Social Justice Warriors: On the Road to "The Defenders" - "Luke Cage"
In an already crowded field of superhero adaptations, Luke Cage stands out for its embrace and embodiment of blackness and black culture. This is especially notable when contrasted with Marvel’s problems with diversity. The series features a predominately black cast, including stars Mike Colter, Simone Missick, Erik LaRay Harvey, Karen Pittman, Emmy-winner Alfre Woodard, and Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali. Beyond representation, the decision by showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker (Southland) to set the series in Harlem, centering much of the action on the nightclub owned by Ali’s Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes (with musical performances by Faith Evans, Raphael Saadiq, and others), and include intertextual references to black history, literature, and culture acts as a clear statement of intent for the series. Additionally, in a nod to both the character’s Blaxploitation roots and black incarceration – the original comic series, Luke Cage: Hero for Hire was launched in 1972 as a way to capitalize on the popularity of films like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft (both released in 1971) and featured wrongful imprisonment as part of the origin of Luke Cage – the series features overt visual allusions to Trayvon Martin and the continuing Black Lives Matter movement.
The series is built around Cage’s wrongful imprisonment, and continuing interactions and confrontations with the police, including once again being wrongfully accused of a crime and targeted by the police at the urging of the larger political structure (represented by Woodard’s Mariah Dillard, a councilwoman with larger political ambitions). And that’s where the show makes its largest misstep. In a desire to focus so squarely on blackness, the show essentially erases – or, more accurately, displaces – the violence of white supremacy that cultivates and motivates the police brutality and the murders of unarmed black men the show references.
According to statistical data compiled by The Guardian as part of the The Counted, “[y]oung black men were again killed by police at a sharply higher rate than other Americans in 2016.” This number, according to their report, is nearly double the statistics for “justifiable homicides” reported to the FBI. New York, where Luke Cage is set, is the site of one of the most widely-publicized cases, with the killing of Eric Garner in 2014. There is, of course, debate over the individual cases, and there’s no point in rehashing them here. Regardless, this was (and still is) too large of an issue for the show to dance around.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that every show that centers on the black community or features black characters needs to tackle issues of race. The recent comic series Power Man and Iron Fist by writer David Gabriel and artist Sandford Greene leaned away from racial politics and instead focused on Luke Cage as a superhero in the larger Marvel universe. Additionally, the fact that War Machine and Falcon in the Marvel films are African-American is never foregrounded. However, when the choice is made to directly engage with an issue such as police violence – and aside from the bullet-riddled hoodie that becomes Cage’s de facto costume in the series, the show makes the connection explicit in Method Man’s “Bulletproof Love” in episode 12 – there is an inevitable level of scrutiny that should be expected.
The police force in Luke Cage is represented largely by people of color. Detective Misty Knight (Missick), a police officer who is also a woman of color, is at the center of the show, investigating Cottonmouth (Ali) and Dillard (Woodard). She is partnered with a white detective, Scarfe (Frank Whaley), a dirty cop who kills a suspect, Chico (Brian Marc), to help cover up Cottonmouth’s crimes. Later in the series, a beloved older police officer is killed, and the murder is pinned on Cage. in response, we have a sequence of the police force descending on the black community in Harlem, stopping every black man in a hoodie they find, and hauling in kids to grill them for information. One officer grows visibly upset during an interrogation, and proceeds to assault the teenager he’s questioning. There are several problems here. First, the built-in justification for the increase in policing (really, unjustified stop-and-frisks) by making it retribution for the killing of a police officer. Second, a black police detective commits the assault. Again, I’m not arguing that white police officers commit all police violence. But the culture of policing, and an increased tendency to perceive black suspects as threats, are issues that the series chooses not to engage with. Instead, we get the old trope of the cop pushed over the edge in pursuit of justice – especially tone-deaf in the context of rousting random black men in hoodies. Finally, there’s the fact that all the violence committed by police officers in the series is either in service of the black villains, or carried out by black officers – including Misty Knight, who assaults Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) during an interrogation. It’s the combination of these factors that makes them problematic.
Ultimately, I feel the series had all the pieces in place to talk about a complex issue in an interesting way. The idea of a bullet-proof black man, who gained his powers through an experiment conducted against his will while wrongfully imprisoned, coming into conflict with a police force that can’t harm him is fertile ground. He wears, essentially, a costume that deliberately evokes Trayvon Martin, while arguably being what Martin was allegedly perceived as – a dangerous black man (rather than the teenage victim he actually was). Being produced by, and airing on, Netflix, there would have been no concerns of upsetting advertisers, so it’s likely the producers would have had the freedom to tackle the subject matter. And, frankly, the 13-episode season would have allowed for it, given the valid complaints made about padding and pacing. If Luke Cage wanted to be light entertainment that didn’t engage in “politics”, keeping the main character in his plain yellow t-shirt, lessening the presence of the police in the plot, and losing the Method Man song would have allowed it to do so. The half-measure approach feels like a missed opportunity, at best, and exploitative, at worst.