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Harlem Renaissance – Netflix’s Luke Cage

It’s rare to see any comic book property done as well as Marvel’s Luke Cage.

Luke Cage is Marvel’s most ambitious project to date.  What makes the thirteen episode Netflix show so ambitious is its attempt to reimagine a black exploitation character from the early 1970’s into a character that is a more accurate reflection of this issues within and surrounding the African American community. Luke Cage of course is not Marvel’s first hero of color, audiences have seen Anthony Mackie as the Falcon and Chadwick Boseman as the Black Panther.  What makes Cage unique is the incorporation of issues and the unique history of the African American community.

Gentrification, private prisons, failed and corrupt political leadership, issues in policing communities of color, and black criminality in communities of color are all incorporated as aspects of the shows plot. While they aren’t explored in great detail, which is to be expected of a fictional action show, but they are present, which is notable because these issues continue to be raised infrequently in American society. This puts Luke Cage in a unique place, where many films or television programs struggle to depict accurate versions of African Americans, this series attempts to pierce the veil that exists between the America that believes that it knows about the “souls of black folks” and the functional reality of black lives in America. But even as it achieves Cage has its flaws, the series is uneven in its depiction of American Americans. There are few educated professionals who aren’t parasites in the community involved in facilitating the criminality of the villains, but taken in its totality Luke Cage is deserving of all the praise that it is garnering.

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Created by the beloved and legendary Archie Goodwin and John Romita Sr in June 1972 for Marvel Comics, Luke Cage was a created to take advantage of the popularity of black exploitation films.  In the comics he originally was a young criminal with exceptional ability with his hands who reformed himself. Framed by his best friend for having fallen in love with his girlfriend, Cage consents to a medical experiment in the hope of parole. In the process of the procedure a sadistic guard named Rackum sabotages the experiment killing himself and giving Cage invulnerable skin and superhuman strength allowing him to escape.

Cage wasn’t a character spawned from within the African American community and it’s evident from his very first printed moments.  When we are first introduced to Cage he’s refusing to participate in a prison protest with “Shades” who is described as a “militant”. Considering the events of the time this isn’t entirely believable. In September 1971, just a few months before the creation of Cage, the inmates at the Attica prison in upstate New York, also described as “militants” seized control of the prison to protest the brutal conditions, lack of political freedom and exploitative prison labor. The brutal retaking of the prison which resulted in the deaths of prison guards and civilian employees who had been taken as hostages, and inmates themselves, highlighted the necessity of prison reform that continues to today. The fact that Cage within the first couple of pages dismisses the idea of protest outright is arguably more reflective of opinions outside the African American community at the time than those within.

Cheo Hodari Coker, the series showrunner, astutely pivots away from the original version of the character and has succeeded in producing a series that reflects not caricatures but the community it is intended to reflect. Coker’s name is familiar to those who grew up reading The Source when it was truly the Bible, Shroud of Turin, and Holy Grail of Hip Hop. Coker has gone onto write episodes of Southland, Ray Donovan, Almost Human, and NCIS Los Angeles. Coker is a maestro here uniting his love of comic books, hip hop, and television into a cultural symphony.  The black barbershop, the black church, the spectrum of African American literature and music, are all present.

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Luke Cage succeeds because in part of what Mike Coulter brings to the character. Coulter’s version of the character is distinguishable from every previous version of the character, even the most recent revisions such as those written by Brian Michael Bendis, which raised the character to prominence in Marvel Comics and had Cage leading the Avengers. Cage at the beginning of the series is dealing with the aftermath of the events of Jessica Jones, which is worth watching itself, but to the credit of the creative staff of Cage it isn’t necessary in order to understand the events of the series.  Colter’s Cage is smooth enough to have “coffee” with a beautiful woman, but never is this a defining characteristic, you never forget his emotional vulnerability. Colter makes Cage’s intelligence, humility, and decency his true special abilities, the rest are just bonus. He is a man of the people, interested in preserving and honoring the sacrifices of the generations that have come before and he provides history lessons on the significance of Crispus Attucks and Jackie Robinson while dispensing justice. While Luke Cage might have originated outside the African American community, this version is planted deep within its bosom.

While his contribution to the show is significant, Coulter is not a singular star on Cage. He is part of a beautiful constellation of actresses and actors. Mahershala Ali as Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes is everything an audience can ask for in a primary antagonist. Magnetic, menacing, deceptive, and an endless well of dark humor, Ali’s Stokes is a synthesis of all the legendary Harlem criminal figures of its past. For all the praise that Coulter and Ali will receive the breakout star of Luke Cage must be Simone Missick as Misty Knight. There may be a sufficient number of adjectives to explain the quality of her performance, I just don’t know them all. Missick imbues Knight with intelligence, humor, class, strength, compassion, and is the most accurate portrayal of an African American woman than I’ve personally witnessed.  It’s her character, not Coulter’s, that’s a child of Harlem, a former basketball star now detective, protecting the same community that produced her. Missick’s Knight isn’t just smart, or funny, or brave, she’s all of them and a consequence is the story of Luke Cage is just as much her story as the title characters.  We’ve had Agent Carter, I would like to see Misty Knight again before Season 2 of Luke Cage. Lastly I could talk forever about the entire cast but everyone, EVERYONE is fantastic from Sonja Sohn to Sonia Braga. Success has many parents and the cast of Luke Cage proves that true.

While I have heaped praise on the show Luke Cage is not perfect.  Criminal behavior according to the show seems to stem from the fact that “everyone has a gun and no one has a father” which is simplistic and inaccurate. The complete and total failure of black fatherhood is really a myth, and its sad to see it perpetuated here. While black fathers aren’t as absent as claimed, college educated African Americans seem to be in short supply at least through the first 6 episodes. The few that are present primarily exist to serve the purposes of Stokes and Councilwoman Mariah Dillard played flawlessly by Alfre Woodard.

Flaws and all however Luke Cage equals or surpasses Marvel’s previous offers on Netflix and raises the anticipation and the stakes for Marvel’s Black Panther film. Regardless Luke Cage is rarest of things in our world of on demand and streaming entertainment, it’s must see television.

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/13/black-fatherhood-statistics_n_5491980.html; http://articles.latimes.com/2013/dec/20/local/la-me-black-dads-20131221

About Armand (1270 Articles)
Armand is a husband, father, and life long comics fan. A devoted fan of Batman and the Valiant Universe he loves writing for PCU, when he's not running his mouth on the PCU podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @armandmhill
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