Luke Cage: A Fresh, Action Packed Race Commentary

After watching Marvel’s Jessica Jones on Netflix, I was given my first real introduction to Luke Cage, a superhero with bulletproof skin and superhuman strength.

I immediately connected with him. The dude had swagger. He was pensive, thoughtful, and clearly had good taste in women (I’ve had a minor crush on Krysten Ritter since Breaking Bad).

 

Near the end of the series, he departed, mentioning that he was returning to Harlem. The conclusion of Jessica Jones showed a preview for Marvel’s Luke Cage, where he enters a boxing gym and has several thugs fire a litany of bullets his way, without a single one so much as scratching his skin. He sighs with annoyance and says, “I’m about sick of having to always buy new clothes.”

I looked forward to the release of Luke Cage, but it wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. To be honest, I was really excited that Netflix had decided to pick up a full order of The Punisher with Jon Bernthal at the acting helm (fresh off of his amazing run as Frank Castle on the second season of Daredevil). Still, I did have plans to watch Luke Cage at some point after its release.

Well, last week, I was in the middle of an NCIS binge (I have not been current on NCIS since about Season 4; I’ve watched as far as Season 9, but by that point, it was on Season 11) and I saw that Luke Cage had dropped, complete with interactive graphics at the Netflix main menu and Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” playing in the background.

I made it about a day before my curiosity got the better of me and I just had to watch.

Let me just say…I am so glad that I did.

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Mike Colter as Luke Cage. Image courtesy of Business Insider.

Luke Cage is not only, hands down, the best Marvel series that Netflix has produced, but it couldn’t have come at a more relevant time.

I’ll steer away from major spoilers in this commentary, but if you want to be completely spoiler free, you might want to save this until after you’ve watched the series. Let this be the last line the spoiler-free crowd reads: watch it. Now.

A brief summary of the show: Luke Cage centers around the title character, having relocated to Harlem from Hell’s Kitchen after the events of Jessica Jones. He works in a barber shop for a former gangster-turned-community figure named Pop, named so not because of his fatherly qualities but because he’s nice with his hands (snap, crackle, pop!). Pop calls Cage “Power Man” (a homage to his comic book roots) and encourages him to use his powers to help people, but Cage wants to stay low key, to “lay in the cut,” as he says.

A gangster named Cottonmouth, who came up with Pop, has two of his young associates  rip off the money from a gun deal. One of those who ripped off the drop is the son of a gangster with whom Pop came up on the streets. Pop shelters the young thief after Cottonmouth catches up with and kills his compatriots, and sends Cage to offer Cottonmouth a parley. Unfortunately, one of Cottonmouth’s compatriots decides to take matters into his own hands and, accompanied with a mysterious figure known only as Shades, shoots up Pop’s barber shop, killing Pop.

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Mahershala Ali as Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes. Image courtesy of http://www.screenrant.com

Enraged at Cottonmouth and his gangster enterprise, Cage becomes a one-man wrecking crew, tearing through the Harlem underworld and uncovering all of its seediness, corruption (both in local government and in the police force), and delving into the past, both regarding his fallen wife, Reva, and how he came into his de facto invulnerability.

Right out the gate, Luke Cage is the kind of hero that not only the black community needs, but that America needs to see.

Luke Cage is unabashedly black. Anybody who would try to call him an Uncle Tom or an Oreo would quickly display how foolish and ignorant they are (more on that later). He takes pride in his heritage, of the accomplishments of his people.

At the same time, Cage clearly abhors gangster culture and the worship of ignorance that has been promoted as representative of the black community. He is well-spoken, a student of history, a quiet patriot, one who believes in dressing well and in the value of honest work. Cage demonstrates that you can be all of these things and still be a black man.

More specifically, Cage demonstrates that articulation, being well-read, caring for one’s appearance, and loving this nation are not “white” qualities. They are qualities that know no arbitrary racial boundaries.

On that basis, I immediately resonated with Cage (as well as his discussion of old school basketball…the New York Knicks of the early 1990s were indeed rough-and-tumble bruisers). But, then in episode #3, there was an exchange that immediately had me grabbing the controller to rewind it and rewatch it.

HOODLUM: What are you doing here, nigga? I’m not going to ask you again.

CAGE: Young man…I have had a long day. I’m tired…but I’m not tired enough to ever let nobody call me that word. You see a nigga standing in front of you, across the street from a building named after one of our greatest heroes?

HOODLUM: Yeah…a dead one.

CAGE: Do you even know who Crispus Attucks was? A free black man…the first man to die for what became America. He could have acted scared when those Brits raised their guns…blended in in the crowd…but he stepped up. He paid with his life, but he started something.

That’s what Pop did. Not me. I laid in the cut until he stepped up, and it cost him his life, too. I ain’t layin’ back NO MORE. You wanna shoot me? Do it. PULL THE TRIGGER, NIGGA. I AIN’T GOT ALL NIGHT.

This scene brings tears to my eyes every time I watch it.

My long-standing opinion on the word “nigger/nigga” has been this: I don’t mind when people use it to quote someone else, whether we’re talking a quote from a living person or from a media art.

I can laugh when I know people are using it jokingly (and in the military, you need to learn to laugh at everything, because nothing becomes off limits. It’s not a racist institution. That would imply it believes one race to be above another. It’s an institution in which the niceties of society are stripped away. Everybody is fair game).

But, I personally have never fully understood why black people would use that term with each other.

I get the logic: it’s reclaiming that word from the white supremacists that hammered and whipped it home into the enslaved repatriated Africans, and later the freed slaves who became second class citizens.

I don’t think those white supremacists got the message. In fact, I imagine they laugh and go, “Look at those dumb niggers, calling each other niggers,” whenever we use that word to reference each other, even if we drop the “er” and add an “a” to mimic a Southern dialect, consciously or otherwise.

I won’t go so far as to say the word should be banned. I’m a writer. I don’t believe in banning words. I believe that the word is a personal choice for black people.

I know me, personally, I don’t like using it to refer to other black people and I know too much of that word’s history to think it nothing when it’s used to refer to me.

In that aspect, I immediately felt kinship with Luke Cage. He’s a throwback. I consider myself something of a throwback. Throw in the fact that the show’s version of Luke Cage is both a veteran (Force Recon Marine) and a former LEO, and I found myself saying, “Luke Cage is the kind of man I’d like to be.”

What we have in Luke Cage is a series that shows that the black community is, in fact, not a hive collective mentality. There is individuality in the black community, people with varying perspectives, and despite certain perspectives’ attempts to define their perspective as the only one for “real” people with high melanin content and an ethnic lineage to repatriated slaves, the show does a magnificent job portraying all sides.

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Simone Missick as Det. Misty Knight. Image courtesy of http://www.heavy.com

Another character I liked was Detective Mercedes “Misty” Knight of the NYPD. She is not a perfect character. She starts off as a competent and street-wise detective who has been investigating Cottonmouth, but after the death of a certain character, she is thrown into a tailspin where she abuses a suspect she is interrogating and is mandated to conduct a therapy session with a former cop-turned-shrink. There, we learn her motivation for being a law enforcement officer is that she witnessed police inaction in her impoverished, minority neighborhood, and wanted to be a cop so that her community would have somebody involved, somebody who cared, somebody who pursued justice, regardless of the victim.

In short, Misty Knight recognized a problem in law enforcement, and resolved to be part of the solution.

Did you hear that? Things got so silent, I just heard a pin drop.

Misty Knight didn’t go howling, “Black Lives Matter!” while spreading a false narrative. She didn’t go shouting, “I want those pigs in a blanket!” She didn’t block a busy roadway to make a protest. She didn’t loot, riot, or burn down her city to protest that she wanted change. She didn’t pick up a gun and start killing cops to commit domestic terrorism.

Misty Knight became the change that she wanted to see.

Just as Luke Cage became the change that he wanted to see. He didn’t go, “Well, this is somehow all white people’s fault!” or “It’s all the cops’ fault!” He put the blame where it belonged (with the criminal) and pursued a remedy. One that was questionable in legality (you know, the worst crime I see non-lethal superheroes committing is breaking and entering…the only comic book characters I see actively breaking laws are the ones that kill people, like Wolverine, Deadpool, or Punisher), but a positive remedy nonetheless.

Of course, this message threatens the hive mentality within the black community that struggles to snuff out any sort of opposing viewpoint or any sort of self-inflection.

With Luke Cage being a veteran and a former LEO, taking on criminals within his own community, having an aversion to the word “nigga,” believing in dressing respectably, and the fact that he slept with a white woman, I knew it was only a matter of time before somebody called Luke Cage an Uncle Tom.

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Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones and Mike Colter as Luke Cage in Marvel’s Jessica Jones. Image courtesy of okdario.com

The Ringer put out an article that criticized Luke Cage for being “conservative” and came just short of calling him an Uncle Tom for just about all of the above qualities and actions. It was put out the day that Luke Cage hit Netflix.

That didn’t take long at all.

The last I’ll say on this aspect of Luke Cage is that I hope that it gives people food for thought. I hope that others like me within the black community see it, relate to it, and are compelled to speak out in support of such values. Those aren’t “conservative” values. There are liberals and libertarians who believe in those values, too. Those values transcend race or political ideology.

There are a couple other points I want to touch on.

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Alfre Woodard as Mariah Dillard. Image courtesy of abcnews.go.com

The actual quality of the show is phenomenal. Like I said, the best Netflix Marvel production to date. I especially liked Alfre Woodard as Mariah Dillard, the corrupt city councilwoman and Cottonmouth’s cousin. She did such a magnificent job slipping seamlessly into the role and portraying a character that you just love to hate, and yet, she is not evil for evil’s sake. Her character, like almost every other character on the show, is rich with complexity. I would go so far as to say that Woodard is easily the star of the show, acting-wise. She was an inspired casting choice.

There was one more point I wanted to touch on. This one is two-fold.

I had heard rumbles of Luke Cage being “too black.” (Uhm…what? It takes place in Harlem, a historical hub of black culture.) This show was meant to be one part comic book action, one part commentary on the black community. It’s meant to give those unaware of black culture a peek behind the curtain. This complaint shows that those particular people did not do the research.

Now, onto the other point: a white friend of mine posted that he found the second half of the season to be silly and over the top, and he did not like it much. The majority of those in agreement with him were white. That’s not to say anything detrimental about them; it’s just that I caught onto quicker because I’m aware of Luke Cage‘s roots and the style for which the showrunners were going for.

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Pam Grier, the queen of the blaxploitation film. Image courtesy of menshealth.com

Luke Cage got his start as a comic book version of a blaxploitation film. For those who have never seen a blaxploitation film, think ShaftSweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, or most things starring the beautiful Pam Grier back in the day. They were known for their race-driven plots that often focused on a downtrodden black man looking to overcome the white man holding him down. The music–largely soul and funk–is another characteristic of the genre.

Out the gate, the music is a clear homage to the blaxploitation genre. The villain in the second half of the series is definitely a homage to the blaxploitation genre. There were so many references to the genre that gave birth to Luke Cage throughout the series, with the second half of the season especially littered with them. I saw no problem with it, and in fact enjoyed the references, as they laid the groundwork for black actors and actresses to achieve the level of success and popularity that they enjoy today.

In short, it’s a cultural reference. If you’re expecting the stoic seriousness of Daredevil throughout, then yeah, it might be a little off-putting. For me, knowing the roots, I found it to be a wonderful homage.

Anywho, the bottom line is this: Luke Cage. If you have Netflix, watch it. If you don’t, then find a friend who does and go to their house, or pony up the $8-12 per month (depending on your plan) and start watching it now.

Featured image courtesy of http://www.comingsoon.net

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