Luke Cage Shines a Spotlight on the Dark Side of American Culture

Netflix’s Luke Cage is more than just a web series to binge-watch on a Friday night. It is “unadulterated, bulletproof, kick ass, Wu-Tang blackness with a Marvel twist”. The gritty, action-packed drama staring Mike Colter goes beyond the story of a black man who gains super strength from an experiment-gone-wrong, to provide an alternate vision of a black America. The show pushes the genre to new bounds by tackling societal issues as such as the representation of black people and culture in the media, police brutality, and the damning effect of the mass incarceration of black men on the African-American community.

In the past decade, there have been many attempts to bring African-American comic book heroes to the big screen. While the attempts have been admirable, they have often led to major disappointments with iconic characters such as the Falcon and the Black Panther being reduced to supporting roles overshadowed by to their white super-counterparts. We were first introduced to Luke Cage late last year in Jessica Jones, where he served as Jones’ sidekick and love interest. Netflix’s Luke Cage carries on from Jessica Jones. We find Cage’s relationship with Jones failed and he has left Hell’s Kitchen and moved to Harlem, where he sweeps hair in Pop’s barbershop and washes dishes in a club called Harlem’s Paradise. Luke Cage is the first production with a black superhero playing the lead.

Luke Cage doesn’t shy away from his blackness; he embraces it. He references black literary figures like Walter Mosley; he lectures the neighbourhood thugs about the black American war hero Crispus Attucks; and he debates the merits of old school hip-hop over modern day hits as he washes dishes at Harlem’s Paradise. The show is rife with celebrations of black culture including an appearance from Harlem music legend Dapper Dan. Additionally, in a world where black women’s hair is policed, female characters such as Misty Knight wear their natural, textured hair with pride. 

Black culture is so often dismissed in our modern society, despite the appropriation of it in pop culture, fashion trends and music festivals. So, it is incredibly refreshing to see Luke Cage unapologetically reclaim black culture and history.

Cage’s pride in his culture isn’t always comfortable. It is not all music and black literary figures. It comes with bitter references to slavery, gentrification and racism. Before the series began, Cage was thrown in prison for a crime he did not commit and became the target of a brutal and racist white guard. During his time in prison, he became a medical guinea pig in order to secure an early release; an allusion to the thousands of black men and women who have been exploited throughout American history, such as in the horrifying Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.

During the recent Presidential debates, Donald Trump proudly stated, “African Americans, Hispanics are living in hell because it’s so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot.” We’ve all seen this depiction of black neighbourhood on television: the dark and seedy alleyways, run down infrastructure, littered streets and hooded figures with guns and gold chains. Luke Cage challenges these ignorant assumptions of black America being an afflicted ghetto overrun with crime, drugs, and poverty. Harlem is more than its ghetto streets and dark allies. It is a black and Latino community with intelligent, high profile professionals and working class people. It is a city filled with complex individuals, beautiful tall trees, striking architecture and clean streets. It makes the viewer ask, “What ‘hell’ was Trump talking about?”

The 2016 Luke Cage has had a shake up. Gone is the comics’ 1972 ‘Blaxploitation’ Luke Cage with his chain-link belt, steel headband and bracelets; the 2016 Luke Cage wears black boots and a black hoodie.

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“There’s no accident that I’m wearing a hoody because of Trayvon Martin,” Coulter told HuffPost. After murdering Trayvon Martin in February 2012, George Zimmerman’s defence and conservative personality Geraldo Rivera argued Martin’s hoodie made him look threatening.

A few days later, in an interview with Salon, Colter said: “If I was a little boy today, I’d fantasise about being able to be shot and not be killed. That’s scary, but that’s the world we’re in today.”

In 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed in Cleveland, Ohio by two white police officers whilst playing with an Airsoft replica on a playground. In the aftermath of Rice’s death, it was reported that one of the officers involved in Rice’s death, 26-year-old Timothy Loehmann had been deemed an “emotionally unstable recruit and unfit for duty” in his previous job as a police officer in the Cleveland suburb of Independence.

Colter also took inspiration from other victims of police brutality such as Eric Garner, Mike Brown and Alton Sterling.

In an interview with Southern California Public Radio (SCPR), Loyola Marymount University’s professor of African American Studies, Adilifu Nama, spoke of the significance of Cage’s powers and his bullet ridden hoodie, saying:

“At a time when black men in particular are experiencing this confrontation with the lethal force of policing – where they have proven that they are not bulletproof […] I see Luke Cage and I wish Trayvon Martin was Luke Cage … I wish Tamir Rice had bulletproof skin[.]”

Luke Cage invites viewers to delve into the failed criminal-justice system and the mass incarceration of American-American men through the eyes of its complex characters. The system was created as a result of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report entitled The Negro Family: The Case For National Action that the rise in black single-mother families was caused by a “destructive vein in ghetto culture”.

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Since The Negro Family’s publication, America’s prison and jail populations have increased sevenfold from 300,000 people in the 1970s to 2.2 million in 2015.

One in every four black men born since the late 1970s has spent time in prison.

In 2000, one in 10 black males between the ages of 20 and 40 was incarcerated—10 times the rate of their white peers. In 2010, a third of all black male high-school dropouts between the ages of 20 and 39 were imprisoned, compared with only 13 per cent of their white peers.

As a result of mass incarceration, African-American men have been taken from their families. By 2000, over 1.7 million children had a father in jail or in prison. Half of the fathers were living in the same household as their children when they were thrown in prison. Even after these men are released, many fall through the cracks. Research shows paternal incarceration is associated with delinquency and behavioural problems among young boys. This is evident in characters such as Shameek and Chico, whose fathers were never around due to being incarcerated. As a result, boys turn to gangs in search for a father figure. They break the law, and like their fathers, are thrown in prison. It’s a vicious cycle. And although Pop tries to be a father figure to the boys in Harlem, he often finds himself struggling with ‘stronger’ and ‘more affluent’ father figures who come in the likes of mobsters and gang lords.

Luke Cage does not only celebrate black culture, but shines the spotlight on the unsavoury truths America tries to sweep under the carpet. Seeing a black man who is proud of his culture and painful history without being a caricature or accepting the white stereotype of what it means to be black in America’s 2016 racial climate, is not only a big nod to representation, but also sends a powerful message from the black community: We will always survive.

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About Victoria Foss

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Victoria is a recent Arts graduate with a passion for writing, books, and listening to Southern Gothic mixes on Spotify. When she is not writing, you will find her reading three books at once or making inspiration boards on Pinterest.