Why ‘Luke Cage’ Matters
By Establishment Staff
Every once in a while, a show or movie that breaks the normative mold of pop culture resonates so strongly with our readers, we field several pitches about it. This happened with trauma survivors who wanted to write about the groundbreaking representation of the titular character in Jessica Jones. It happened with women and minorities who finally saw themselves in Star Wars, and wanted to share why that was so powerful.
And now, it’s happened with Luke Cage.
The show, which debuted on September 28 on Netflix, features a Black superhero, Black female supporting characters, and a Black creator, Cheo Hodari Coker, as well as the historically rich backdrop of Harlem, New York. In a landscape rife with white male heroes, in capes or otherwise, it’s revelatory — and as such, it spoke deeply to those who don’t often see themselves represented with such depth and power on screen.
As we did with Jessica Jones and Star Wars, we’ve invited multiple writers who pitched us to weigh in on why the show is important . . . and what it means to them personally.
These are their responses.
Luke Cage reflects the black community’s ongoing fight to be free and live in peace. It also represents the complexity of the black identity and the experiences of black people. Beneath the substantive height and bullet-proof skin, Luke Cage (Mike Colter) is a quiet, well-read guy who appreciates his community. Beneath their physical features, Misty Knight (Simone Missick) and Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) are smart women with morals that make them strong and vulnerable. This complexity of black men and black women isn’t seen often in entertainment. By showing the complexity of black people, Luke Cage acknowledges our humanity.
As a black woman who recently became a fan of the superhero genre, this was the first superhero show that I’ve enjoyed in years. As a kid, I watched the animated series Static Shock and was entertained by my first black superhero. When the original Spiderman film came out, I kept wondering if anyone was going to make a Static Shock movie. I kept seeing white men and women in films and shows, and I thought that no one noticed that black people wanted to see black superheroes front and center. It took a while, but this show proved me wrong.
Luke Cage let me see myself in different characters, including Luke Cage, Misty Knight, and Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson). I also liked that I could see a bit of my experience with living among different ethnicities. In particular, there’s an Asian American couple on the show that don’t have a lot of screen time, but was portrayed as regular people instead of stereotypes. As someone with an Asian mom and a black dad, I loved that I could see the black and Asian experiences I’ve dealt with.
But the most poignant aspect of the show for me was seeing different women of color who play prominent roles. Detective Misty Knight is a brown woman with curly hair! Politician Mariah Dillard is a dark-skinned black woman! And both are actual characters. I half expected that all the women of color would be in the background, objectified, stereotypes, or killed off. Marvel doesn’t have a great track record with women of color in shows and films, so it was awesome to see women of color finally get the roles we deserve. I hope that this show will pave the way for more women of color to have better roles in onscreen superhero projects.
Ultimately, I believe that Luke Cage is powerful because a black person told the story of a black superhero. Superheroes are for everyone, but there is something special about having a superhero brought to life by someone that has the same background as them. Luke Cage felt so real and had so much heart because it involved people who live the same experiences as the characters on the show. While it isn’t the first show to do this, Luke Cage showed that people of color are more than capable of telling their own stories.
I have a confession to make: I had no plans to watch Luke Cage when it premiered. For months, I watched my social media circle anticipate the coming of Netfix’s latest venture into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with its third series based on those comics. Having enjoyed the first season of Daredevil but ignoring the second, and having no interest in Jessica Jones, I had almost decided that Luke Cage was not for me.
But after binging The Get Down the week before the series was to premiere, I decided to give this Black-male vehicle a chance. I was terribly dismayed at the mainstream media’s attempt to kill The Get Down, declaring it as a failure with no evidence that no one was watching. With this in mind, I decided that Luke Cage was also something I could support in the hopes of seeing quality representation of blackness.
Not only did I find this representation, but I found so much more. If Black Twitter does one thing well, it’s come together as a family to support our own. I mean, look at The Wiz Live live-tweet and the trending of #BlackPantherSoLit two years before the film is even scheduled for release. Each time this happens, I’m reminded that we not only still want to see ourselves, but we also want to see ourselves on our terms in representations that are authentic in their complexities and nuances.
And this is what we got with Luke Cage: We got all our beauty, even in ugliness, and the struggles we live with every day as we navigate and negotiate a system designed to work against us. We got the respectability politics, but also the critiques that remind us why respectability will not save us. We got a lively Black community with nods to one of the most celebrated eras of Black creativity. We got a Black community that included other people of color as neighbors, friends, and business owners. We got the promise of more to come.
And I personally got to see Black women shine.
More than that, I got to see Alfre Woodard show why she is one of the most formidable actors to ever grace the screen.
Much can be (and has been) said about the colorism (and to a lesser extent, the fat erasure of Mariah) that permeates the show regarding the women of Luke Cage. But while these criticisms are valid and significant, I still appreciate the extent to which the Black women in the show are three dimensional and complex. Considering the show has a strong Black male presence behind the camera, the colorism and fat erasure did not surprise me, but the richness of the female characters in the show did.
The relationship between Misty Knight and Claire Temple had all the potential of a beautiful friendship (at least) and nice development in that, even though they are both drawn as love interests to Luke, they are not in competition with each other over him. They help each other and bond independent of Luke.
The many other supporting women — including Inspector Patricia Ridley, Candace Miller, Captain Betty Audrey, Patricia Wilson, Connie Lin, and Soledad Temple — are more than just window dressing; they are essential to character and plot development. They are their own people, providing significant threads in the fabric of this Harlem.
However, Mariah Dillard hands-down remains my favorite character of the series. As I approach middle age, seeing her as an older woman as an object of desire is a revelation. Seeing her emerge as the true “villain” of the show is just delicious. After a slew of mom roles, it’s refreshing to see Alfre Woodard bring such humanity and nuance to her corrupt councilwoman. As her pursuer says, she is that “domineering, sexy bitch we hate to love.”
While Luke Cage has its flaws, it managed to give us full representations of blackness, warts and all. It blended the tones of serious drama and comic campiness without taking away the heart and soul of Harlem. The show also attempted to do justice to its Black women characters, even though this is clearly the work of Black male imagination.
With the next season not set until 2019, we must all hope that it gets even better and richer in its blackness.
Luke Cage is packed with great action, amazing music, and superhuman feats of strength. But the best thing about it has to be the spectacular cast of female characters. The showrunners’ commitment to representation is obvious and highly enjoyable. Action is a genre where women typically get left behind. Watching most shows in this genre often leaves me feeling underwhelmed. The women are lacking in depth and substance. They fall into the same tropes, usually serving primarily as a love interest. These women often end up being particularly unfortunate and shallow in nature. Often, their endangerment is what galvanizes the hero into action for the finale. Even awesome women fall victim to Trinity Syndrome — they’re showcased as highly skilled warrior women who somehow end up being surpassed by the men they had been training. Women aren’t really afforded their own agency in a lot of the major arcs. They’re a part of the team sometimes, but rarely an equal one. When they do get their own storylines, usually it’s made known that they aren’t working on the most important or relevant piece of the story.
In Luke Cage, however, the women are an integral part of the ensemble. The women actually matter — they make the jokes; they fight the villains; they make the deals, and their stories are just as important. They aren’t accessories or props. They’re each critical in their own way. Even the minor female characters are far from tropes. Aisha Axton (Ninja N. Devoe) only appears in two episodes, but she leaves her mark on her series — she’s passionate and hard working, fighting to preserve pieces of her family’s history as her father threatens to drink them away. The opportunities for storytelling are endless.
Two main characters embody this exceptionally well in how different they are from each other. Detective Misty Knight is spectacular from the first episode. She’s collected, experienced, and approaches each case with startling attention to detail. Originally, she’s introduced to us as a potential love interest for Cage, but very early on, that changes. Her true vocation is revealed. She’s an investigator, vigorously dedicated to justice. Her only goal is to see crime and corruption in Harlem come to an end. The same commitment that drives her to solve the puzzle and arrest bad guys can make her vulnerable to outside influence. Her humanity is evident without being overtly feminized. She’s not maternal and it’s a welcome relief.
In contrast, we have the apparently polite, feminine Mariah Dillard, who plays the double-sided politician seamlessly. She’s an elegant and poised opposite to the charismatic Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali), her cousin and business partner. She’s as warm and open in her presentation as she is cutthroat and calculating behind the scenes. Mostly, Dillard stays cool and collected. But, we still have the opportunity to experience her raw vitality — and the lengths she’ll go to when she’s been provoked. She was raised to rise above the crime and trouble of Harlem. But, as much as she wants to be separate from the criminal element, she continues to edge closer and closer to completely losing control.
In between these two are a spate of characters with different goals and means of getting what they want. And this representation goes beyond being welcome. It’s damn refreshing.
Importantly, the show also features almost exclusively Black female characters. For years, Black actresses have bemoaned the lack of roles offered to them. The same few tropes come up over and over. In particular, Black women are often portrayed as irrationally angry; on Luke Cage, while the Black female characters do express anger, their justifications are always explained. Moreover, anger isn’t a central focus of their characters, but one of many emotions they express. These women are all so much more than we’ve come to expect from our TV characters.
2016 is a time when disrespect for women is still unfortunately prevalent. Women, especially women of color, are hypersexualized by our society and reduced to stereotypes all too frequently. Luke Cage brings all kinds of badass Black women to the front of the cultural consciousness — exactly where they’ve always belonged.
Before I called myself a writer, I was a fantasy nerd. As a child, the brightly colored costumes and vast array of superpowers were enough to make me believe in the possibility of good triumphing over evil, something I especially wanted to believe when real life said otherwise. These superhero stories were not only my escape, but my inspiration, even making me believe that I, too, could someday tell these stories.
And yet even now, many years later, Black writers are still struggling to have power over their own narratives. This has caused a kind of drought in representation and visibility that we’re only just beginning to quench. And we still have a long way to go. From being supporting characters to being little more than three-dimensional tropes, marginalized people are still starved for the kind of representation that we deserve.
All of which is to say: Luke Cage is definitely a big deal.
From start to finish, Luke Cage is unapologetically Black — and that’s what makes it so compelling. Luke, with his impenetrable skin and desire to do good, isn’t the only hero of the story. While Harlem is threatened by the schemes of Cottonmouth, Mariah Dillard, Shades, and Diamondback, the city is also defended by the multifaceted female Black character of Misty Knight.
Beyond just the wide array of characters, the show is packed with references to many of the highlights of Black culture, with scenes paying homage to some of the most important figures throughout Black history. The show isn’t just about a bulletproof Black man, nor is it about who gets to defend the streets of one of America’s most iconic and important neighborhoods. It’s about who is allowed, and who is able, to stand up and become a hero, despite the odds.
One of the things that stood out to me in watching Luke Cage is the raw humanity that the Black women of the cast are allowed to exhibit. Both Misty and Mariah are complex characters, balancing their raw vulnerability with hard-driven ferocity to make Harlem better in their own way. While both have different courses of action, Misty and Mariah show that the title character doesn’t get to have all of the fun playing hero (or villain).
Though the show gets a lot of flak for its not-so-great points (the heavy respectability politics, the lackluster transitioning between major plot points, the choppy characterization of Luke himself), it reignites that optimism that I had so long ago, that Black and other marginalized fans deserve to have see themselves in a heroic light.
Luke Cage is important because it normalizes the hero narrative for everyone . . . especially for those who have long waited for their turn in line.
All images courtesy of Facebook