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.