To the Producers of Marvel’s Luke Cage: Enough with the Ja'Faikans

In the latest season of 'Luke Cage', the portrayal of the Cinematic Jamaican falls short.

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Jun 27 2018, 12:30pm

Images courtesy of Netflix. 

When allawi weh come from Yaad and come from parentage did a likkle pickney, ah di same story fi wi parents used to tell we: “When yuh go out ah street and talk to people, yuh mus use proper English. ” Becaw, fi di havrij Jamaican weh gawn farrin, wi know seh odda people (an wi know seh a buckra wi talking, nuh true) love wi langwij when dem ‘ere wi sing it inna reggae music, but dem malice fi wi langwij when ah jus talk wi a talk it.

When all of us Jamaicans and Jamaican-descended were young, we heard the same story from our parents. “When you go outdoors and speak with people, you must speak in proper English.” Because, for the average Jamaican living in western countries, we know that others (especially white people with racialized hang-ups) love our language when it’s sung to them through reggae music, yet scorn it when it’s spoken to them in conversation.

This racialized hang-up with our dialect, and the self-regulated effort within the community to sanitize it, isn’t unique to Jamaicans, or the Caribbean community at large. There’s plenty of scholarship on the fraught history of African-American Vernacular English, a fully developed dialect that Black Americans have at times struggled to have recognized as a legitimate means of communication. Which is why it was curious to see our language and our culture so poorly represented in the second season of Marvel’s Netflix series Luke Cage, and so casually dismissed by the show’s creators.

There was much the show got right this season. It not only showed the weakness of the titular hero’s approach to solving every problem with his brute strength, but the damage done to others by his inability to deal with his emotions. It addressed toxic relationships in Black families, especially the way intergenerational trauma can lead parents to replicate the abuse with their children. And the soundtrack, somehow, slaps even harder than last season. Esperanza Spalding, Ghostface Killa, Stephen Marley, and the blastmaster KRS-One make musical appearances, in addition to blues singer Gary Clark, Jr. and teenage blues prodigy Christone “Kingfish” Ingram.

But there was much that Luke Cage’s second season got wrong, including the side-stepping of racism and police brutality in Trump’s America, and the continued use of Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple as an emotional mule for the heroes of the Netflix Marvel Universe. One issue that rankled many was Luke Cage’s representation of Jamaican culture, which looms large over this season’s narrative. The newest villain in the show’s rogues gallery is John “Bushmaster” McIver (Mustafa Shakir), a super-powered upstart in Brooklyn’s Stylers gang, who harbors a long-simmering hatred towards the family of Cage’s enemy Black Mariah. Bushmaster makes what might otherwise be considered an impressive debut, taking out the head of the Yardie gang, gaining financial leverage over Black Mariah, and dishing out a capoeira-styled beatdown on Luke Cage that even Stephen A. Smith (Cage’s brother-in-respectability) had to speak on.

That debut, however was spoiled by the plain awfulness of Bushmaster’s Jamaican accent, which lands somewhere between Irish and Afrikaans. In fact, just about every character coded in this season as “Jamaican” has an accent that is completely unrecognizable to Jamaicans themselves, which led to criticism of showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker on social media. To make things worse, Coker responded to that criticism in the way that Black Americans are so often used to hearing from white creatives that represent Black culture poorly: “I’d rather risk people being angry than not do it at all,” Coker tweeted. “Because people are now [Googling] The Maroons and Nanny and Marcus Garvey as we speak...sometimes perfection is the enemy of the good.”

Mustafa Shakir’s response was even more dismissive. “Don’t listen to the haters sugar. They never happy,” he responded to one Twitter user. “Lots of Jamaicans have praised us for the patois while others seem hellbent on being upset about it,” he said to another. Additionally in a now-deleted tweet, he said it would be “nearly impossible for people to understand if we went too deep on the patois” and asked if we are “at least happy [they’re] giving the island folk some international love?” A wa coulda cause dis?

In cinema, depicting an authentic Jamaican accent is a precarious act. The language of the upper class is somewhere between affected English and Scottish accents, a byproduct of the Black petty booshwah’s relentless drive to dilute themselves into Anglocentric inoffensiveness. Easy enough to understand, but lacking in the flavour that most foreign audiences would understand as authentically Jamaican. The language of rural Jamaicans is a thick brogue, more difficult to understand, and likely requiring subtitles for Western audiences. And the language of downtown Kingston, where Bushmaster was supposedly raised, is a near-impenetrable tangle of clipped consonants and hyper-local idioms that almost makes it Jamaica’s version of Welsh.

In other words, Patwa, and its various derivations, can not only be used as an indicator of class, but as a marker of where we were were raised. Going by his dialect, wissh paat deh one nyeme Bushmasta come from? Nowhere in our Jamaica, that’s for sure.

Rather than learn and unpack that for audiences, or simply add subtitles where necessary, Coker chose the route that so many white filmmakers have already done: invent a Cinematic Jamaica, and pretend its inhabitants all speak like jolly Black leprechauns. We’ve long become accustomed to this treatment; none of the lead actors in the iconic Disney film Cool Runnings were Jamaican, and all of them spoke with accents that bordered on caricature. In How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Taye Diggs’ character Winston Shakespeare had the melanin swagger of men from yawd, and the language of a community theatre washout. This caricatured language isn’t limited to Black characters, either. When Brad Pitt’s character Death spoke Patwa in the guise of Joe Black, Earth’s rotational axis was thrown off ever so slightly, as every Jamaican on the planet keeled over laughing.

And it isn’t just the language, either. Cinematic Jamaican culture is so often draped in occultism and mystery that it comes across as a kind of Afro-Orientalism. Bushmaster derives his strength and thick skin from a strange combination of herbs called “nightshade,” which is rather odd-sounding for those of us familiar with Jamaican ethnobotany. Rastafarians are known for their predilection towards strange herbs, but none so far have drawn super-powers from the contents of their gardens. Bushmaster’s powers are catalyzed by his practice of “Obeah” magic, which may sound strange to the untrained American ear, but the culture is derivative of the west African Vodun practices that became Voodoo in Haiti, Santeria in the Dominican Republic, and Candomblé in Brazil. And speaking of Brazil, another country with famously rebellious African slaves, that is the country from which Capoeira originates. They may also wear dreadlocks, but you will find far more boxing gyms than capoeira rodas in Jamaica.

Cheo Hodari Coker may believe that Luke Cage’s depictions of the Cinematic Jamaican was a net positive in raising awareness of our culture. But that inscrutable culture of ours is threaded so deeply into the diasporic fabric that his statement came across as an insult. As for the show, it reflects a Black American complicity in the West’s cultural imperialist view towards Jamaica. Effort is rarely made in film to unpack the nuances of our culture, but coming from a Black showrunner this erasure stings all the greater.

Coker explained on Twitter that he encountered difficulty in even getting a Jamaican-centered narrative approved, and that Jamaican actors were employed for at least a few roles in the scenes filmed in the country. But none of that excuses his careless use of the Cinematic Jamaican, by way of Shakir, Kevin Mambo, and the other actors playing those roles, which helped this season totally fall off the mark.

In fact, it deh way dung inna gully. Di season cyaan save.

If the goal of representation in the Marvel universes is to give diverse audiences authentic characters with which they can identify, then the solution for Luke Cage’s second season should have been clear from jump: hire Jamaican actors. Though far from a good film, Nick Cannon’s King of the Dancehall, at least made an effort to scout out Jamaican talent. Kimberly Patterson, for example, was interested in working on set as a makeup artist; instead she was cast as Cannon’s love interest. King of the Dancehall was filmed in Jamaica, narrated by the dancehall artist Beenie Man, starred Jamaican-born rapper Busta Rhymes, and the soundtrack was headlined mostly by Jamaican artists. And, of course, local dancers were recruited to properly illustrate the flair of the Jamaican dancehall. The film may have been terrible, but it was at least believable.

If Nick Cannon (of all people) can do that, then Marvel is more than capable.

The Caribbean is far from an homogeneous space. And it’s unrealistic to expect that an underrepresented culture within the Black diaspora should be satisfied with, quite frankly, insulting portrayals of who and what we are. When anyone produces cinematic work involving communities outside of their own, authentic representation of those people and their cultures is a creative responsibility. Whatever “obstacles” that come with said responsibility are no less essential than getting lighting and costumes correct. For the producers of Luke Cage to complain that criticism of the show is unfair because, “Hey, at least we tried,” is to throw away that responsibility and embrace laziness. We would rather have characters we can identify with (which has almost never happened in film) than rest on Coker’s assurance that people are searching Google about the Maroon rebellions.

Patwa, a beautifully paradoxical language in its simple reductiveness and complex construction, is as much a part of Jamaican identity as our culture, dance, music, food, nicknames and all the other aspects that make us what we are. When it is repackaged, refined, and sanitized to be accepted by a broader audience, our culture becomes as unrecognizable as a gentrified Dole recipe for jerk chicken. The way to rectify this is simple: if you can, do, and if you can’t, don’t. It’s painful enough when our own parents try to strip us of our culture and language in order to survive in a world that doesn’t understand us. The last thing we need is the rest of pop culture affirming they were right to do so.

Sharine is still upset that she subjected herself to those terrible accents. Follow her on Twitter .

Andray thinks the second season of Luke Cage was bare Babylon tings. Follow him on Twitter.

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