Commentary: ‘Luke Cage’s’ true superpower is showing an alternate vision of black America
A thug pulls a gun in a Harlem park at night. Two black men in hoodies, foreboding music, the threat of deadly force.
The encounter, from the new Netflix series “Luke Cage,” at first seems to depict an inner city we’ve seen in so many other television shows — and heard about most recently in our political discourse.
“African Americans, Hispanics, are living in hell because it’s so dangerous,” said Donald Trump during the last presidential debate. “You walk down the street, you get shot.”
Except one of the hoodie-wearing men in the scene is no stereotypical TV gangster — he’s a superhero with bulletproof skin. And “Luke Cage” is not your average take on black America.
The streaming series, released Friday, is the third installment in a Netflix Marvel initiative that includes “Jessica Jones” and “Daredevil.” Cage made his debut last year as the love/sex interest of Jones, but he’s part of a larger trend that finds superheroes overcoming their broken and dysfunctional lives to step up for a greater good.
Cheo Hodari Coker, creator of “Luke Cage” and star Mike Colter sit down to talk about the show.
Just as Jones represented bigger social issues regarding women, power and even rape, Cage steps in to address Black Lives Matter, racial inequality and black-on-black violence.
But it’s not just Cage’s superhuman abilities that make him the best man for protecting Harlem and its people from nefarious forces. His deep understanding of black history and cultural achievements is just as critical as his Kevlar-like skin, and he deploys that knowledge as strategically as his foes deploy spies and assassins.
“Think about where you are,” Cage says to the gun-wielding thug in the park. “Hallowed ground. This park is named after Jackie Robinson. Take a look around.”
“At what?” sneers the thug.
“Our legacy,” answers Cage, before bending his adversary’s gun into a piece of pop art.
Cage (played by Mike Colter) is as much about defending his Harlem neighborhood from bad guys on both sides of the law as he is about explaining why Harlem and its culture are worth defending.
It’s a mission that makes him one of today’s more interesting and relevant superheroes and that challenges all-too-common assumptions that black and Latino America is a blighted ghetto where crime, drugs and staggering poverty are its core.
Take Trump’s generalization about nearly a third of the American population. It wasn’t surprising, given the candidate’s previous speeches. More troubling was that many pundits and analysts overlooked his flat-world description of more than 87 million people for juicier comments about Rosie O’Donnell. (It took “Saturday Night Live’s” hilarious debate sketch to have fun with both.)
Is there any doubt why Cage feels like a superhero tailor-made for our times?
He’s not just a black hero in a black hoodie, he’s one of handful of television characters who provide an alternate vision of black America.
Though Marvel created him more than 40 years ago as a nod to blaxploitation films of the era, the Netflix series (created by Cheo Hodari Coker) finds our hero moving through a nuanced black and Latino community of professionals and working class people, trees and cityscapes, complex conversations and shorthand street slang.
Cage references black literary figures like Walter Mosley in conversations at the barbershop, drops the names of black American war heroes such as Crispus Attucks during run-ins with gun-toting punks and debates the merits of old-school hip-hop over modern day club hits during his night job as a dishwasher.
Conversations between other characters about success in modern black America — do you try and climb a corporate ladder that has fewer rungs for minorities or work the underbelly of the streets for cash? — are also part of the connective tissue and context that elevate the series into something more than a feel-good vengeance montage.
Cage’s earnestness can feel old-fashioned and quaint at times: His boss at the barbershop keeps a swear jar into which money must be deposited every time someone curses (we’d all be broke), and though he’s just come out of prison, he’s sensitive to other black men addressing him with the N word (when is the last time you didn’t hear that term — over and over again — in a prison or urban drama?). Then again, this is the retro-leaning world of Marvel, where modern issues are viewed through the lens of a medium created in the time of our great-grandparents.
When a young man addresses Cage with the N word, he replies: “I’ve had a long day. I’m tired, but I’m not tired enough to ever let nobody call me that word. You see a ... standing in front of you, across the street from a building named after one of our greatest heroes? …You even know who Crispus Attucks was?”
Cage’s abilities to rip a car door from its hinges and use it as a battering ram, or to shield a child from the spray of an assault rifle with his body come from a prison experiment gone awry, while his sense of ethnic and cultural pride is no doubt a response to the lack of such sentiments throughout the hero franchise — and media as a whole.
Marvel aficionados and fanboys have their own fraught relationships with Cage, as they do every other hero or heroine brought to life on the screen (Google it if you have a free month or three to go down that worm hole). But for the rest of us, “Luke Cage” is a refreshing twist on the superhero franchise — and a remedy to stereotypical images of the black and Latino “community.”
“Luke Cage” may be hard to watch given the frequent images of his bullet-ridden black hoodie — a mirror of the real-life shootings that have played out across America — but when Cage emerges unscathed, he’s sending a message: you cannot keep us down.
‘Marvel’s Luke Cage’
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
On Twitter: @LorraineAli
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