It’s now an indisputable fact; Captain America is a Black man. 

After more than 20 years in the acting game, Anthony Mackie is finally having his moment in the spotlight as the star of Disney and Marvel’s Falcon and the Winter Solider. The season finale confirmed the rumors—Sam Wilson, Mackie’s character, is taking on the mantle of Captain America from Steve Rogers. 

“Black actors don’t get those opportunities.”

anthony mackie on taking on a starring role in a major movie franchise. 

Mackie’s first major acting credit was in the 2002 film 8 Mile as a rival rapper to Eminem. However, entering the Marvel universe of films unlocked a whole new level of stardom for the Louisiana native. 

“It’s been humbling,” Mackie said from his New Orleans home. “Life affirming. This is kind of like winning an Oscar. There’s nothing like someone trusting you to be the face of their brand on this level. Black actors don’t get those opportunities.”

Fans were first introduced to Mackie’s Sam Wilson as the mech winged hero Falcon in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In the same year, Marvel comics introduced their Falcon as the next Captain America before having him take on his own title in 2016’s All-New Captain America. Art on the comic panels often comes to life on the big screen, so many speculated that it was only a matter of time before Mackie’s Sam Wilson would don the Stars and Stripes.

In early 2019, Mackie got the confirmation of his on-screen future. “To be honest it was very emotional,” Mackie said. “There’s no rhyme or reason why it took 21 years to get here, but this opportunity makes those 21 years well worth the wait.” 

Since premiering in March off the heels of the smash hit Disney Plus series WandavisionThe Falcon and the Winter Soldier, spearheaded by executive producer Malcolm Spellman, has confronted the complicated legacy of the Captain America mantle and the racial complexities around patriotism and heroism in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  

“The idea of a Black man being Captain America felt like a seminal moment,” Spellman said. “I felt like I had the right things to say about it. And I fought to get it because it seemed important to me. It needed people involved in it who were going to do it the right way.”

Spellman felt empowered by the studio to tell a complex narrative reckoning with America’s racial issues. 

He credits Chadwick Boseman, Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole, and the entire Black Panther team for laying the groundwork for an authentic Black superhero story. “It was a paradigm shift in the entertainment industry from [its] most powerful brand,” Spellman said. “Specifically that hashtag #KillmongerWasRight. It proved fans could handle these layers.” 

Some of those layers came in the form of powerful imagery, including a striking shot of blood on Marvel’s fabled and highly branded Captain America shield, that spoke volumes about America's racist past. “This symbol, this idea of what being an American is. It’s very important right now,” Mackie said. “The Black man has had a very tumultuous relationship with what the idea of America is.”

The inclusion of Carl Lumbly’s Isaiah Bradley also forced audiences to reflect on what patriotism looks like for people who the country has often abused. First appearing in comics in 2003, Bradley is a Black veteran who was experimented on with the same super soldier serum running through Steve Rogers blood. Yet, instead of being celebrated and given a costume, he was jailed for it. Many of his brothers in arms were killed from the experiments. Bradley was the sole survivor, escaping with his life and hiding from the U.S. government. 

“Imagine going off and fighting harder than any other troops,” Spellman said. “You’re doing that and you’re coming home to hate, and you still do it; you still fight for this country. And you still believe that if you work twice as hard you can get half as far.” 

Spellman notes that while this reflects the past of many Black veterans and soldiers, it’s also the current reality for activists, entertainers, athletes and anyone else who pushes for the country to live up to its ideals. 

“The folks who take a knee at a football game are the biggest patriots in this country,” added Spellman. “You’re believing liars when you’re saying they are anti-American. The kind of men who take a knee during a football game would risk their life for a white person if they were in trouble on the streets. They are brave people who love the country and they are continuing the legacy.” 

Perhaps, the show’s most pivotal moment to bring these themes home was in its finale episode monologue, delivered by Mackie's character Sam Wilson to a group of border hawk politicians in his new Captain America threads. 

“Every time I pick this thing up, I know there are a million people that are going to hate me for it,” Wilson said, referring to the shield he now wields. On screen, he’s clearly speaking to a crowd and TV cameras. But the declaration also serves as a message from the writers, breaking right through the fourth wall to tell audiences this new Captain America is here to stay, no matter what the Twitter critics say.