Luke Cage: Don’t Believe the Hype
I wanted to love this series. I wanted it to be what Jessica Jones was for me; a feminist conversation and lesson. Except, you know, about Blackness. I wanted to see the iconic Black hero, doing what he does, being invulnerable and full of integrity while unapologetically Black. I wanted that. But I didn’t get it.
Instead I got the shell of that. Worse, I got, we all got a show that is pretending to be unapologetically pro-Black while actually reinforcing the worst kind of stereotypes. We deserve better.
Look, part of this can’t be helped. The source material is made of racist stereotypes. That’s just factual. A Black hero in the 1970s had no chance of being anything other than Blaxploitation and that’s pretty much all Power Man has ever been. The comic was racist. The villains were racist stereotypes just like the hero and the story was made of racist tropes. It’s generally not a great comic and has always been problematic. It’s just that, at the time, that was all we had. So we accepted it, bad as it was because representation matters.
But Marvel and Netflix had managed to make Daredevil not terrible and Jessica Jones really good, so believe me when I say I went into this show prepared to sing its praises like most other people are doing.
But I can’t.
Because this show is racist as hell and as I mentioned we deserve better.
It started out racist and it stayed racist the entire time.
Literally, the very first thing we see Luke do is blow off the darkest skinned femme protagonist, well non-antagonist, in the entire show who is hitting on him in front of her son, of course she has a son. Of course we can’t have a professional woman with sort of dark skin simply being awesome and owning her sexuality. Nope. There are whole levels of why she’s not attractive to him in the few scenes she has and they’re all centered on colorism and misogynoir.
But he hooks up with Misty Knight, who is lighter than the first woman, that same night.
And he ends up with the lightest woman.
Because, of course he does.
Let’s be clear, the “darkest” woman isn’t all that dark. Every woman in the show darker than her is a villain.
Luke himself is also a problem. He is the quintessential “good” Black man and a large part of the narrative presented as to what makes him good is that he is tame in the beginning. He is the most physically powerful Black human in the Marvel TV universe. He could be a costumed hero. Or, you know, not a costumed hero because all of his costumes are awful. But he could be anything. Except the person they created is properly diffident; head down, voice soft, eyes generally cast down. And no matter how good the fight scenes are, and they’re not actually that good, he is tamed in the end as well. The extremely powerful Black man is, in fact, caged as the resolution of the entire story arc.
To be fair, I will acknowledge the power of seeing a Black man in a dark hoodie walking through a hail of bullets but I also have to acknowledge that Luke Cage is, and has always been the embodiment of the unstoppable Black beast, a stereotype that regularly gets actual Black people killed.
A good writer would have used that contrast. They would have shown us the trap that Black people are forced into by the stereotypes used to dehumanize us. Black men are either rampaging monsters or properly emasculated. Women are either light, bright, and damn near white Mammies, dark Jezebels, or Sassy Sapphires like Black Mariah.
I will admit that Black Mariah is a vast improvement over her comic character but since her origin is an elephantine monster made of African American Vernacular English as filtered through white ears, that’s not saying much.
This show suffers the same issue that so much mainstream entertainment aimed at Black audiences suffers. It doesn’t examine or deconstruct White Supremacy. It just accepts its tropes and uses them to enforce its structure.
Luke Cage isn’t our superhero show. It’s a show about white fear. It’s a minstrel show.
Minstrel shows are offensive. Always. Doubly so because it is presented as for us, by us. We presume that our own people have our best interests at heart. This is forgivable, especially when the entertainment is advertised as if it is revolutionary or progressive or groundbreaking or anything other than more of the same.
For me, the biggest problem is the conversation on policing that happens throughout the show. The pro side of the self-policing argument is a white cop who turns out to be corrupt. The person he’s arguing with? Misty fucking Knight who is given the pro-police side. The inevitable police violence is perpetrated by a Black cop. The only person who steps forward to lead the community against police violence? Is Black Mariah who is doing so for her own reasons and advocates greater arming of the already militarized police.
The conversation is muddled and plodding and badly written as is the rest of the show.
And we deserve better.
We have to stop simply accepting anything that is served to us as long as the hand doing the serving is Black. Because all of our skinfolk ain’t our kinfolk. They don’t have our best interests at heart. Neither do they have any motivation to do their jobs well unless we motivate them.
We deserve superheroes who are heroes. We deserve Black entertainment free of the restrictions of White Supremacy and which fight the tropes systemic racism has trained into us. We deserve better than this and the absolutely worst thing we can do is embrace this show. because if we do, we’ll end up with more of the same and we’ll have no one but ourselves to blame.