Harlem Knights: Reviving Blaxploitation in Luke Cage

By Tre Johnson @trejohns1978 

Luke Cage opens with an opening credits camera-spanning sequence drenched in sepia-toned imagery to the history and pain of the black body embodied by Luke Cage: an opening image suggests a slave’s whiplashed back before it morphs into an NYC bridge. As the sequence continues with shots of the Apollo Theatre, Harlem row homes, and neighborhoods, there’s a ham-fisted image of Lenox Ave and Malcolm X Blvd tattooed on Luke’s muscular arm as his fist slowly bursts a wall open. It’s fitting for a series full of heavy-handed, albeit at times powerful, images and messages. Luke Cage suffers from some earnest attempts to make a lot of statements about contemporary Black America in much the same way the opening credits ends: with blunt force.

The series opens with establishing that Luke Cage (Mike Colter) has returned to his Harlem stomping grounds after some undisclosed amount of time from his first Hell’s Kitchen appearance in the previous Marvel-Netflix superhero drama Jessica Jones, as a chivalrous, urban Superman: he works thankless but honest, jobs at Pop’s Barbershop as a janitor, and as a utility-player at “Harlem’s Paradise”, the popular nightclub owned by the series villain, Cottonmouth, played by Mahershala Ali. The first episode’s opening scenes walks us in mid-conversation with Pop, Luke and the male patrons and regulars deeply engrossed in a debate about old-school vs. new-school NBA—but it also does something else; it establishes Cage as an “A Good Man”; when local hotshot Shameek mocks Cage’s role (“negro you don’t cuss, you don’t cut hair—what do you do?”), Luke replies “I work”. That statement serves as the embodiment of Luke in season 1; dutiful, honor-bound, honest.

Moments later, when Counselor Wilson walks in to pick up her son from the shop, she makes a polite pass at Luke to get coffee sometime. It’s a gesture that we’re to take as a routine, unsuccessful attempt by Patricia Wilson, but Luke, dutiful and loyal to the end, demurs, accepting her phone number but moments later crumbling in his powerful fist, proof that in addition to his super strength and invulnerable, bulletproof skin, he can also leap over female advances in a single bound. These leaps keep him morally aloft of the rest of the cast, even when the series contradicts it.

The series largely anchors itself on Pop’s and Harlem’s Paradise; the most pivotal scenes and action take place in these two locales that serve several purposes. For one, they’re Daily Planet-styled hubs of information that keeps Luke (and the audience) attuned to what’s happening in Harlem; Cage, cops and crooks all use these places to dispense and absorb rumors, murders and trade about relationships and power in an otherwise non-descript cityscape in the show that makes Harlem look more like a series of alleyways, abandoned warehouses, decrepit apartments and Chinese food joints.

But they’re also blunt showcases for Good Negro vs. Bad Negro and how everyone in Harlem finds themselves caught in the middle of these extremes; something that the show doesn’t always seem to have thoughtfully applied.

The show seems to suggest that black classes are essentially compromised; while the black middle-class is largely non-existent in the show, its most upwardly-mobile black characters—Cottonmouth, his cousin Councilwoman Dillard, and at least one other crucial character in Luke’s life—are given a tenuous relationship with corruption and ambition, making them all essentially super-predators of the lower- and working-class Harlemites who are either like Pop, Luke and Misty Knight—possessed of an unshakeable nobility and sacrificial strength—or the likes of Shameek, Chico and some of the other bit-characters; folks too bereft of agency to make choices other than crime and betrayal. This all might ring true in some limited situations, but it’s the sort of comic-book and mainstream culture caricature of inner city populations that reinforces and revisits the story’s Blaxploitation roots.

Created by Marvel during the height of the Blaxploitation 1970’s Luke Cage was an obvious comics analog response to the silver screen's Shaft with the Luke Cage sidekick Misty Knight a nod to Foxy Brown. These were characters that stalked the inner city streets of America as a one-man (or woman) vigilante justice squad. They were wildly popular for black audiences; both characters represented the type of power, mobility and sex appeal that had eluded black audiences that had labored to see themselves differently before then and were a sharp contrast to the saturated images around black struggle—police dogs, fire hoses, bombings, lynching and murders--during the contentious, defiant 1950s-60s Civil Rights Movement era.

Like many Blaxploitation media, these characters operated within a very specific racial, social and geographic context, as much as they were ‘street-savvy’ they were also both formal and informal upholders of law & order; maintaining an uneasy but necessary alliance with both white and inner city authority to do what was necessary to squash the hookers, pimps, dealers and dirty cops that the media would have you believe existed on every corner, in every person. The Blaxploitation was a parallel universe to the ones occupied by its Hollywood contemporaries of that same time; films like Dirty Harry and Death Wish that were silver screen dog whistles of a Nixon reign that propagandized the view that the inner city and the black residents inside was a precarious lawless cage that needed any and all sort of policing, vigilante included, in order to combat the War on Drugs. As a result, this sort of vigilantism that Luke Cage inhabits carries a unique legacy about the desire to police our “worst” communities as one-stop-shop judge, jury and executioners for the inner city; operating with the same “necessary” moral codes as Dirty Harry and Paul Kersey, who saw the need to take the law in their hands by any means necessary.

This is best seen through its central villains Cottonmouth and Councilwoman Dillard; characters that are given no real motivation other than greed, complicity and money as a means to secure their power and turf. They’re not given the layers that shows like Atlanta have managed to do with the same urbanity in black communities; the idea that “the struggle” might mean occasionally making some unsavory choices, but there’s a lack of remorse or reflection here that makes the villains feel cartoonish and flat; Lex Luthor-ish characters whose wanton murder and destruction feel counterintuitive to their goals. At one point Cottonmouth bludgeons a character to death in his office with his bare hands, and when he rises, he stands silhouetted underneath a Biggie Smalls mural, Cottonmouth’s head resting just underneath the oversized crown sitting askew on the rapper’s head. It’s about one of a thousand times that the show employs both the mural and the shot as a means of showcasing the ever-shifting power struggle for vying for “King of New York (Harlem)”. Several characters will get framed in the shot over the course of the season. After the first time, you’ll probably roll your eyes.

But it also misses an opportunity to make a better case and characterization of its villains. Cottonmouth is a sadist, a murderer and a businessman whose occasional attempts at community mindedness seems an affront to uneasy relationship we have about folk heroes like Biggie—individuals who were born of the community, preyed on the community as a means to get by, but then also lifted the community up at the same time—a character complexity readily available to the show creators given the amount it traffics in hip-hop music. It’s also a callback to those Blaxploitation tropes, a more contemporary acknowledgment of how our hip-hop heroes were likely archetypes born out of the War on Drugs hysteria: out-sized vigilante characters that were as inspirational to their communities as they were important examples of lawless authorities of their neighborhoods and projects. Luke Cage doesn’t afford any of its prime characters this sort of nuance, and so it again chances to make these depictions of the inner city feel like a slight to the symbiotic relationships between the hustler and his/her community: when Biggie died, the streets were choked with onlookers and mourners. Characters like Cottonmouth seem unlikely to get that sort of send-off to the next life. This complexity feels like a serious flaw in a show that wants to be seen as a more honest take on Black America today.

And seriousness is something that this show stumbles in. You can commend Luke Cage for trafficking in the issues that it does—gun violence, black wealth, childhood trauma, and mass incarceration—but ultimately, even with a dozen episodes, the show just doesn’t have the space to give these issues much justice. Its surface story—an unstoppable prodigal son returning to clean up the city—ultimately doesn’t have the emotional heft that carried its soul predecessor Jessica Jones. It’s also what undercuts the dramatic tension of the series; you sometimes wish the series played it straight and maybe even had done something bolder like stick to something akin to the character’s original costume.

What it does play straight, though fast-and-loose, is Luke Cage’s relationship with women. Despite the initial resistance to Patricia Wilson’s advances due to his grieving over Reva, about five scenes and twenty minutes later he’s having a one-night stand with Misty Knight. Later, when Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple shows up midway through the season, Cage plays a cat-and-mouse game in their interactions that’s unflattering to the character and insulting to Temple, too. And it’s something that all the women in the show suffer from; despite the accomplishments, intelligence, and strength all these Black and Latinx women exhibit in the show, the series always suggests the missing piece for them is Luke.

Perhaps more disturbing is not only the way that these women are shown to almost trade career with relationships (something that extends even to Alfre Woodard’s character too), but how lonely it positions most of these women, too—Misty, Patricia, Claire all go to literal and figurative great distances to have a chance to be with Luke. And for a character positioned to be a modern-day positive role model folk hero, Cage’s openness to dalliances to presumably everyone but Patricia—interestingly, the sole woman parenting a young black boy—makes for an odd observation.

It’s hard to know what to make of these relationships too because as Cage, Colter rarely exhibits anything other than dutiful devotion to justice; his biggest emotional ranges shown when he experiences a predictable loss in the show and when his body is under extreme pain. For a man otherwise hiding in plain sight, Cage often feels like he’s masking any real emotions as his superhero costume.

The costume that it does trade on though is a hoodie, an intentional homage to Trayvon Martin and victims of shooting murders over the last couple of years made by show-runner Cheo Hodari Coker. It’s a costume choice that trucks in one of the most common comic book-type fanfare; the Easter Egg. Every episode Cage wears a hoodie, and every episode you see that hoodie eviscerated by a hail of bullets to the chest and the back. But it’s a reference that might be too hidden here in the midst of the other visualizations of the show; its black-centric villainy and crime—the masterminds and the hoods are all black—and the claustrophobic Harlem that the show operates in makes this statement unintentionally confined to a black narrative. The show quite literally deals in black people committing crimes against black people, with the lone white conspirator a bit player, and so it’s hard to understand what the symbolic inclusion of the hoodie has to say in a show heavily fixated in a black gaze.

Still, the hoodie conversation felt pertinent when the show dropped in September—at that time it was still only days removed from national conversations about the likes of shoot-able men like Keith Lamont Scott and Terrence Crutcher. The reaction to the video game-style repetition of seeing Luke Cage endlessly shot—in warehouses, in hallways, in barber shops, in night clubs, on the street—was twofold; for some people it was a the re-traumatization of the anytime, anywhere-feel of black shootings; while others saw it as a testament to the unconquerable black spirit, a sort-of superhero commentary on the triumph of the black community here in America.

But the show also shines in the most surprising, small, but important ways. The first episode’s early on sex scene between two black main characters feels graphic and hot not just because of their undeniable attractiveness, but because you realize how rare enjoyable, passionate black sex is actually shown in mainstream media—explicitly humanizing and normalizing consensual sex between black people that has still labored to move past the sexless standards of the Huxtables and other couples. Putting aside the aforementioned wider problematic gender narratives even something like this is a success moving the audience forward. Later in the season, a poignant conversation is had between four black female characters in a police station, in the same room, at the same time, with each other.

These situations certainly happened in other settings before; an almost-perfect all-black Bechdel Test moment that hasn’t been seen since the occasional moments in Girlfriends. These types of scenes alone, along with Colter’s unflappable performance as Cage, still makes this show an important entry note in today’s black pop culture. Those notes too are bolstered by the show’s love letter to music. Everyone from Faith Evans, to the Delfonics, to Method Man and Jidenna (with some other choice appearances in-between) give this show a life that’s reminiscent of the great black TV shows before it which have always made black music an integral part of the experience, a heritage stemming from everything from The Arsenio Hall Show, In Living Color, or The Chappelle Show.

A mural of a crowned Biggie Smalls hangs in Cottonmouth’s overlord-style office, and while it becomes a tiresome exercise in heavy-handedness, the show parades and positions several characters in front of it, framing their head underneath the crown. The message is clear over the course of the season: it’s hard to stay on top because of the changing power landscape of the streets, but as the saying goes if you come for the king, you best not miss.

Ultimately, while Luke Cage falls short of the heights of Jessica Jones, which had a more tightly realized world and moral core, it still is a successful import of a decades old Marvel character. Colter alone still makes this show worth the price of admission; he’s smoldering and cool, and his dry sense of humor feels tonally right in the world he inhabits. A lot of space is given to Misty Knight and her character arc too, and the show and the creators are clearly in love with the character. But origin stories—for all the characters, really—often feel hammered and trite; heavy-handed stories of trauma, assault, and abuse that narratively gets included as an afterthought. The show wants to be bullet-proof to some of its genre’s shortcomings, but where it succeeds it also fails: it’s a black superhero comic book story. That means it shares the same weaknesses as its Marvel TV and film brethren too, Luke Cage also suffers the same flaw: their villains just aren’t as compelling as its heroes.

This is especially true when the final boss baddie turns up in the form of Erik LaRay Harvey’s Diamondback. The series arguably grinds to its hardest halt as the character embodies too much cartoonish-ness—the constant Biblical quotes; the vengeance-driven motivation; the irreverent murder and violence to constantly assert that he’s, well, irreverently violent—to not sully the wider conversations about inner city life the show otherwise tries to have with itself. Here, towards the latter third of the season, we’re presented with a character whose very presence drags the production firmly into B-level territory: he feels like a pastiche of all the bad villains from the 70’s and 80’s. And delivered with a wide-eyed earnestness in every scene, he might be the biggest bullet that penetrates the show’s skin.


Tre Johnson is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia, PA. He writes on race, culture, politics and pop culture.

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