It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, so let me refresh everyone. The “I Got Five on It” series consists of posts where I give my five thoughts–right or wrong—on a book, graphic novel/comic, film, or TV show. This is a very off the dome, stream of consciousness type of analysis and NOT a review.
Also, the standard disclaimer: Marvel’s Luke Cage is for the culture, and I am blessed to be a part of the generation of black comic book fans able to witness the real time TV serializations of one of the most influential black superheroes of all time on the small screen(s). Shorter version: what a time to be alive.
Of course, I have some less than stellar critiques of the show–Luke was such a corny brotha that the show felt compelled to repeatedly acknowledge it; some of the performances, especially with the villains, fell flat; and what the hell was up with that second act?–but I loved it all the same and I recommend that you get amongst it if you haven’t already. Oh, and there will be mild spoilers here, but for the most part I will keep things spoiler free.
Got it? Good. Let’s go.
This is probably blackest thing the MCU has ever done.
After blatantly offensive properties like Exodus: Gods of Egypt, and the upcoming Ghost in The Shell film adaptation, black and brown fans of comic books, science fiction, and superheroes have been clamoring for a property that takes our culture and concerns into consideration. Marvel’s Luke Cage is the closest that we’ve come to getting what we need. Shoutout to Cheo Hodari Coker and company for a culturally relevant hip hop western that does a pretty damn good job of paying homage to Blaxploitation films, classic hip-hop, Black American literature, and black people’s actual lives.
Luke Cage is a show suffused with Black American cultural signifiers and characterization to a degree that we’ve never seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We got blockbuster musicians like Faith Evans, Raphael Saadiq, Jidenna, The Delfonics, and Sharon Jones, artists who are Black American musical mainstays. We got several completely diverse depictions of the Black American identity and experience. We got a somewhat honest depiction of a barbershop in the hood, and everyone knows by now that black barbershops are basically scaled down versions of the United Nations for black dudes. We got black street corner hustlers, well crafted black criminals (shoutout to Turk, played to a damn tee by Rob Morgan), black small business owners, black politicians, and black first responders, but we also had a wide array of people of other identities coexisting in Harlem as well.
Luke Cage is no slouch visually either. The black characters on the show come in varying shades and hues, with spectacular attention paid to lighting darker skin tones. Every principal character in Luke Cage, and tons of the supporting ones, are hands down beautiful black people…though some of my enthusiasm here might just be overwhelming joy from seeing so many black folks on the screen at one time. The first act of the show boasts some spectacular storytelling and setpiece moments. There is a particular scene where we get to see Luke let loose in an attempt to bust up Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali) and Black Mariah’s (Alfre Woodard) operations that is highkey one of the best action scenes in the whole show thus far. These Netflix series have been really hard on hallways and doors so far.
There were smaller bits of satisfaction that really spoke to me, too. Like when Black Mariah calls Cottonmouth “color-struck,” or the glory that was Misty Knight’s twist out, or the throwbacks to classic new york hip hop culture, or the constant references and in-jokes in the dialogue that are specifically attuned to Black Americans with no real concern to whether white folks get it. Like Misty saying that Inspector Ridley (Karen Pittman, who killed it) let Mariah (Alfre Woodard) “skee-wee” out of police custody. Or Turk’s assertion that “Harlem niggas is off the hook.” Or Luke and Squabbles arguing over kung-fu films (spoiler: I dig Fist of Legend more too). This was a show that threw a lot of much-needed winks and nods to Black Americans while still holding some appeal for the non racist fanboy consumer base who came to watch a comic book adaptation of Luke Cage’s story.
That said, Luke Cage doesn’t balance these things perfectly. While much of the show does a good job of stylistically presenting a set of fictional black experiences while keeping somewhat true to the superheroic source material, there are some parts of that puzzle that I wish Luke Cage had handled better. For example:
I wish Luke Cage had abandoned some of the “messaging” for honest critique.
I have an uncle who thinks that the solution to every problem facing Black Americans today–mass incarceration, blatant systemic racism and white supremacist rule of law, antiblackness in media, queer/bi/homo/transphobia, economic injustice, environmental racism, the list goes on–can be solved if all of these shiftless negroes who are out here sowing their wild oats would just settle down and father their children. Yep. The key to black liberation in the United States is for fathers to act right. I’m sure you have an uncle or older male relative who thinks the same kind of thing. It’s a seemingly harmless, patriarchal position that lots of black people hold.
Several characters in Luke Cage think this way as well. Pop sure does. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think that Luke–who’s a PK and conservative (superheroes tend to be conservative, and a true examination of this would be interesting because Black American conservatism isn’t mainstream conservatism, but that’s another essay) holds the same view. And so does a character in the middle of the show, who somehow blames black people’s ills on fatherlessness even though he’s doing a pretty shitty job of being a father himself. (Did I miss something? Was that supposed to be a moment of irony?)
This kind of surface level critique of inequality is, unfortunately, common in Luke Cage. Luke is coerced to participate in dangerous experimental science, but there is no discussion of America’s legacy of using black people as guinea pigs in scientific experiments. Pop talks about how the hood has gotten more violent since his day–and even acknowledges his role in perpetuating that generational violence–without reckoning with the war on drugs or racist policing. Incarceration is a thematic element of blaxploitation films, and here Luke is wrongfully incarcerated and surrounded by black and brown inmates in a southern prison with destructive practices and individually terroristic wardens, but the conversation on mass incarceration doesn’t really happen.
And at the core of it, all of these problems would be solved if the fathers would just come back home, which is a disingenuous argument that kind of erases the emotional, spiritual, and physical labor that black mothers have been doing in various communities around the country since black folks touched down in America. This position also fails to implicate the true culprit in the violence and prisons that prey on the missing fathers, mothers, and children.
And yeah, the show did name-check Moynihan and yeah, Claire did jab Luke for being obtuse and not realizing the realities that non-superpowered black people with criminal records face, but there still seemed to be a reluctance to go more than surface level into these issues, which was disappointing to me.
I hear you. You’re saying, “Lighten up, bruh. This is a show based on a comic book. It’s not that deep.”
But remember. The driving image of this show is bullets bouncing off of a black dude wearing a hoodie. That image was all over the advertising for this show, and it indicated that Luke Cage was open to fostering some of the toughest conversations of our current political moment. I’m tired of seeing black superheroes be black in hue only. I want to see them really dealing with inequality on a deep, personal level while the folks who write their stories force us to reckon with the realities that don’t really have a cut and dried answer. Am I asking a lot of a superhero show? I don’t think so, especially not of one that came as close to tackling this stuff as Luke Cage did. I mean, if you want to really see these issues discussed and reckoned with on a TV show, check out Cleverman.
(Some) Black Women Finally Got A Win.
There’s an argument that Luke Cage is one of the most feminist shows in the Marvel Cinematic Universe–maybe the most feminist show on television. And there’s some legitimacy to that. Luke Cage definitely avoids falling into the trap of being a conversation between a bunch of dudes with women just kind of hanging around and making pouty faces. Misty Knight really does kind of steal the show here, but she’s surrounded by black women who have agency, motivations, and complexity. Luke Cage gives us a scene that we haven’t witnessed before in a MCU property: FOUR black women appearing in the same room in conversation surrounding a topic that doesn’t involve a romantic relationship. They are, in a sense, talking about men, but only how those men relate to the larger conflict. That was a refreshing, powerful moment–as powerful as Claire laying the smackdown on her would-be mugger, but not as hilarious.
Anyway, Misty Knight and Claire Temple were far and away two of the most spectacular characters in the show. Hell, even Inspector Ridley and Aisha Axton (Ninja N. Devoe) were bright spots in the overall narrative.
That said, there was one spot that bugged me (shoutout to my wife, AfroKimber, who pointed this dynamic out to me and goes into a little depth about it in her role as co-host on the Black Nerd Power podcast): It seems like Cottonmouth isn’t the only colorstruck negro in the Marvel Cinematic universe.
An early setup in the show is that “coffee” is a euphemism for characters who will engage in the act of gettin’ them skins. Luke and Misty have “coffee” early in the show. Luke offers Claire some “coffee,” and initially, she declines. However, there’s a scene at the end of the show, after Luke and Claire develop feelings for each other, where the topic of “coffee” comes up again and Luke says that he likes “coffee,” but it depends on the blend.
Now, that’s not so bad, right? Except, take a look at Luke Cage’s love interests throughout the show. Misty’s the only one with relatively brown skin. Claire is latinx and a lighter shade of brown, and Reva is not dark skinned either. Even Patricia (Cassandra Freeman), a woman whose interest is rejected by Luke, is darker skinned than the rest of the women that Luke is romantically involved with. The blend, huh?
Before y’all start, I do not have a problem with black people of different skin tones being in relationships, nor do I have any issues with interracial relationships. My only issue is when these relationships are used to reinforce problematic stereotypical views about people. If western civilization–through the lens of contemporary literature, art, and media–has taught us anything, it’s that darker skinned black women (and darker skinned women in many other cultures) are considered less desirable by men and society. This is basic stuff. Light skinned, longer/straight haired black women = more attractive. 9 out of 10 rappers say this. And yeah, there’s a bit of an argument that Luke and Misty’s relationship has a bit more complexity that may need some sussing, but a lot of that complexity was muddled by a needless romantic arc that was COMPLETELY unfulfilling.
And that’s also not to say that darker skinned black women are completely devalued–Alfre Woodard is allowed a ton of complexity as Black Mariah. But the perpetuation of the idea that darker skinned women are less desirable, shown through the show’s depiction of darker skinned women as the bad guy (“Black” Mariah, in this context), sex objects to be disrespected (Candace’s use as a device to show how awful Tone was in Episode 1), ridiculous (the point of Blue’s “I plead the eighth” joke in Episode 5 left me scratching my head), or just plain undesirable as romantic partners does the show’s feminism an injustice.
The MCU has a villain problem.
Just gonna come out and say it: I didn’t like the 2nd half’s arc much, and a lot of that is because I wasn’t fond of the villain. That’s not to say that Erik LaRay Harvey didn’t do a fantastic job playing a force of nature villain in Diamondback, because he totally did. It’s just that Diamondback’s motivations were, I don’t know, not enough to me? You out here killing all the gangsters in Harlem and shooting up clubs for what, now? Because you got a grudge? Because your feelings are hurt? I guess, fam.
Contrast him with Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth, who was a fantastic foil for Luke Cage both in their positioning in their communities and in their relationships to the people therein. The scenes where Luke and Cottonmouth meet and square up? Cottonmouth’s misread of Luke’s ties to Harlem? The subsequent face-off between the two characters over the pulpit? Now that was some good television. Cottonmouth was just more compelling, and he completely stole the show in the first act as the rocket launcher toting, chuckling, Nino-brown esque villain. Dude was fantastic, and the switch from him to Diamondback was inevitable. That don’t mean I had to like it, though.
I’m ready for The Defenders!
I’ve leveled a lot of criticism at Luke Cage, but if I didn’t like it a lot and see the potential in it, I wouldn’t be writing about it at all. Luke Cage has given us the best example of a black comic book universe to date (at least, until Black and Sexy TV tries their hand at superhero drama). This is a show that’s set the groundwork for other black superheroes to come in and crush all the buildings. And, perhaps most importantly, it sets the stage for the next piece of this series: Marvel’s The Defenders.
I’ve written elsewhere about how street-level heroes are just more interesting to me, and that’s part of my hype around Marvel’s current spate of shows. Each one of them has a different stylistic feel and different themes, but at the end of the day each one of the heroes we’ve seen thus far operates at the level of the people that they protect. Even Luke’s bulletproof skin couldn’t protect him from Harlem when they thought he was a sellout, or when they thought that he was going to ruin their community. But when they loved him? He could do anything. And hopefully, that kind of energy carries over into the team-up.