The Falcon and the Winter Soldier underlines how racial inequality is a crucial aspect of the buddy cop genre

The classic buddy cop vibe is two unlikely partners of different races teaming up for the greater good, suffering each other’s excesses along the way, becoming 'frenemies.'

Aditya Mani Jha April 23, 2021 15:07:39 IST
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier underlines how racial inequality is a crucial aspect of the buddy cop genre

Still from The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the second web show released by Marvel after WandaVision, wears its heart — and its genre — on its sleeve.

In the second episode released on 26 March, the action sequences are separated by a succession of “buddy cop” sequences between Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Wilson teases Barnes about his “android brain” and how he can “hear the gears turning”. Barnes does not like the fact that Wilson calls him “Buck” like Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) used to. Wilson gleefully records an embarrassing fall endured by Barnes. 

The classic buddy cop vibe is two unlikely partners of different races (this is very important, and it is usually black and white) teaming up for the greater good, suffering each other’s excesses along the way, becoming 'frenemies.'

Plus, there is an unmissable ‘boys-will-be-boys’ tonality to a lot of buddy cop movies. In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, for example, Barnes is defeated in hand-to-hand combat by a young woman called Karli Morgenthau (who appears to be a 'super-soldier' like Barnes himself), prompting Wilson to tease him immediately, along gendered lines: “That little girl kicked yo’ ass!” 

Stan even name-checked the genre in a promotional interview for the show: at 2:33 in this video, the actor says: “It’s a throwback to all those buddy cop action movies… you just don’t know whether they’re gonna kill each other or not.” Stan says “throwback” because the buddy cop genre was at its strongest during the 1980s and '90s: Beverly Hills Cop (1985), 48 Hours (1982), Shoot to Kill (1988), the first three Lethal Weapon films (1987, 1989, 1992), and of course, Die Hard (1988). 

Race and the buddy cop movie

In his much-cited 1992 essay ‘Restoring the Black Man’s Lethal Weapon: Race and Sexuality in Contemporary Cop Films’, Christopher Ames describes the basic modus operandi of the buddy cop genre. American literature in the 19th and early 20th centuries is littered with examples of racial stereotyping: the noble white man paired with the “savage” or “brutish” African or African-American man, generally in some part of “the American wilderness." According to Ames, buddy cop movies tried to invert this with a too-convenient role reversal: the white man becomes “dangerous” or “wild” while the black man becomes “the noble savage," and he is routinely emasculated by his white partner (whose strength, virility, and potential for destruction is continually emphasised, in the meanwhile). 

“Black and white protagonists are paired, not in a virgin wilderness, but in its metaphorical and corrupted contemporary counterpart, the urban jungle of violent crime. (…) The myth is reversed: the white man is clearly the savage equipped for survival, while the black man has become a highly civilised figure who has lost touch with his savage masculinity. In these films, the savage strength of the white man restores the debilitated masculinity of the black desk cop, through the obviously phallic image of the gun, which the black man must learn to use properly.”

Indeed, in the Lethal Weapon films (fittingly, the franchise was created by a white man called Shane Black), the black cop Roger Murtaugh’s (Danny Glover) docility is regularly juxtaposed with his white partner Martin Riggs’ aggression and 'untamed' masculinity — audiences remember Riggs for trying to defuse a bomb on “a hunch”, or beating up an actor who he thought was a dangerous criminal. And why do we remember Murtaugh? Well, for complaining about how he is old, weak, and too feeble to fight bad guys effectively. His catchphrase “I’m too old for this shit!” spawned an entire episode of the super-popular sitcom How I Met Your Mother (the episode was called, quite simply, “Murtaugh”). 

Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), the black cop who helps the firebrand protagonist John McClane (Bruce Willis) in Die Hard, is a similar character. His cautious, by-the-book nature is repeatedly contrasted with McClane’s unpredictable, unorthodox style. When during the epilogue of the film, he shoots the last surviving terrorist (who’s about to kill McClane and his wife), everybody in the scene is surprised because clearly, the filmmaker wants you, the audience, to be surprised.   

As the genre evolved through the mid-to-late 90s, other kinds of racial pairings came to the fore. In The Corruptor (1999), Chow Yun-fat plays Nick Chen, the head of the New York Police Department's Asian Gang Unit (AGU), who is paired alongside a young white cop, Wallace (Mark Wahlberg). In her essay “The Asian Renovation of Biracial Buddy Action," Philippa Gates points out how Chen is an example of a “model minority” character, whereas the “Asian gangs” plot point represents the modern-day version of the “yellow peril” or “Fu Manchu” stereotypes — basically, inscrutable Oriental evil. Even more tellingly, Chen protests at the pairing initially, pointing out to his commanding officer, “Chinese people don’t trust white men or cops, and you sent me a white cop!”

The most interesting example of this ‘evolved pairing’ was Rush Hour (1998), where the two leads are a Hong Kong cop called Lee (Jackie Chan) and a black Los Angeles cop called Carter (Chris Tucker). Throughout the film, Carter stereotypes Lee in every which way possible, including their famous meeting scene where Carter goes, “You no speak-a English?” in a ridiculous attempt at an “Asian” accent. And yet, the film was not only one of the biggest hits of the year, it was reported that the vast majority of Asian-American audiences did not find the stereotyping offensive. 

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier underlines how racial inequality is a crucial aspect of the buddy cop genre

Rush Hour stars Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker

Why did this happen? There are two reasons for this. Firstly, Carter himself is a bit of an African-American stereotype. He is performing the “coon” stereotype, the inept, lazy, easily scared, buffoon-ish jester. The underlying ideology of the Rush Hour films is that trans-national cooperation (Lee and Carter are on a joint mission) trumps race — to drive home this message, they must depict all races as innately ridiculous. The second reason behind acceptance of Rush Hour among Asian-Americans was that Lee might have been stereotyped, but not at the hands of a white man, who is after all the common oppressor of Black men like Carter and Chinese/Asian men like Lee. 

“Do you have a plan?”: The Falcon, the Winter Soldier and the never-ending war

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a fascinating new entry in the buddy cop canon, for several reasons. The first is the underlying race angle in Sam Wilson/The Falcon “becoming” the new Captain America. At the end of Avengers: Endgame, the suddenly-aged Steve Rogers hands over his vibranium Captain America shield to Wilson, even as an approving Bucky/Winter Soldier gives them both a smiling nod in the distance. Rogers and Barnes want Wilson, a Black man, to be the next Captain America — there is a degree of interpolation at play here, a breaking of the fourth wall.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier underlines how racial inequality is a crucial aspect of the buddy cop genre

Anthony Mackie in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

You see, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was previously dominated by white men, like Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor. But moving forward, it is clear Marvel is looking to diversify their roster in a big way. And so Iron Man is killed off, Captain America gives up his shield to a Black man while Thor (Chris Hemsworth) gives up his throne to a black woman, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). The new bunch of heroes, it is looking increasingly likely, will be led by Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) in much the same way Tony Stark led the previous batch of Avengers. 

(Also read: As The Falcon and the Winter Soldier releases on Disney+ Hotstar Premium, tracing the characters' arcs in MCU)

Against this already-charged backdrop, the second episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier centres racial tensions in two stunning, back-to-back scenes. In the first, we see Wilson and Barnes meeting Isiah, a previously unknown Black super-soldier who Barnes had met in the 1950s, during the Korean War. Isiah says that he was locked up for 30 years — his reward for being a hero was three decades of experimentation on his body, his blood, in a bid to make even better super-soldiers.

The US, of course, has a long and shameful history of illegal clinical trials inflicted upon black bodies. During the infamous 1932-1972 “Tuskegee Syphilis Study," the United States Public Health Service (PHS) and Center for Disease Control (CDC) conducted an unethical and illegal clinical trial on 600 African-American men recruited from Tuskegee University, Alabama. Three-hundred-and-ninety-nine of them had latent syphilis, alongside a control group of 201 men who were free from infection. These men were promised free, state-sanctioned healthcare, but neither the PHS nor the CDC ever informed the infected men about their diagnosis. In fact, they were not even given penicillin, which became the most common mode of treatment for syphilis from the 1950s onwards. Placebos were passed off as real medicine, and given to African-American men. 

The scene with Isiah ends with Wilson angrily storming out and shouting at Barnes for keeping Isiah’s existence secret for so long — it seems even Steve Rogers and the rest of the Avengers did not know about him. But the minute Wilson raises his voice against the white man, cop cars come storming into the neighbourhood out of nowhere, and a pair of lily-white cops starts threatening Wilson. “Is this man bothering you?” one of them asks Barnes even as Wilson does his best to keep his cool. Eventually, Wilson escapes further harassment because the racist cop is told about his status as an Avenger (“I’m sorry, I didn’t recognise you without the goggles”, the white cop says in a painful — and painfully recognisable — moment). This scene ends in another inversion of sorts — it is Barnes who ends up getting arrested for…. well, for missing his court-mandated therapy. If this feels excessive, think about the number of African-American children (and parents) arrested every year for missing school (thanks to truancy, one of the most horseshit concepts in the American legal system).

“Do you have a plan?” Barnes asks Wilson angrily at one point during the episode, when the two are about to jump from a plane. Wilson replies in the affirmative, but refuses to share the plan, much to Barnes’ frustration. They might as well have been talking about America and its systemic racism — successive governments keep promising Black people victory, but keep delivering a never-ending war instead.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar Premium.

(Also read: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier cast, makers on how Marvel show is representative of what it's like to be an American today)

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