Black America through the Lens of Luke Cage

Note: This article covers episodes 1-3 of Luke Cage, and is free of major plot spoilers.

Let’s get this thing going out of the gate. I really love Luke Cage. This is what I’ve wanted Marvel to do for ages.

For too long, Marvel Studios has thought that what constituted a hero was that he be the Everyman Fanboy: White, choppy-haired, and almost insufferably snarky. If someone had told me in 2015 that Marvel was going to give me a newer, harder-hitting version of Shaft within the next year, I’d have said, “I just saw Ant-Man and it was the worst Marvel film I’ve ever seen, made even more unenjoyable by the cartoonish black, Russian, and Latino stereotypes. Marvel doesn’t know the black experience; how in the world is it going to create something that won’t be a Quentin Tarantino knock-off?”

Thankfully—and, to be quite frank, surprisingly—Marvel managed to avoid that cliché of a white male actor committing verbal blackface. The studio was smart enough not to hire someone from its usual stable of white male writers and hired Cheo Hodari Coker, who led the writing staff with a socially conscious hand. Credit also goes to the cast, including Mike Colter, Simone Missick, Mahershala Ali, Alfre Woodard, and Frankie Faison. Together, this group created what Marvel could not have created if left to its own devices (as evidenced by Doctor Strange). Luke Cage feels current, vibrant, and true. It tells a classic hero’s journey from fear and inaction to conviction and bravery. But it also takes a character (who used to be written as a basic Blaxploitation stereotype) and transforms him into a multifaceted man who’s still bulletproof, but isn’t impervious to the human experience.

That’s not to say the Blaxploitation edge isn’t a good thing; it’s just that it has to be deployed in the right way, and Luke Cage has found that method, at least in these first three episodes. Luke Cage is what Tarantino wishes he could do. Luke Cage gives you that pulpy feel that makes those old ‘70s films great, from the musical choices, to the fact that it’s set in a historically black city like Harlem (complete with a Cotton Club-esque nightclub), to the atmospheric direction which turns every step Luke makes into a mysterious and ultimately gratifying journey.

But where Luke Cage continues to go is normally where the ‘90s Blaxploitation resurgence films would end. While we all came to see the bulletproof man take on crime, what we all witnessed was an examination of the black American identity in America.

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There is the obvious: Luke, as a bulletproof black man in a hoodie, acts as a salve to many of us who feel like we’re one bullet away from becoming another hashtag. Luke’s nightly presence in his hoodie full of bullet holes, recalls Trayvon Martin, who was killed just for being in a dark hoodie at night. Martin’s memory echoes throughout Luke Cage, even within the original rap song for the show, “Bulletproof Love” by Adrian Younge, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Method Man. The line, “I’m about to trade my life for a Magnum/Give up my life for Trayvon to have one,” keeps the message of Martin’s life in the forefront of the viewers’ minds. At the same time, Luke’s presence is also a reminder of black humanity. We, like Luke, are feared, but we are still mighty.

There’s also the less obvious: Luke Cage takes a look at the fight for the soul of black America and black identity. This battle is the clearest in Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes and Mariah Dillard, two cousins who represent a multitude of ideas and philosophies that have shaped black America. Mariah, a prominent city councilwoman, wants to earn her power on the up-and-up and believes in keeping Harlem all black for the sake of culture and history. Cottonmouth, on the other hand, has been taken by the streets and has become a high-powered kingpin. To Cottonmouth, the only way to earn power is through force, because when has power ever been freely given to a black man?

Their relationship speaks to the conflicts of the heart many black Americans wrestle with every day. What Luke Cage seems to beg the audience to think about are the circumstances which made Mariah and Cornell what they are. Why is Mariah so worried about gentrification? Why did Cornell feel his manhood had to be proven on the streets? Why do Mariah and Cornell, and by extension many black Americans, feel that they, in their own way, have to fend for themselves in a country that is supposed to protect them?

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Even Pop, Cottonmouth’s former gang leader-turned socially conscious barbershop owner, reinforces this question. He gets out of the gang life, and his prior experience told him that no one is going to save the black and brown boys from the streets except for safe spaces like his barber shop. No one is going to save them because much of America has already pegged them as criminals in the first place. What incentive was there for someone like Cornell to go straight, when he was groomed to become a criminal despite his musical talents? What incentive was there for young men like Chico, Dante, and Shameek to go straight, when the dangerous “baller” life is glamorously peddled to them through American pop culture?

In short, how do we as black Americans keep the culture we have created for ourselves when that culture is constantly meddled with? How are we supposed to have our come-up if black businesses are being bought out for “gentrified” boutique shops, if schools on one side of town get more funding than schools on another side of town, and if cops think of those they’re supposed to protect as criminals? How does someone reach their potential despite so many extenuating factors? Luke Cage begins to analyze this question through Luke himself finding his purpose through the guidance of Pop, and through Mariah and Cottonmouth trying, in their own misguided ways, to make better lives for themselves.

Of course, no show is perfect. I think Mariah is probably the most muddled character so far. Either you’re in crime or you’re out, Mariah; you can’t have it both ways. I get Mariah is supposed to be a conflicted character who is doing her best to get out of her crime family. But you certainly can’t be legit if you’re seen out in the open with your kingpin cousin. But three episodes in, I’m not seeing too much to complain about. As far as I’m concerned, Luke Cage has ushered in a new era for Marvel. Now that Marvel has set itself up a new precedent for inclusivity and stellar storytelling, I hope the company continues to live up to our higher-set expectations.

Monique Jones is an entertainment blogger and founder of JUST ADD COLOR, a multicultural pop culture site. Jones has acted as a consultant for Magic: The Gathering and is the founder of the upcoming MoniqueJonesConsulting.com, an online consulting business geared towards entertainment creators who are developing characters of color.

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