

    And you’re insisting on audience familiarity with one thing, while
    insisting on a lack of audience familiarity with another, without
    explaining why this would be true.

    No, I’m not doing that at all. Do you know what common knowledge is? It’s common knowledge that asians were not segregated, only blacks. This is why the asian man being there doesn’t need to be explained but the presence of the black man does. I believe I’ve said this already, too.

    Why can audiences, at the Captain America movie, be assumed to know about this interview in Band of Brothers, but have never even heard of Gabriel Jones?

    They don’t, as I already said in the comment you replied to. I know your failure here to understand can’t be a lack of clarity on my part because otherwise other people would have this problem too, and they don’t. I’ll restate. I wouldn’t expect an audience of Captain America to have seen Band of Brothers or the interview to which I was referring. I wish I hadn’t used that an example because it seems to have just confused you even more. I could have just said that the asian man’s presence didn’t need to be explained because there never was segregation in the U.S. military for races other than black. I only mentioned the Band of Brothers interview to you as an example, not as something a viewer of the Captain America movie would be aware of.

    I think you’re also over-estimating the average American’s understanding
    of racial issues in the World War II era US armed forces. If you don’t
    believe me, talk to George Takei.

    Most people are at least aware of black segregation. Because there was no segregation in the military for asians, there’s no need for the movie to address it, whether or not an audience is aware of it or not. I’ve been very clear on this, or at least I thought I’d been very clear.

    And, no, I don’t agree that this has anything to do with internal consistency.

    And yet, it does. I’ve explained this thoroughly as well. It’s about the consistency of a fantasy world. Even though this takes place during real world events, it’s alternate history. In alternate history, any time something is changed from the way it really was, it must be explained. Again, that’s why the asian guy needs no explanation because it doesn’t differ from real history, but the presence of the black man does because that does differ from the real history.

    The alternate history explicitly established in the movie neither
    requires nor precludes the idea of a black soldier serving with white
    soldiers.

    Yes, it does, for the reasons I’ve given.

    What it does do is signal that this is, in fact, an alternate history, so we should not be surprised when things are the same as in the real world.

    Do you realize how stupid that sounds? When you make a movie like 300 you can add in any crazy shit and it doesn’t matter. When you make a movie like this, for the fantasy to hold up at all, you must explain the changes. There are other details they got wrong which don’t matter – e.g. using vehicles from 20+ years after WW2 ended. Few people are going to notice that That kind of detail doesn’t matter that much, even if I think they should have got that right too.

    So, again, why is this particular alteration out of bounds?

    I’ve answered this so many times that if you don’t understand yet I can only suggest going back and re-reading. There’s no point in my continuing to restate it.

  • Jim King

    I read what you wrote, and I understood perfectly well what you were saying.

    No, that’s obviously not true.

    And then I translated back to you what it sounded like to me.

    And what it sounded to you was certainly not what I said. Which is why I assumed you either didn’t read what I wrote, or misunderstood. If you did as you said read it, then you didn’t understand.

    Translating your words so that you understand how they sound to me is not personal, no. But it is most certainly not “misreading” your
    comments.

    Actually it is misreading, or misunderstanding. A textbook definition of it, in fact.

    You *are* trying my patience, but I don’t ban people for that.

    If someone pointing out your errors and failures tries your patience, then guilty as charged, I guess.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    That you would say, and continue to say, some remarkably condescending things, and then claim no condescension? Yeah, that’s strikes me as pretty ironic. But I understand that you wouldn’t see the irony.

    You also seem to be confusing justifications with assertions, and back tracking on your own evidence. Also, the lack of anyone else jumping in on this conversation doesn’t automatically make you “right” (just as anyone weighing in to agree with me would automatically make you “wrong”). Nor will my bowing out of this conversation, on the basis that I can appreciate that you think you’ve answered all my questions, and I’m frankly tired of you being a jerk about it all, mean that you “win”.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    No, that’s not one of the possibilities. The idea is ludicrous.

    Not only is that possible, it’s exactly what I was doing. Nothing ludicrous about it.

    You seem to read things — movies, comments — *very* literally. There are other approaches.

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