Sometimes you’re having a shitty day. It’s raining, you’re late, the kids are on your nerves thus exacerbating your lateness, the weak coffee you made spills all over you when you hit a bump in the road, your wi-fi is slow, someone’s already eaten the leftovers you were fantasizing about, that weight you’ve gained is really obvious when you look in the mirror… you know… a really shitty day. Oh, and this has just been one in a series of shitty days.
Then a friend calls/texts/emails/Facebook messages and says something like “hey, I’ve been thinking of you. I know you’ve been going through a rough patch. Want you to know that I love you!” Maybe it’s not something quite that sappy. Maybe it’s more like a meme with a dolphin wearing a cowboy hat that makes you inexplicably laugh out loud because dolphins in cowboy hats are that one thing that makes you laugh out loud (for the record, I’ve never actually seen a picture of a dolphin in a cowboy hat, but I kinda feel like that might be the thing that makes me laugh uncontrollably. We’ll see…). In any event, it’s the acknowledgement that, 1) you exist 2) things have been legitimately hard for you 3) you’re not alone and 4) you’re awesome that makes those little reminders from your friends feel like a life preserver.
That’s how I felt watching Luke Cage.
For the uninitiated, Luke Cage is a Netflix series based on a Marvel comics character. The character has impenetrable skin and super power and was, in fact, known as “Power Man” in the comics for a period. Cage was a character in an earlier Marvel series AKA Jessica Jones, which is a part of a larger TV world which includes Daredevil which is a part of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe that includes the likes of Iron Man and Captain America. Oh, and he’s black.
In Jessica Jones, Luke was a black character inhabiting a mostly white world. In Luke Cage, Luke is in the midst of a world that could not be more black and it is in that which the show has it’s richness. The series is populated almost exclusively with black characters; black heroes, black villains, black bystanders, black supporting cast. The music, both diegetic and non-diegetic is decidedly black, ranging from funk and jazz, to R&B and hip hop, and a little bit of Gospel thrown in. There are numerous references to black literature, black history, as well as black film and television.
Plus the show takes place in Harlem. I’ve only been to Harlem once and it was at the beginning of this year in the middle of a historic snowstorm. The city was largely shut down. Still, walking the streets of Harlem feels like watching a tribute to black excellence. I stood and stared at the Apollo theater in a way that I’m sure gave me away as a tourist. For someone who grew up in a city that felt far removed from the places known as epicenters of blackness, Harlem has a gravity to it. Just the name invokes the likes of Gil Scott Heron and Langston Hughes. It feels almost mythical. It’s like black Asgard. It is the only place this story about a black man-god could take place.
And yet, it is grounded in the realities that black people face in every city. That the protagonist spends much of the show moving through the city in a hoodie with his hood up speaks volumes. We’re supposed to be thinking of Trayvon Martin as we watch. It’s impossible to watch a black man on screen be shot repeatedly and not feel triumphant as each bullet bounces off. Without giving too much away, the story leads to Luke being in conflict with both the police and politicians who epitomize the call for “respectability” while being ruthless behind closed doors. It’s also interesting to note what’s not shown but implied. The guns that are being sold off to people of color, the initial conflict that starts the show’s drama, are being supplied by Justin Hammer, a white business man who is never seen in the show but who we (theoretically) know from Iron Man 3 as being a rival of Tony Stark (Iron Man). White people provide the means through which people of color kill each other off.
Even this subtle connection to the larger universe is the real genius of the show for me and here I must veer off into much geekier territory: Luke Cage’s story is thoroughly embedded in a story that has been unfolding in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) since 2008, but Luke’s story is coming from the margins of that world. Previously, we’ve seen black character integrate into the larger, whiter world of the MCU. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) as the head of the government agency SHIELD, James Rhoades (Terrence Howard/DonCheadle) as Tony Stark’s best friend/sidekick, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) as Captain America’s sidekick. Across 15 films and 3 seasons of television, we have seen this world from a white (predominantly male) perspective. Now we are seeing the same world from the a different perspective. A world where bootleggers sell DVD’s of “the incident” referencing the climactic events of the first Avengers film. The world that Method Man raps about in the 12th episode when he says “Lord, who to call when no one obeys the law /And there ain’t no Iron Man that can come and save us all”. A world where people who may feel alienated by a blond hero with a magical hammer feel more comfortable with a bald dude who hangs out in a barber shop. The gift of Luke Cage for many black people is that our story is being told in the midst of this heroic epic. The greater gift is that our story is a part of the larger story.
A friend of mine joked (but maybe only half jokingly) that after watching Luke Cage and visiting the National Museum for African American History and Culture in D.C. that she felt 15% blacker. I can’t help but thinking that in some ways both are serving similar functions but on much different scales. President Obama’s remarks at the opening of the museum come to mind:
And by knowing this other story, we better understand ourselves and each other. It binds us together. It reaffirms that all of us are American, that African-American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story, it’s not the underside of the American story. It is central to the American story, that our glory derives not just from our most obvious triumphs, but how we’ve wrested triumph from tragedy, and how we’ve been able to remake ourselves again, and again, and again, in accordance with our highest ideals.
There are people who are dissatisfied with Luke Cage for being too black. While it’s true that white characters are few and far between in the story, I have to believe that such a criticism can only take place in a vacuum where people live blissfully unaware of/or emotionally unaffected by the fact that representation in all forms of media have been woefully skewed towards white faces and the white gaze. I worry about white people who will tune this part of the story out because they don’t see themselves represented. Black people are never given that option. We can’t tune out the parts of American history that feel too white. We can barely avoid media that feels too white without making very conscious effort. All we ask is that our part of the story be seen as just as legitimate, just as essential to the overall narrative. Some “diehard” comic book fans will opt out of Luke Cage and the next year’s mostly black cast Black Panther and they will deprive themselves of part of the story because they can’t find themselves onscreen. I find that sad. For black fans who have for decades had to try to find themselves in the faces of superheroes who are actually white billionaires behind the mask, Luke Cage offers an easily accessible reflection, both in terms of the image of the protagonist and in the world which he inhabits. Again, to quote Method Man’s “Bulletproof Love” from episode 12: “Look, dog, a hero never had one/Already took Malcolm and Martin this is the last one/I beg your pardon, somebody pulling’ a fast one/And now we got a hero for hire and he a black one”
It’s been another really hard year to be black in this country. So often when we see ourselves on screen, it is in a video where our lives are being taken, or in mugshots where our character is being impugned to justify either an arrest or a killing. To see ourselves, in all of our complexity, on a screen is a glorious feeling, one I did not realize I was missing so much. I feel like the folks at Disney and Marvel basically just sent me a card that said “hey, we know things have been a little rough lately, so we sent you this”. To my black friends who have yet to watch it, I would challenge you to turn off your inner critic, suspend your disbelief, and soak in this magnificent representation of blackness. To my white friends, I would challenge you to sit with the discomfort of having something that was not made with you in mind and push yourselves across that chasm of representation that people of color have to cross daily. And to all of us, I think the challenge is to recognize that none of our stories are complete until all of our stories are told.
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