Being a large, bald black man requires, in my experience, a silent negotiation between yourself and the strangers of New York. I start with the default setting—the space I take up is an act of defiance to some. You'd be amazed by the frequency with which others push and elbow and subtly shove their way into my orbit. My space is often invaded, with inconsistent apologies, but I can never push back, not really. Even if I could do it without creating a conflict, the scenario plays out in my head, and I'm presented with natural conclusions, all involving the law, as though my very existence is an act of civil disobedience. Depending on your perspective, perhaps that's true.
And perhaps it's for the best that the abilities granted to Luke Cage, the latest superhero to receive his own titular series courtesy of the Marvel-Netflix connection, are fictional and therefore inaccessible to me. There's no guarantee that I'd present myself as a hero, a corrective measure against social corrosion; with unbreakable skin and super strength, crime-fighting would be the least of my concerns. Petty revenge would be meted out in subway carriages. Luke Cage is probably a better person than me. I imagine him on the 1 train to Harlem, his home, unconcerned with his right to take up space. Who could possibly move him? Not even the cops.
We first saw Luke Cage in last year's Jessica Jones. Mike Colter, as Cage, exudes cool, the unbothered temperament of a man who can't be moved, or injured, or shot. Keeping watch over a bar, striking up conversations with Jones, Cage appears to us as a pillar of Harlem. Even if neighborhood residents never meet him, you get the sense that Harlem has heard of Luke Cage, heard the stories and the rumors of unnatural power. This speaks to the heart of Marvel Comics' charm; their long-standing decision to place their characters in fictionalized versions of real-world cities means that Cage's Harlem is like the Harlem in our world, yet not.
Luke Cage, the first season of which dropped last Friday, represents Marvel's attempt to remember its legion of fans are now more diverse and, armed with social networks, far less tolerant of a lack of representation. Luke Cage, the character, has existed for decades: as Power Man, as Iron Fist's partner in the Heroes for Hire series. Never before have we witnessed Cage on the screen—big or small—and if you had asked me five years ago, I would've answered never, never would Marvel give Luke Cage his own television series.
I had no reason to believe. Marvel began its slow march toward cinematic relevance with the 1998 movie Blade, starring Wesley Snipes as the titular half-man, half-vampire with a sword. By the time the awful third movie, Blade: Trinity, was released in 2004, Marvel had abandoned Blade as a worthwhile movie franchise. No other Blade movies were produced, Snipes eventually landed in prison for tax evasion, and Marvel set its sights on Iron Man, the blockbuster franchise that seemingly launched a thousand comic-book movies.
If you had asked me five years ago, I would've answered never—never would Marvel give Luke Cage his own series.
But times have changed, or so I'm told, and Luke Cage lives. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Hoker—former music journalist who covered the machinations of New York hip-hop in the early and mid 1990s—was chosen for the series aesthetic, a stylized, modernization of the Blaxploitation genre, coupled with flourishes from the Harlem Renaissance. As Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes, actor Mahershala Ali is slick—dipped in diamonds and tailored suits—as he lords over the Harlem's Paradise nightclub. The music in the club is modern, with guest appearances by singers Raphael Saadiq and Faith Evans early in the season, but one can imagine a dance floor full of black people, circa the mid-late 1920s, celebrating life and culture, seeking relaxation in a safe space and away from the world. As pragmatic politician Mariah Dillard (and Cottonmouth's cousin), veteran actress Alfre Woodard presents an individual hell-bent on preserving a "black Harlem," guarding it from the scourge of encroaching gentrification, as she promotes her "New Harlem Renaissance" initiatives.
Meanwhile, Colter portrays Cage as a superpowered man largely disinterested in heroics. Still mourning the death of his wife, Reva Connors (Parisa Fitz-Henley), a continuing storyline from Jones, Cage sweeps the floor of a barbershop and confides in Pops (Frankie Faison), who runs the shop as a neutral space in the neighborhood. No violence, and no cursing is allowed. (An empty can of Café Bustelo—best coffee in the world—doubles as a "swear jar.") The show takes a little while to get going—its pacing closer to the brooding, unfolding Jessica Jones than the brutal punch-up of Daredevil—and we wait for the inciting incident that'll swing Cage into action. A gun sale involving Cottonmouth and arms from Hammer Industries—a nod to Sam Rockwell's portrayal of Justin Hammer, villain in Iron Man 2—goes wrong, undoubtedly, with the accompanying shootout and resulting bodies. NYPD detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick) works the case with her partner, and constantly—curiously—bumps into Cage, a common denominator who knows more than what he lets on. When all of this prompts a Cottonmouth henchman to riddle Pops's barbershop with bullets, killing Pops in the process, Cage is finally motivated to protect the streets of Harlem, and thus we are provided with the central thrust of the show.
For all of its flaws, and there are a few—uneven pacing, plot holes, ridiculous dialogue—Luke Cage signifies a moment in which black fans, starved and thirsty for representation, are simply ecstatic to see the fantastic come to life, adorned with melanin. Luke Cage—black American man—is Power Man: Find me another hero more transgressive, more divine in his ability to disturb the peace, to rattle the weak-kneed constitution of nerds and bros who think their white heroes translate and transcend cultures.
The sight of a bulletproof black man is inspiring: Hooded and unstoppable, Mike Colter's Luke Cage engenders all of my fantasies as a child who used to imagine being a superhero who, with powers, wanted to matter to those who mattered to me the most. Unmovable and cool, Luke Cage generates in the imagination an alternate reality where god-given powers—or abilities obtained via scientific experiments gone awry—grant a black person the safety and agency that are still elusive in this world.
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