Step in The Arena — On Luke Cage

Angel Luis Colon

I want to talk about Luke Cage for a sec, but first a little preface…

…fine, a LONG preface.

Before I get the ball rolling, since folks are sensitive and I can absolutely understand that: I’m no expert. I’m not black and I can’t speak in any authoritative shape or form for the black experience in this country. I’ve had black friends, coworkers, and even a half-brother of color and while I empathize, I completely understand that it will never be my place to speak FOR. I can only speak of, express my thoughts/understanding, and be willing to learn if I make a mistake. I’ll also not pretend that this entire essay can’t span VOLUMES. Black history is not simple. We can discuss this all for years and years and years before we can begin laying out paths to real solutions.

So, moving on.

Maybe ten years ago or longer (I’m not bothering to research since I’m not a fan) Tyler Perry unleashed Madea upon the world. I remember working at an office just jammed with white twenty-somethings all gearing up to go see the movie after pre-gaming at the local bar. The goal: to watch the flick shit-faced and mock it openly. A movie based on plays involving a black man in drag as an exaggerated caricature/conscience figure was an event for them to mock and clap at giddily as their preconceptions — at least on a surface level — were entertained and validated. Of course, there’s the other side that could use what they deem to be a buffoonish character to write Tyler Perry off as a niche market as well. Catch-22 and all.

Me? The humor’s not my speed and I’m not fond of the jarring melodrama.

But let’s not pretend for a moment that part of selling that package to the general public is just that: you parcel the product to try and appeal to different audiences — particularly white audiences since that nets you the golden goose of becoming “mainstream” by bullshit conventional standards. In the case where minorities are provided a fucking shred of spotlight, one cannot forget to add a little bit of that good ol’ spice that keeps the outsiders nice and comfortable, right? No questions, no real, sincere curiosity to learn. Can’t have that, no sir.

And that in and of itself has been a problem that’s plagued black media for decades — arguably centuries; the need to be able to pass muster under white optics. We’ve seen that with hip hop bleeding into the suburbs. What was once music and poetry meant to evoke struggle became glamorized depictions of violent, psychotic behavior for those outside of the sphere to consume. Real problems became entertainment that went out of its way to prevent any empathy or understanding. Gangsters were “cool” and that was it. Suburban audiences could both watch in excitement and maintain their racial positions with little guilt since, as my racist as fuck grandfather (God rest his utterly flawed soul) would say, ‘Those people live like savages’.

Many, many levels of fucked up indeed.

There was an interview recently with Tim Burton that touched on the lack of diversity in his newest flick and prior movies. To avoid argument, no, Burton owes nobody diverse casts. If he wants to maintain a certain ‘look’ for his movies, hey, he’s open to that just as I’m open to not spending a dime on his increasingly lazy output. What struck me about the interview was his piss poor excuse for lack of diversity. Instead of saying something like, “I never noticed.” or “I love white so much I whiten my white actors to the point that they become their own light sources.” — which at least would have been honest.

Burton instead said:

“Things either call for things, or they don’t. I remember back when I was a child watching The Brady Bunch and they started to get all politically correct. Like, okay, let’s have an Asian child and a black. I used to get more offended by that than just… I grew up watching Blaxploitation movies, right? And I said, that’s great. I didn’t go like, okay, there should be more white people in these movies.”

What the shit is he even talking about?

Now, Blaxploitation has its history of controversy. As a matter of fact, when the genre was at its height, many prominent black organizations called for the end of the genre as they believed Blaxploitation films perpetuated many stereotypes about the black community. While many of those films were entertaining on some levels (my introduction was via Foxy Brown and Coffey when I was still in grade school — I still love those movies) they indeed carried with them the weight from white optics; meaning a lot of the tropes that carried the films — slang, outlandish fashion, irrational hate for whitey and “the man”, misogyny, etc. — were more informed by the money behind some of the flicks. Yes, there were many instances, glimpses, of empowerment and the genre contributed to the growing black arts movements that would later on bring many more conscientious media pieces about the black community (see the emergence of Spike Lee or John Singleton). Hell, there have even been a few takes on that Blaxploitation spirit that worked by either portraying black characters with more agency (look at Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, or Dead Presidents) or lampooning brilliantly (Pootie Tang, Black Dynamite, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, or even Undercover Brother…sort of…maybe).

Don’t get me wrong, those movies have plenty of their own issues. I use them more as examples of attempts to break molds or pay homage to something for nostalgic value.

The evolution of black media — especially subversive work — would continue. In the aughts we had The Boondocks slowly break through and examine black culture with and without a white lens — a ballsy and necessary move — as Aaron McGruder used satire to discuss pertinent issues without looking for permission from white decision-makers. Well, let’s pretend that last season didn’t happen (Black Jesus was amazing, though). Dave Chappelle — previously known for a single stoner comedy — branded an incredibly transgressive satire deeply rooted in race relations as well. Unfortunately, like most projects from black creators, it would become hijacked.

You look at the steps taken towards black media presence now, with Shonda Rhimes destroying TV at ABC (in amazing ways) and Ava DuVernay’s presence in Hollywood being a small sample of that sea change. We’re finally getting media with a black lens for everyone and for a distinct audience that has begun to realize that you don’t NEED to coddle your outsider audience. You can depend on their willingness to consume this media based on quality to make the decision to step out of their comfort zone if they desire to. If not, fine, watch for your own reasons and back the fuck up when changes are made. If you are invested, learn, watch, and enjoy. Listen.

Which leads us to Luke Cage.

We’ll get critiques out of the way immediately. Yes, there’s flimsy writing. Yes, it drags a little. Yes, the back half dives into some silliness (which I found thoroughly enjoyable). There are also a few acting issues.

It’s a great show, though. A lot of those issues are counterbalanced by brilliant moments of acting and amazing visuals. Luke Cage as a show is a satisfying and enjoyable event — worth binge watching over a couple of nights.

Under the plus column, Luke Cage has what may be my favorite supervillain origin of all time in Mariah Dillard, some fantastic chemistry between cast members, and one of the best TV scores I’ve ever heard in my life (along with excellent use of well-known tracks from a variety of artists).

Bottom line, though, the one thing Luke Cage does best is give zero fucks about what you think about its content, message, or portrayal of its characters and setting.

Like no fucks.

All gone. The fucks have been sold out.

In case it needs repeating: the show does not give a flying fuck if you ‘get it’.

And it’s about time! Comic books, especially super hero comic books, were rooted as mirrors of society for children. Superman and Batman were both white men of two common and criticized backgrounds — immigrant or privileged — fighting against social injustices against the impoverished. Seriously, they fought racketeers and street thugs before aliens and crazy clowns. Comics were dependent on being a four-color splash reflection of life for those living an uncomfortable life — and created by folks like these kids to boot.

Where does that even begin for black culture? Black Panther? Nope created by two white men (even if he fucking rocks). Hell, Luke Cage was a creation of white men in response to the popularity of Blaxploitation, which was problematic to blacks at the time (as covered above)!

There’s no winning! No matter how you approach the history of these characters, there is still the filter via a white lens. And I’m not pointing fingers here or being angry, it’s just an observation of the obvious.

So what makes this rendition of Luke Cage special then? Well, for one, the majority of the creative team behind the show LOOK like Luke. The majority of the creative team applies their life lessons, experiences, laughter, and tears to Luke’s Harlem. Yes, they maintain aspects of the character’s origins and spirit, but this is not a caricature, not someone here to validate any of OUR opinions, prejudices, or misconceptions. And there are the cultural touchstones: the music, the discussion of social movements for and against blacks (BENIGN FUCKING NEGLECT, WHAT), Walter Mosely, Ellison, the history of blacks in America beyond music or sport. I can go on and on. It’s a master class of staying true to culture without stopping to explain it. You need an explanation? Do the fucking walk yourself and go find out. Wikipedia that shit — I know I had to a few times.

The beauty of the show: Luke Cage is Luke Cage — full stop. He’s black, his world is Harlem, and he deals with being black in an exaggerated version of our world where aliens blew up Midtown. It’s potent and it works. And while even I’ve said the show is unapologetically black, I should go back on that (and make my own apologies).

Nah, Luke Cage as a show is black and deserves to be what it is and who it is for — kids and adults who want to see themselves in a world usually focused entirely on white saviors and white villains. We take for granted how important that can be, relating to a conversation about the Knicks in the 90’s (a highlight of the show) or the power behind the image of a black man in a hoodie that’s bulletproof. That’s some powerful shit right there. Take a minute to think about how much it’s taken to have these concepts and visuals represented and how easily it’s been represented when the melanin wasn’t as present. Beyond lopsided, right?

I’ll add. I think it’s wonderful that the show’s blackness would make anyone uncomfortable. It’s a good thing. That discomfort is a sign that a person has something to learn or get over. It’s a sign that Luke Cage is striking all the right nerves and etching its place as art that discusses aspects of black culture and black America a lot of people are too comfortable ignoring. The irony, though, is the same folk sure aren’t comfortable with a lack of color in shows that present a world as whites only. About time the opposite was true while being framed in a mainstream universe — not outside in its own sphere.

If anything, the very idea of belonging while being true to oneself might be one of the strongest themes of Luke Cage’s journey and the content of the show shines when it decides to explores what it means to Cage that he belongs to this Harlem community. My favorite moment on the show comes near the halfway point. Cage bemoans that he can’t be normal to Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple (a smart, medically trained Latina, WHOA) and that he’s kept his head down to be normal among the people of Harlem. Luke believes that what’s made him superhuman pulls him away from his community. Claire doesn’t agree with this. She accounts for Luke’s life experiences, his pains, as his link. It’s a powerful moment, and I feel like I can take that a step forward. As we watch the show, let’s realize that Luke’s powers allow him to be black in a world that can hate blacks for simply being. That physical strength, the impervious skin, allows Luke to step forward and lead the way in the hopes that one day he’ll be able to step aside for the next generations that won’t need that leg up to merely exist.

The best part? That demand to be as black as possible, from all angles? That makes Luke Cage feel like one of the more quintessentially New York City feeling pieces from Marvel or most outlets in years. It’s a pleasure to watch a show celebrate how much the black community has contributed and contributes to all the things I love about my home.

And yes, Luke Cage doesn’t tackle everything it could have with today’s racial climate, I feel there will be a time that all that will be confronted. There are still issues between blacks and the police. Problems with our politicians and overall lack of true representation in more outlets. As a beginning to this character and his world, though? Relishing in culture, history, and essence seems, to me, a really great choice. Maybe the intent is to celebrate before the granular work begins, that’s not for me to say but it is my hope.

Lastly, let it not be said that fun isn’t part of this social equation. We can still have those potent moments in a show with big action beats, psychotic, borderline high-camp villains, and crazy pseudoscience to boot. We can have a black superhero literally break Netflix even though he’s following up two hit shows about white heroes. We can have a show that isn’t beholden to anyone else but those who helped craft it and their experiences and still resonate deeply. Almost like its mainstream and can continue to be mainstream.

Who’d have thought that could happen?

By the way, Pop and company were like 1000% right on the 90’s Knicks. That entire exchange is gospel.

Angel Luis Colon

Written by

Writer. Editor. Critic. Ranter. Beer Drinker. GIF Lover. Find out more about his writing at angelluiscolon.com

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