Why Luke Cage Is The Bulletproof Black Superhero 2016 Needs
How the hero in a hoodie has changed the game.
This article contains minor spoilers for season one of Luke Cage.
“The world is in need of a bulletproof black man.”
That is the unofficial tagline for Luke Cage, the latest offering from Netflix and Marvel, and their first to focus on a black superhero. Luke Cage is a bulletproof black man. He’s also phenomenally popular with audiences: the show launched just over a fortnight ago, and promptly broke the internet (or at least Netflix). It’s now reportedly the fifth most watched show of all time on Netflix.
Luke Cage (played by the talented Mike Colter) is a charming, compelling and reluctant superhero. We’re introduced to Cage in ‘Pop’s’ barbershop, where he’s sweeping hair, discussing the Knicks, reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and politely fending off the advances of women. He’s ostensibly happy, saying, “What if my ambition is to sweep hair, wash the dishes and be left the hell alone?” Alas, if that was his ambition, it’s short-lived.
Cage is swiftly caught up in the power struggles taking place in Harlem. He squares up against Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), a nightclub owner, gangster and all-round terrifying villain, and Councilwoman Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), an intelligent and calculating politician looking to improve Harlem.
Cage first joined the Marvel universe as a comic book character in 1972, at the height of the Blaxploitation era. In the comics, Cage was a wrongfully imprisoned black man who gained superpowers through clandestine prison experiments. Newly imbued with super strength and impenetrable skin, Cage set up a ‘Hero for Hire’ business and worked as a mercenary. Cage’s persistent status as a B-list Marvel superhero may have been a blessing in disguise for the Netflix reboot, which retained the core of the superhero origin story, but left most details behind (including the original lurid yellow costume).
Luke Cage has been reimagined for a new era: and in 2016, the idea of a bulletproof black man holds new resonance. This year we’ve witnessed racial tensions reach boiling point in the United States, or at least achieve a greater level of amplification. The seemingly endless litany of black boys and men, girls and women, being shot by the police is periodically punctuated by protests from the Black Lives Matter movement.
As the rapper Method Man observes in a latter episode of Luke Cage, “there’s something powerful about a black man being bulletproof and unafraid.” By looking at a few key aspects of the show — setting, costuming, and plot — it becomes possible to explore just what this show is doing in politicising a superhero narrative using the image of a bulletproof black man.
Harlem’s Own Superhero
Netflix’s Luke Cage is set in Harlem, a historically black neighbourhood in New York. From the opening credit sequence, it’s clear that Harlem will occupy a central place in the series: images of the neighbourhood — from buildings like the Apollo Theatre, to streets like Malcolm X Boulevard — are shown literally under Cage’s skin. Jessica Jones and Daredevil, earlier collaborations between Marvel and Netflix, are set in Hell’s Kitchen in New York. In these shows, the setting is largely unimportant: the majority of scenes take place in shadowy streets and down dark alleys, or in nondescript buildings.
In Luke Cage, we enter barbershops, bodegas and bars that are populated by a rich cast of supporting characters, such as Pop and his chess-playing friend Bobby, the no-nonsense police Captain Audrey, and high school student Lonnie Wilson. These characters discuss Harlem’s history and potential futures, and grapple with their use of the n-word; they cite black authors, activists and intellectuals like Malcolm X and Zora Neale Hurston; they talk about the implications of white flight and the urban developments of the 1960s and 1970s that devastated many black communities.
Early in the series, one of the characters challenges Cage, “you might be bulletproof, but Harlem’s not.” By setting up the stakes of the show to include the future of Harlem, Luke Cage is ensuring the essential ‘blackness’ of the story. While there have been black superheroes before, such as Black Panther and the Falcon, their stories have not been so completely and unapologetically black. Luke Cage imbeds a superhero story into African American history and culture, which creates a singularly black perspective; the show runner, Cheo Coker, said to Wired, “I pretty much made the blackest show in the history of TV.”
A New Era Of Superheroes
While our collective superhero obsession shows no sign of waning, the types of superheroes that we are seeing represented in comics, on TV and (to a lesser extent) in movies are beginning to change. This is partially due to saturation. Marvel can only make so many Iron Man films, and so they are beginning to move beyond conventionally attractive, white men to fill their leading roles.
It’s also audience demand. Marvel’s diverse viewership is relentlessly calling for more diversity in the stories being told. All of Netflix’s Marvel shows to date have fit this push for diversity: Daredevil introduced a blind hero, Jessica Jones gave us a woman at the helm, and Luke Cage traces the journey of an African American man. We’ve witnessed this diversification in Australia. When the highly anticipated Cleverman hit our screens earlier this year, audiences were thrilled to see an Aboriginal Australian led sci-fi show, especially when it paired entertainment and engagement with serious political issues.
Traditional conceptions of heroism and the stakes of superhero stories are also changing. Netflix’s Jessica Jones was a story about sexual assault. It placed issues of consent, toxic masculinity and misogyny at the heart of the show; Jason Tanz for Wired wrote that Jones’ (Krysten Ritter) heroism stemmed from “being a woman amid the many varieties of male vanity and violence.”
Luke Cage is similarly politicised: it’s an extended meditation on what it means to be black (and a man) in America in 2016. This politicisation was a deliberate decision: Jeph Loeb, the head of Marvel’s TV division, said they wanted the show to engage with the question of “what is going on in this country for blacks and whites, and how can we tell that story through the eyes of a superhero?”
Through Cage’s relationships with other characters, the show explores the affects of the American criminal justice system on black families, the incarceration of young black men, the realities of community-police relations, and the toxicity of black masculinity. While the show might focus on the experiences of black men, however, African American women are not elided from the story. Luke Cage’s show-runner Coker told The New Yorker, “black women are the backbone of any black political movement, of anything, honestly.” The women of Luke Cage — Misty Knight, Councilwoman Dillard, and Claire Temple — are some of the first (and finest) black female heroes and villains for Marvel.
Hoodies, Heroism and Black Lives Matter
Cage’s costuming is decidedly understated in the world of superheroes: when he steps out the door to fight crime in Harlem, he doesn’t reach for a cape or mask or a form-fitting lycra suit. He reaches for a hoodie.
Cage’s ubiquitous hoodies are an explicit evocation of Trayvon Martin, the seventeen-year-old black boy who was fatally shot by George Zimmerman in 2012. Martin’s death brought the issue of police violence against black boys and men firmly into the national spotlight, and laid the groundwork for the Black Lives Matter movement. The hoodie is “a nod to Trayvon, no question,” Coker told the Huffington Post, “When you’re a black man in a hoodie all of a sudden you’re a criminal.” Mike Coulter echoed the sentiment in an interview with NPR, saying, “It’s a difficult subject but I felt like what we’re going with the show is saying there can be some heroes in hoodies.”
In one of the final episodes of Luke Cage, we see scores of black men in Harlem wear pockmarked hoodies in solidarity with Cage. In one scene, an African American man turns towards a slowly moving police car: he widens his arms, showcasing his holey hoodie, and grins. More than just showing black men expressing solidarity with Cage though, these scenes demonstrate the anonymity of being a black man in a hoodie. The men are stopped by police who assume they are Cage, by virtue of the colour of their skin and their clothing. As a character observes, “being bulletproof will always come second to being black.”
Black and Blue
The relationship between police officers and Harlem’s citizens is at the heart of Luke Cage. Initially we see this play out between Cage and police officer Misty Knight (played by the scene-stealing Simone Missick): in a fairly common conflict for superhero shows, there is a tension between Cage’s vigilantism and Knight’s drive to do everything by-the-book.
When the skirmish between Cage, and Cottonmouth, Dillard and Diamondback spills onto Harlem’s streets the tension between ‘black and blue’ characters ramps up. Midway through the season, Cage finds himself in a confrontation with two police officers that he cannot easily escape. He raises his hands in the “hands up, don’t shoot” posture adopted by Black Lives Matter protestors. Unlike the African Americans who are confronted by police everyday in America, though, Cage doesn’t have anything to fear from these police officers. After whispering an apology, he swiftly subdues the police officers despite a hail of bullets—an act which is caught on the police dash cam.
In the aftermath, the police begin what is essentially a stop-and-frisk program in Harlem. In a collection of scenes, we see police running down and searching the black men of Harlem: one of the white police officers, Jake Smith, says, “The good people in Harlem have no problem with me. Just the assholes.” The “assholes” turn out to be every black man he encounters on the streets.
There are limits to the effectiveness of Luke Cage’s commentary on race relations in America post-Ferguson. As Charles Pulliam-Moore and Tahirah Hairston point out in conversation for Fusion, “Luke Cage never really engages in any substantive commentary about Harlem’s relationship to law enforcement,” but rather focuses its critique on black-on-black crime.
After all, the series doesn’t witness Cage attempting to take down corrupt and racist police. Instead, it focuses on his efforts to police black Harlem, leading some critics to argue that the show is shifting responsibility for systemic inequality back onto African American communities. When police brutality is depicted on-screen in Luke Cage, African American cops are the ones most regularly shown doling out violence. We see Lonnie Wilson, a well-behaved black teenager, badly beaten by a black cop after he refuses to give them information on Cage. Wilson’s mother shoots, venomously, at Misty, “You’d think a sister in charge would change things. But you’re blue, which makes you just as white as anybody else.”
The motivation for having black cops implicated in police violence is twofold. First, as Abraham Riesman points out in Vulture, it serves as a reminder that “institutional racism can implicate people of any race.” Secondly, it allows Luke Cage to blur the boundaries between ‘black and blue’ lives in what might be an effort to stave off criticisms of imagined reverse racism. After all, some people on Twitter were quick to condemn the show as a whole as racist against white people. It is easy to imagine the furor if Luke Cage cast white police officers as the central villains.
Is it me or the new Netflix. Luke Cage a little racist. Notice it's mostly black where is the diversity. @LIVE_COVERAGE
— LiberalsUnited (@RockerThompson) September 28, 2016
It’s also important to ask whether it is the role of a superhero show — or any TV show — to diagnose and address every facet of complicated social and political issues. Luke Cage is an undeniably significant show. Popular culture shapes the world around us. It changes how we see the world: it offers us a window into issues that we might ordinarily overlook or ignore, and prompts us to start a conversation. Luke Cage has started conversations about African American history and culture, and about the criminalisation of black men, in spaces they may not have existed in before.
Hollie Pich is a freelance writer and doctoral candidate in history, living and writing in Sydney.