Isaiah In 'The Falcon And The Winter Soldier' Is Based On Real — And Very Painful — American History

Photo: Chuck Zlotnick ©Marvel Studios 2020
How The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s Isaiah Bradley Shines Reveals Medical Experiments On Black People In America

In episode two of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes (The Winter Soldier) introduces Sam Wilson (The Falcon) to Isaiah Bradley, a super soldier and veteran of the Korean War.

Bradley, who was also injected with "super soldier serum" in the same era as Captain America, is justifiably angry and emotionally unsettled when the two Avengers arrive at his house. Wilson is shocked to learn that there was a Black super soldier no one knew about, which brings him to have serious doubts about the role he's playing in his own work. 

But Bradley’s story is about more than the existence of a Black super soldier or about setting up the inevitable moment where Sam becomes the new Captain America; it also portrays a particularly dark part of American history: medical experimentations done on Black Americans.

Who is Isaiah Bradley, the first Black Captain America?

Fans of Marvel Comics will recognize Isaiah Bradley as the first Black Captain America. Bradley’s story is chronicled in 2003’s Truth: Red, White and Black, a seven-issue mini-series written by the late Robert Morales and drawn by Kyle Baker.

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The idea, first proposed by Marvel Comics editor Alex Alonso, was to create a Black Captain America whose creation was based on history, specifically with regard to the racist and criminal history of medical experimentation on Black people in America. Events like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, where Black study participants were left purposefully untreated to spread the disease and to study the ways in which they suffered and died.

Author Morales was up to the task, and his proposal took an unapologetic look at real history and how that might have been used to create a Black Captain America. It was a dark project. Morales said that he “wrote a proposal that was so staggeringly depressing I was certain they’d turn it down. But they didn’t.” 

The comics series chronicles America’s attempts to recreate the super soldier serum used to turn Steve Rogers into Captain America to compete with the super soldier program of Nazi Germany. In the comics, this is done by forcibly experimenting on 300 Black soldiers. The only one who survives the experiments and racist officers in charge of them is Isaiah Bradley.

His reward is a suicide mission that tasks him with destroying a Nazi super soldier experimentation site. 

Recognizing the similarity between the experiments conducted on him and Steve Rogers, Bradley steals Captain America’s uniform before the mission, and ultimately succeeds, though he is later captured by the Nazis. Eventually freed by German resistance fighters, Bradley makes it home to the United States...where he is court-martialed and sentenced to life in prison for stealing Captain America’s uniform.

Bradley is eventually pardoned, but only after spending 17 years in solitary confinement with little medical treatment for the toll the super-soldier serum takes on his mind and body.

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Isaiah Bradley's story varies slightly in the TV series of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

Bradley’s story is different in The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, but follows the same broad strokes. Instead of fighting in World War II, this Bradley (played by Carl Lumbly) is still the product of experiments to create the serum that made Steve Rogers Captain America, though he serves during the Korean War instead of World War II.

Like in the original comics, Bradley is sent on what is considered a sucide mission, but this time it’s to stop a seemingly unstoppable Soviet assassin who has killed everyone else the U.S. has sent after him. That assassin just happens to be The Winter Soldier, which is how Bucky knows who Bradley is, even though no one else does. 

Bradley survives the mission, but is imprisoned in solitary confinement and experimented on for 30 years when he returns, including by agents of Hydra. His blood is the key to the new super soldier serum that is a core part of the series’ plot. When Bucky and Sam ask for Bradley’s help, he angrily refuses, citing his imprisonment and the experiments conducted on him.

While his appearance in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier amounts to little more than a cameo that serves to explain a part of the plot, it is an accurate call back to some of the medical experiments that have been performed on Black people over the course of American history.

How Isaiah Bradley's story mirrors real experiments done on Black Americans

The most famous connection here, and the one that directly inspired Alonso and Morales, is the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The study, started in 1932, was a collaboration between the United States Public Health Service (PHS), the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Tuskegee University. The study enrolled 600 poor Black sharecroppers from Mason County Alabama. 399 of them had latent syphilis. 201 of them did not, and served as the control group.

The men in the Tuskegee University study were promised free medical care, but were never told of their diagnosis.

In addition, the PHS doled out typical diagnostic procedures, placebos, and methods that were known to be ineffective as treatment. The real purpose of the study was to track the progression of latent syphilis. The “study” was initially supposed to last six months, but continued for forty years.

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Worse, when funding for treatment dried up, the study continued, though the PHS didn't inform the men involved that they would never be properly treated. While penicillin would become the standard and widely available treatment for the disease, none of the infected men were treated with it.

The study continued until 1972, when it was leaked to the press. The experiment was terminated the same year. All told, the study is directly responsible for the deaths of 198 men, either from syphilis itself or due to complications related to the disease.

While the Tuskegee Syphilis Study is the most famous example of American medical experimentation on Black people, it's unfortunately not the only one. The case of Henrietta Lacks is another example.

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a young black woman and mother of five, went to the Johns Hopkins Hospital complaining of vaginal bleeding. After an examination, Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer and began radium treatments. However, samples of her cancer cells were removed without her permission and sent to a research lab for study.

Unlike most other cancer cells, which would die, the cancer cells from Lacks’s tumor would double approximately every 24 hours.

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Lacks would die less than a year later, but the cells from her tumor would live on. 

Since her death, Lacks’s cancer cells, dubbed HeLa cells, have been shot into space, used to test the effects of radiation on human bodies, and infected with tuberculosis. HeLa cells were used in the development of the polio vaccine and of treatments for everything from HIV to Parkinson’s.

It’s not a stretch to say that many modern medical treatments would not have been possible without Lacks’s involuntary contribution to science. What’s more concerning, however, is that Lacks’s children, many of whom were too poor to go to the doctor when they got sick, were never consulted about, thanked, or compensated for their mother's contribution to modern medicine.

Another major example comes from the story of J. Marion Sims. Sims, who is widely considered “the father of modern gynecology.” Sims is credited with inventing a revolutionary surgery that could fix vesciovaginal fistulas, a medical condition that often resulted from prolonged labor. Sims perfected his surgery by operating on enslaved Black women. 

Sims had no formal gynecological training. He performed the surgeries without anesthesia, which was available at the time, claiming that Black people did not experience pain the way white people did.

Of course, this is a horrific lie, and even his own writing shows that the woman he operated on screamed in pain throughout the procedure and some nearly died from his surgical decisions, including a woman who contracted blood poisoning.

Sims operated on more than 10 women, and it took him dozens of operations before he finally succeeded. He operated on one woman more than 30 times. After perfecting the technique, he began operating on white women, who were given anesthesia during the procedure.

But Sims’s experiments weren't limited to gynecology. Sims also experimented on Black babies in an attempt to discover the cure for neonatal tetanus. Sims believed that Black people were less intelligent than white people, and that this was because their skulls grew too quickly around their brains. During operations, he used shoemaker’s tools to pry apart their bones and loosen their skulls. Many of the babies died. Sims blamed their deaths on everything but his methods.

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Isaiah Bradley may have a relatively small role in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but it’s an important one.

His story reflects hundreds of years of American experimentation on Black bodies, and like Bradley, the legacies of many of the men and women that were experimented on are often forgotten, while those that did the experimenting are celebrated.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a comic book show, but it’s not shying away from America’s historical treatment of Black men and women as things to be played with for white gain. Isaiah Bradley may be the first Black Captain America, but his story, and the historical episodes upon which it is based, are a reminder that America still has a long way to go.

Will Borger holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, has served on the staff of several literary journals, taught writing at two universities, and is the Editor-in-Chief of Film Daze. His fiction has appeared in Marathon Literary Review and Purple Wall Stories and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He writes about games and film at GamingBolt, GameCritics, GoombaStomp, and The Twin Geeks. Will lives in New York with his wife and dreams of one day owning a dog.