Spider-Man: Homecoming is a fun little movie. Yes, it’s yet another reboot of an already overbooted franchise, but in this one, Peter Parker is just a sophomore in high school, so watching a teenager learn how to be Spider-Man — and shoulder the enormous responsibility that comes with the job — is rather delightful.
But there’s this really weird part in the middle of the movie. Really weird.
First, for this article, we should note that the movie is very racially balanced: Laura Harrier, who plays the senior Peter has a crush on, is black. Then there’s Zendaya, a biracial actress, and Donald Glover, Bokeem Woodbine, Hannibal Buress, Abraham Attah, Tunde Adebimpe, Garcelle Beauvais and Jorge Lenderborg Jr., all of whom are black.
So fast-forward to the weird part (no real spoilers here). Peter and his decathlon teammates go to Washington, D.C., for a national tournament. While there, they do some sightseeing, dropping by the Washington Monument.
But one member refuses to go into the obelisk. Zendaya’s character, Michelle, says she won’t go into a building built by slaves. The team’s coach, who is white, says he’s pretty sure slaves didn’t build the monument, but then the camera pans over to a nearby security guard, who looks at the coach and wiggles one hand in a so-so gesture than means, “Uh, maybe so, maybe not.”
First, the facts: No one really knows if slaves were used to build the monument to America’s first president.
Vulture consulted the premiere historian of the Washington Monument, John Steele Gordon, author of Washington’s Monument and the Fascinating History of the Obelisk. “While he does point out that slavery was still legal in the District of Columbia when construction of the monument began in 1848 (local slaves were emancipated in 1862), he’s skeptical about the notion that they built the structure,” the site says.
I can’t say for certain, but the stonemasonry was pretty highly skilled, so it’s unlikely that slaves would’ve been doing it,” he told Vulture. “The stones were cut by stonecutters, which is highly skilled work; and the stones were hoisted by means of steam engines, so you’d need a skilled engineer and foreman for stuff like that. Tending the steam engine, building the cast-iron staircase inside — that wasn’t grunt work.
Slate turned to Jesse Holland, a respected historian, journalist, and author of the book Black Men Built the Capitol, who wrote in an email:
There has not been any clear evidence found to prove that slaves were used in the construction of the Washington Monument: no receipts, no log entries, no newspaper stories. We have all of those proving the use of slave construction on the U.S. Capitol and the White House. But we have yet to discover irrefutable evidence that slaves were used in the construction of the Washington Monument.
However, it would be astonishing if African American slaves were not involved, given that Washington, D.C. was a slave city and accustomed to the use of slave labor on major building projects around the city, including the clearing of trees for the National Mall and surrounding areas, the construction of federal buildings and the building of private residences around the capital.
Considering that the beginning of construction for the Washington Monument started before the beginning of the Civil War, that Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia allowed slavery, and that the city had a tradition of using stone from quarries that used enslaved workers, it would be more surprising if no slaves was used in the construction of the Washington Monument.
However, there has not been any documentation found that immediately proves that contention. So I would say that it would be easy to believe that slaves were used in the construction of the Washington Monument, but hard to prove.
So, no one knows for sure.
But what’s the weird statement doing in a movie about a teenager who fights crime by spinning webs? While Vulture says “one of the better laugh lines in Spider-Man: Homecoming isn’t even a line, per se, but rather a hand gesture” — that so-so gesture — what’s such a racially divisive statement doing in a fun little superhero movie?
Why did the screenwriters feel compelled to have a young biracial woman say to her white debate coach that she won’t go into buildings built by slaves? How did that add to the movie’s narrative, help to move the story along?
The answer is, it didn’t. It’s in there just to be divisive. It serves no purpose whatsoever except to denigrate one of the world’s great engineering feats (especially in the mid 1800s) and disrespect America’s first president.
And why let it hang there? There’s no proof that slaves were (or were not) used to build the monument, but Washington, D.C., had moved away from slavery before the monument’s Civil War construction (a small part was built before the war, and while local slaves weren’t emancipated until 1862, many northern landowners renounced slavery long before that — in fact, a young congressman in 1849 introduced a plan to eliminate slavery in D.C. His name: Abraham Lincoln).
In the movie, Zendaya’s Michelle never revisits the issue, never, say, Googles the claim and says, “Huh, turns out no one really knows for sure.” The claim just hangs there like a dark cloud over an otherwise jaunty fun movie.
But it does fit right in with Hollywood’s desire to take American down a peg. And now, a whole new generation — who also likely won’t bother to check the facts — will blurt out the claim at will.
Nice job, Hollywood.