Luke, Caged: The Joy of Black Love and the Agony of Police Reform


Lemme start this spoiler-filled review/hotpiece with the following caveat: I love superhero shows in general. Marvel/Netflix’s Luke Cage was good in most respects. While some reviewers worry about the conservative nature of Cage, you have to take into account that Power Man was no more going after “black-on-black” crime than Daredevil goes after “white-on-white” crime. By nature, superhero stories are inherently conservative in that they focus on the power of a select group of people fighting evil people (who tend to be poor, at least on the street level), rather than fighting evil structures, and rather than focusing the liberation and radical empowerment of the many. In this vein, LC is not any more so conservative than Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man, and in many ways, much less so.

A few other thoughts I had while watching the series.

One, in the Black Lives Matter Age, there is a lot of talk about Black Death, particularly among fellow non-Black folks, but there is not so much talk about Black Life and what that means. The Harlem of Luke Cage, however, is unapologetically Black. It is breathing in the blues, jazz, hip-hop, sports-talk, trash-talk, barbershops, and shared history of Black people in Harlem and throughout the US. The show breathes love of Black people, Black business, Black culture, Black minds, Black ingenuity, Black sex (despite the awful coffee jokes). Black love. These are not just bodies in the street, but lived lives.

Add to the mix that the blackness experience is not singular here. Early on, we have three different perspectives for what it means to love Black Harlem in a White Supremacist Capitalist world: Cottonmouth’s with money, his cousin Councilwoman Mariah’s with political power, and Pop the Barber’s with interpersonal relationships (later we also hear from good-but-suspicious cop Misty Knight about protecting from bullies using the law, but, well…). Unlike later villain Diamondback, none of these characters is cartoonish in their perspectives. They all have redeeming qualities not only with their personalities, but also with their perspectives. They’re all trying with what they know and how they exceed.

Two, after the police conduct a racialized stop-and-frisk brutalization of Harlem youth culminating in one of them being beaten in an interrogation room, I felt abjectly cheated. There was no justice for Lonnie Wilson – who we mutedly met in the first scenes – despite his face being torn up and bloodied by the police. And while that one cop – a bad seed – was put on leave pending an investigation, the commanders and supervisors who ran and sanctioned this operation and who left this child alone in the hands of this violent man in a tight room were free to run about their day, making justifications for their racism.

Three, under the direction of Councilwoman Mariah Dillard at a rally in her nightclub, the BLM protests are completely undone. No, contrary to White imagination, they do not turn violent – at least in the sense of destroying property. Instead, politician-cum-underworld master “Black Mariah” turns their rage against the police force into one of empowering the police with even more deadly weapons. She reminds her audience that the real threat is not the police but Cage, whom in a bit of J. Jonah Jameson-inspired blurb she calls a superpowered “menace.” Councilwoman/gun-runner Dillard appeases the conscience of racist police by reassuring listeners that the police were merely shook up themselves because they too were afraid of LC. If only they had better weapons, the reasoning explicitly goes, they would leave us good people alone.

But that’s not how the police referred to the “blacks and Hispanics” of Harlem. “The good people in Harlem have no problem with me. Just the assholes.” But the police weren’t even shaking down known troublemakers (which should have been questioned anyway). Apparently, being a young black or brown male in Harlem makes you an asshole, worthy of being hurt. Blackness means not only should you be feared, but that you should fear.

By nature, superhero stories suspend disbelief. But only so far. We can never trust the physics put before us, but we want to follow the psychics – the characters’ believability – of these stories. We need to believe that these are human beings – that they are us in a world where Einstein and Newton are tossed out the window. The fact that these protesters sided with Mariah in arming rather than disarming the police was not just poor writing – it was a punch to the gut. Are people really this dumb? Can we bend realism that far?

Can a group protesting police brutality against black people really go to demanding that the police be given more resources for their victimization? And then I remembered that’s how most politicians are spinning the Black Lives Matter movement now – whether they support Blue Lives Matter laws or they tell protesters that they need to vote, not boo. Hell, compare what the neoliberal wing of the wider BLM movement did with Campaign Zero with the much more roots-deep Movement for Black Lives.


Oscar Weeks #3: Slumdog Millioniare

We saw it the day before the Oscars. Didn’t have high hopes, but wife was really excited. I can say now that I’m a happy convert and was gladly rooting for it during the telecast.

First, the negatives: it’s melodramatic (aren’t most Oscar contenders?); it contains too many implausible scenarios;; it’s fate-driven and, tied with that, it’s predictable.

I don’t always hate fatalism, but the cheap notion that destiny plays as a cheap plot device makes me sick to my cheap stomach. It’s why I can’t stand most romantic movies, with Eternal Sunshine being a particular (and odd) exception. And this particular film… Well, let’s just say, “It is written.”

But yet, there are a lot of elements in Slumdog, and though some may not work so well on their own (say, the derivative gangster movie posturing of older brother in latter scenes), the piece as a whole presents a view of lower-class India that I think the popcorn-eating, extravagance-loving, song-dance-and-swirling-color viewers out there (myself included) need to confront. The whole is worth more than the sum of the parts – it’s like a Frankenstein monster of a meal made out of really crazy disparate parts that you should hate (or at least wave burning sticks at madly), yet it all works together to create something extraordinary, fresh, and tasty.

Oscar weeks: There Will Be Blood

Initially, I did not enjoy this movie. Still question if I do, but I found it to be powerful and disturbing. Disturbing in a sense that is ferociously honest.

What I found so odd about this film is how misanthropic it is – I was sure I had picked up a Coen brothers flick by accident. What made it odder still is that unlike PT Anderson’s last two films (both of which rate as some of my favorite of all time), There Will Be Blood had no shot of redeeming grace. No plague of frogs to deliver the entrapped slaves of LA from their self-hatred and suicide (as in Magnolia), no inexplicable piano dropping from heaven or even less-explicable unmerited love that saves a dangerously implosive and lonely man by allowing him to act out of love and overcome regret (as in Punch-Drunk Love). Just a man who intensely and insanely drives out any would-be competition.

This is a story about the all-taking consumption of greed, and this time, there is no salvation from the emptiness of self-centeredness. It is the story of a wretched prospector who begins his adventures seemingly supernaturally aged, who hopes to find hope in finding kindred spirits but ultimately fails in this regard, who lives oil. Oil, in fact, is his lifeblood and is the metaphor for his life. His heart pumps oil. You can sense the literary functions in the movie throughout. If Jed Clampett found the crude accidentally by shooting at some food, Daniel Plainfield finds it because it is him; the land that he takes the oil from bubbles to the top with the black, volatile, cruel, nasty, mangy majesty, much as it does from his skin.

In other words, what I’ve come to appreciate about the film is that Daniel Plainfield represents not all of humanity, nor, I hope, the director’s view of humanity. But rather, a view of humanity held by one of its most important oil men. America, the man with the long straw and bowling balls aimed for his enemies is Dick Cheney.

My name is Dick Plainfield and this is my associate, G. W. Plainfield.

I only partially kid here.

Also notable is the breathtaking cinematic scope and the haunting and searing soundtrack, not to mention the singular vision that makes this three hour movie intensely watchable.

Oscar Week #1: Wall*E

Oscar week (where I try to recount my favorite movies from 2008 as I’m catching up to them) starts today. My review of my favoritest movie of the year (and favorite for a long time) is posted at friend, pastor (and blogger) David’s Signs of Life blog.

I really love that film in a way that I think my review doesn’t quite express. But the review was festering in my head and I didn’t write down and wrestle with the passages until the last few minutes. So what’s left is a sprawling bit of a mess that I don’t have the talent to put together in the last few minutes. I may just re-edit the piece and repost it here at the end of the week. But don’t let that stop you from going to SoL and making a comment.

As far as what qualifies as an Oscar Week pic at LeftCheek:
1) I’d have to really like it. (Sorry, Tropic Thunder)
2) I’d have to have had an interest in seeing it, in order to see it (sorry, Benjamin Button)
3) It should have either been released in 2008 or widely released in 2008 (therefore, even though There Will Be Blood was released in ’07 and in fact nominated for Best Pic at the last Oscars, most people didn’t get a chance to view it until ’08. Then again, most people chose not to. Sometimes, it sucks to be most people).

Top 6 records of 2006

There is no particular order to these CD’s. The order is almost always arbitrary, and since all of these records were exceptionally good (though not spectacular), they all get equal treatment – for the most part – and a lot of spins on the old iPod.

TV on the Radio – Return to Cookie Mountain

Like my favorites from last year, Arcade Fire’s Funeral and Sufjan StevensCome on, Feel the Illinoise, this was a multi-structured and -layered, genre-crosser/bender that defies industry and audience expectations. But big deal, right? Hundreds of indie releases come out every year that do the same, if not more so. The difference is, this semi-concept record (about personal – and therefore social, cultural and political – war), with its thematic riffs, ROCKS! If Peter Gabriel released a contemporary record with Genesis and some session players from Stax – who are required to mute their instruments – and kept most of the songs under five minutes, this is what it would sound like. “I was a lover / before this war.”

Pigeon John – Pigeon John and the Summertime Pool Party

“Who rocks the mic / who rocks the mic / What?” The MC who never seems to take himself seriously – after all, this is the guy who invented the Pigeon Dance (where he puts his fists on his skinny ribs, struts his pelvis forward and furiously flails his arms from the elbows back and forth) to lift up his spirits, and his audience – tackles subjects as forbidden to mainstream rap as God’s benevolence in an uncaring and dying world, lust, loneliness at the clubs, and his wife. And he does it with flair, humor, a penchant for sunny and childlike melody akin to – though not copped from – Eminem, and hooks that would do his heroes (which he’s listed as various as A Tribe Called Quest and Phil Collins) proud.

Over the Rhine – Snow Angels

“All I ever get for Christmas / is blue.” Although not the classic that Drunkard’s Prayer was last year (#3) or the double-disc Ohio before that, this has the makings of one of the classics of neo-Christmas music. As I’ve said before, the pleasant surprise is in how they’ve combined the something old – in this case, Guaraldi-inspired songs (the shuffle “Goodbye Charles” and “All I Ever Get for Christmas Is Blue”), a Marley-inspired song (“New Redemption Song”), lullabies for lovers (“Hush Now, Baby” – which, like “NRS”, combines images of the apocalyptic redemption with maternal care), and adult love songs ala “It’s Cold Outside” and “Santa, Baby” (the scandalous, Cole Porter meets R. Kelly “North Pole Man”, the retro “Snowed in with You”, as well as the rocker “Here It Is”) as well as a remake of “Jingle Bells” (“One Olive Jingle”). The resulting nostalgia is heart-warming on these cold Chicago nights, and it helps that my wife’s becoming an Over the Rhine fan. This one goes up there with the Charlie Brown Christmas album.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo – Long Walk to Freedom

Most of this isn’t new, culled as it is from Paul Simon’s Graceland and the Simon-produced Shaka Zulu. The difference is the newer production and the cameos. Fortunately, their recycling is good enough to top my list of favorite listens through the year. The joy is evident and transcendental, witnesses to God’s love, their love, and their native South Africa’s long walk to freedom.

Gnarls Barkley – St. Elsewhere

From the wordplay of the name of the group and the album, to the beautifully inspired compositions, to the soul and gospel influenced singing, to the ubiquitous thumping two-note bass-line / irresistible groove that begins the hands-down single of the year, I can’t get enough of this album. I know just about everybody else can, but they’re idiots.

Mars Ill – Pro*Pain

I was going to list this as an honorable mention. But then I listened to it one more time. Loud. I have to admit, it’s a bit of a let-down after the two-year anticipation legal woes kept this album on the shelf. And although it’s not as good as their other, more recent albums – I’m thinking specifically of their remix, BackWaterProphetsit still boogies, swings, bites and punches with force largely unmatched in underground hip hop. “Heaven Scrapes the Pavement” rocks the mic and “More” lets Ahmad Jones (of soul/rock/hop outfit 5th Avenue Jones) out of his cage while they all opine for justice and something more out of life than its brokenness insists is possible.