‘Luke Cage’ Wasn’t Black Enough to Be a Classic
In trying to appeal to every audience, the show's quality has suffered greatly.
Image courtesy of Netflix
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
Unless some unforeseen and backdoor pact happens between Netflix and certain associated parties (Disney), Luke Cage will be as dead as Kanye's black card. The news of the show’s demise on Netflix came only a week after the cancellation of Iron “gentrified” Fist; with some blaming it on creative differences, and others chalking it up to a Disney move toward their own streaming surface. Regardless, in the thick of all that speculative convo, I’m frankly unbothered.
The 2016 me would have been more protective of this series too; this was my black-man-of-steel promise land for nigga heroics. He was the forerunner to the achievements of Black Panther. And he would be my Marvel visage of a post-civil rights, Vietnam, and anti-establishment conceptualization of 1970s masculinity. As a young reader, I’d absorb the sassy—albeit, somewhat toxic—word bubbles of a steel hero that was the mélange of every blaxploitation trope. A balance between pegging enemies as goddamn good-for-nothin’ sucka-ass chumps, while addressing the black experience around race and intra-community strife with a gratuitousness that felt honest.
But here was this 2016 Netflix premiere of a character with the same name. Instead of the sassiness of a Samuel L. Jackson, I got the gargoyle-like stiffness of a Clark Kent through Mike Colter. It was as if Kent, similarly handsome, silent, and strong, had a partiality for Method Man. This wasn't my man. This was a watered-down Kool-Aid interpretation, with the blandness of an on-duty mall cop. And over the course of two seasons, I noticed the strain of disease Luke Cage was suffering from; the same conundrum TV shows and films designed for black audiences tolerate in a marketable woke culture.
It tried to please everyone—black and non-black audiences alike—without angering a soul. And in wanting to be everything for everyone, it stripped itself of the bold dissimilarity that made it something folks like me enjoyed.
If you’re wondering what made Luke Cage so unique for his time, it was his anti-Superman-ness. While our man in blue and reds stood branded as the skyward, hard-to-reach concept of the American dream, Luke Cage was the cynical, world-worn street hero made imperfect through a dream deferred. Superman was your wait-till-marriage type, and Cage was your hypersexualized, do it for the dollar sort. This dates back to the original Hero for Hire issue #1 from 1972, by Archie Goodwin and George Tuska, among others, where Luke Cage latched onto the hype of blaxploitation narratives. He was a character born out of the circumstances of prejudice, persecution, and a prison-industrial complex. His afro was undefiled, his chain was his belt, and he spoke the crudest, ebonic jive-talk you’d ever read from a Marvel hero.
The problem and advantage of Luke Cage’s evolution through the years was that no matter what you got from him, he was going to offend someone as Harlem’s hero. It was the cost of being an unapologetically black idea of masculinity for an era. In the 70s, he wore a Jim Brown and Shaft comic book brew. In the 90s, he took on the Wesley Snipes and Bo Jackson archetype—flat top fades and all. And in the early 2000s, he embraced solidarities with a growing hip-hop culture; durags and brass knuckle fashion statements—slight refinements in every way, but always faithful to a street-level blemish of heroism.
One of the strange feelings I felt in watching Cheo Hodari Coker’s Luke Cage was adjusting to the idea that cage was being made to be nobler; like he had to be as present and socially “message!” relevant as his nearest cousins. With Daredevil in 2015, there was a play on the gray areas of justice. With Jessica Jones, it was the issues of toxic masculinity, sexual assault, and post-traumatic stress syndrome—both true to their comic book origins. But Luke Cage wanted to play catch up with a liberal awareness. Sure, he was still an ex-convict and jet black I guess, but it became more about being heroically black in 2016; a character that couldn’t alienate non-black audiences as Colter would once summarize to Good Morning America, "I never think about him [Luke Cage] as a black superhero. I just think of him as a superhero.”
Interestingly enough, it’s that stance that made Luke Cage, the character, the worst part of his own show. He was the principled, sullen, and reluctant vigilante that felt disappointingly wooden. He was the Old Navy mannequin experiencing sentiency through a script. Through season one, his main pathos and character conflicts stood outside of himself; Luke Cage vs.Cottonmouth... Luke Cage vs. Bushmaster. Beyond that, he was altruistic to the point of feeling stale. Characters Daredevil and Jessica Jones felt comparatively honest because their internal conflicts were real and severely broken in a, I’m-not-trusting-these-fools-with-my-life sort of way. Sure, there was a play on Luke's humanity through an animosity driven arc with his father and his anger; but he was still engrained to be a flawless presentation for both white and black viewers; the complete antidote to the negative arguments against black communities as a whole.
It’s in these moments when the likes of Luke Cage became corny—so aggressive in its earnestness that I couldn’t stand it. Visual references to police brutality in Luke Cage were wiped away with staunchy, anti-nigga-word lectures in respectability politics. Black references to the music of Wu-Tang Clan and literature of Ralph Ellison felt temporarily tattooed on, like checklists to all the things one must speak of through a black television show, rather than a feeling of genuineness—this fool even had the nerve to dab.
We’ve already seen what blackness looks like on screen when it’s unapologetic. Issa Rae’s flirty, summer messiness in Insecure; Donald Glover’s surreal, and biting imperfections in Atlanta, and Ryan Coogler’s adaptation of a Black Panther that would kill without hesitation to save a life. Luke Cage never required the revamp as the upstanding positive avatar on some Cosby Show shit; as if the usage of “nigga” was the measurement of self-respect, despite using it a season later. He needed to be the same messy, loud, and the non-killjoy uncle that wouldn’t reprimand you for wearing your jeans too low. Blackness today should have the allowance it needs to be unapologetically flawed, unapologetically unique, and unapologetically unwoke if need be. That’s the benefit of being separate from a woke-monolith that would favor the forced over the honest.
For myself personally, I’ll gladly pour one for the long-gone Luke Cage for its good intentions. But in my case, like that dab, you won’t be missed.
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