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Luke Cage is the Complicated Afrofuturistic Black Hero We’ve Been Waiting For
Warning: major spoilers.
On some real shit, when I first heard Netflix was producing a spin-off show for Luke Cage, a Marvel super hero originally introduced to Netflix audiences in Jessica Jones, I wasn’t enthused. Honestly, truly. Jessica Jones was boring AF, so I just assumed the same theme applied to Luke Cage. But I just knew in my heart of hearts that I could never pass up on Black superhero magic, so this weekend after the show premiered, I jumped in.
The series follows Luke Cage, a regular everyday Black man who is a wrongfully convicted prisoner who obtains super strength and impenetrable skin in a prison experiment, currently trying to live a modest life as he avoids his enemies and moves through the heartbreak of losing his wife, Reva (which we saw in Jessica Jones). The most powerful part about Cage is that he’s accessible to the world, which is also simultaneously a nod to the accessibility that all Black bodies are coded as under white supremacy. His street-level identity reminds Black audiences that our magic doesn’t only exist in spandex uniforms, but also in hoodies. Based in the heart of Harlem, New York, where everyone is trying to survive and preserve the city, Cage tries hard to maintain a low profile, but the crime and street violence perpetuated and commanded by Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes and his cousin, councilwoman Mariah Dillard, threaten his will to stay quiet.
As I do my best not to spoil the entire show, I want to highlight the powerful themes and motifs throughout the Netflix series that make this very dope, Black show necessary for all audiences.
IT’S SO BLACK!
Based in heart of Harlem, most of the characters in Luke Cage are Black. It’s amazing and mind-boggling, because not even prime time Black television shows are this Black. Almost every protagonist and antagonist, love interest, goon, random business owner, police chief, news correspondent, or extra is Black! It feels so good to see a show that gives the reflections and spectrum of different Black people in a Black city. Not to mention, throughout the show, there’s major references to streets, buildings and monuments that are named after Black heroes and Black history. There is deep pride in Harlem that is so undeniably Black AF while retaining that the city is built off the backs of our people and culture.
Additionally, there is a very intentional heavy usage of “nigga” throughout the series. And not in that extra, overly hyped way that Black shows depicted back in the ’70s/’80s are normally done. While most people would never name this as important on a list of what’s powerful about a show, it is so important. “Nigga” is a term that is a political debate for Black people, while also serving as a tool for empowerment and self-identification. It also sometimes serves as a way to separate Black people through a respectability filter, but throughout the show, we see how all types of Blackness — including those who use “nigga,” prefer the term “nigga,” or despise “nigga,” are shown and represented.
Black Fluidity is Everywhere in These Characters
Within the layers of character story lines, there’s a struggle for most of the characters to navigate between a corrupt white supremacist system, saving the city and people they love, moving through ego and power and surviving.
Luke tries to be and do too many things at once. He’s a superhero in Harlem, in which a Black deteriorating neighborhood is often denied any form of saving. Yet when he seeks to avenge the wrongful death of Pop due to the corrupt violence of the city, he wants to make things right by shutting down illegal activity in the city to preserve the beauty and history of it. The fluidity of Luke’s wanting to save a city in which he also can’t pay his rent makes things complicated. He wants to do right by Pop, do right by Harlem and do right by the people — while also surviving capitalism and avoiding making things worse by inserting himself into the corruption of the town.
Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes struggles between wanting to invest and support the growth of Harlem via black-owned businesses and creating spaces for thriving, such as his club, Harlem Paradise, yet he also needs power as a tool for survival. The flashbacks to his life as a child show us that he wasn’t nearly as hard-shelled as he is now. His uncle said he wasn’t built for killing how the family business called for; he was artistically gifted and wanted to go to school for music. But he was forced to kill his uncle due to betrayal and for hurting his cousin, Mariah, and that shifted things for him drastically. He’s willing to risk everything he loves in Harlem for the sake of maintaining his power and identity at all costs, due to layers of childhood trauma and the need to be a black man in control. His love for the city and for Black liberation isn’t enough to stop him from threatening that to maintain his juice — giving us the complex nature of the internal struggle between community vs. self.
Misty Knight’s character is that of a cop who was raised in Harlem who is committed to doing right by the city and taking down corruption. Misty is beautiful and intelligent and she’s insightful as fuck. She’s able to see the truth before anyone else, making her the smartest person in the room but hindered by a corrupt system that she can’t bring down from the inside. As much as Misty puts in the effort of being ahead of every case, every villain and every crime, she is still unable to fully bring justice to the city of Harlem because the system is too intertwined in the corruption to be fixed only from the inside. Misty is a superhero on her own. Her #BlackGirlMagic show us that she is powerful — but it’s important to see the parallels between her character’s work ethic and how reform works within our current political system. She is apprehensive towards Luke Cage’s unnatural ability to be a superhero, but realizes in time that she needs the help of those outside of the system to create change.
There’s also massive layers of respectability throughout the series. Constantly, there are dialogues among characters around the use of the word “nigga” and shaming of thugs and gunslingers for doing business near historical monuments. But the show also illustrates that black fluidity is powerful, and even more so that survival in the hood doesn’t allow for respectability to be currency for all Black folks. There are goons who work for Cottonmouth that have no other choice in how they make money, so their roles aren’t inherently to be “bad people” but rather to find ways to survive and obtain power/ self-worth/ identity.
The Complexities of Being Black and Bulletproof
Many headlines around this series have been centered on how our next superhero is a “bulletproof Black man in a hoodie” and the greatness behind it. The Afrofuturistic portrayal of this story line is that a Black man can live unafraid of white supremacist weapons (well, most of them) because he’s bulletproof, impenetrable and immortal. In a world where Black people are not guaranteed a future, where we live every minute like it’s our last, while also trying to find ways to survive a system designed for us to fail, Luke Cage is necessary. Luke Cage is life changing for Black people.
But while Luke Cage is a representation of an everyday superhero, who exists to support Black people and a Black city, it’s also nuanced in how we hold the truth that brute strength of Black men/people is a mythology of the white mind that has been used to murder and dehumanize us. As Luke Cage sports a bullet-ridden hoodie throughout the show, I can’t help but wonder how Black people all over the world aren’t already treated like we’re bulletproof and that we are animals, that our bodies and our Blackness is the threat that must be stopped.
It’s possible to hold both of these truths at once, though. It’s possible to value the Afrofuturism embedded within the possibilities of Blackness and Black superheroes while also recognizing that our dreams and imagination also draw parallels between the dehumanizing white gaze of our Black bodies. While we are magical AF, white people justify our death by distancing us from humanity because of it.
Additionally, since the show is so Black, the main characters — such as Misty Knight, Claire Temple and Mariah Dillard — are still superheroes in their own way. Misty Knight might not have superpowers to the world, but she has superpowers to Black girls, femmes and women everywhere. Her intuition is a gift, born out of trauma. Hence the reason why her need to be in control is her vulnerability, because when she’s able to predict who’s going to hurt her, she’s able to maintain more of a grip on her trauma.
Claire Temple, a nurse introduced to us in Jessica Jones, is intelligent as fuck and strategizes to assist Luke Cage even with his bulletproof exterior. Claire is very quick on her feet, but also extremely powerful in her ability to navigate dangerous situations on her own. She even takes out her own attacker and mugger on the street.
Mariah Dillard, although portrayed as a villain, is actually complicated and amazing. Her strength is in survival and defense mechanisms. It’s obvious that in her corrupt dealings, she also must play the role of having it together while also doing what she needs to for the city of Harlem and herself. She maintains power, a stoic nature and poise through the most violent and vulnerable situations. Mariah is hands-down the most interesting player in the series.
The Struggle for Black Liberation
There are many different Black male characters that are struggling to survive the hood to find their power, their identity and how to live good. Cottonmouth wants to maintain the legacy of Harlem’s Paradise, the largest club in Harlem that has never been owned by a Black person, but also is willing to risk that very same legacy for power and reputation when Luke Cage starts to threaten it. Cottonmouth values his self and ego over what liberation could look like in working with Luke Cage.
Even Luke Cage is often dancing between being paid for hire to protect others and still trying to find “honest” ways to make a living. But while his magic and power is valued so much, he is able to obtain money through just providing his services. Similar to how our Black Lives Matter organizing should get us closer to liberation, we often must demand that we are paid while we are surviving a white supremacist capitalist system. Luke Cage teeters on that same ideological struggle.
While Mariah Dillard and Misty Knight both struggle with maintaining their goals to save Harlem, they both navigate reform in different ways. Mariah uses illegal means to maintain the change she can create within the system, while Misty tries to play by the rules and uses her natural intuition to seek justice.
Black Familial Trauma, Living with an Abuser and Victim Blaming
Throughout the show, Mariah Dillard grows increasingly unstable mentally and emotionally due to the unraveling of Cottonmouth’s decision making affecting her campaign and projects for the city of Harlem. Although both of them are heavily invested in maintaining a legacy and preserving the beauty and history of the city of Harlem, they are both invested in power and ego — just like their grandmother raised and forced (traumatized) them to be.
Towards the last third of the season, Mariah visits Cottonmouth to discuss the family business and how his decisions are so detrimental to everything they’ve built that he must be stopped. During the private and heated conversation, Cottonmouth channels his rage around their childhood towards Mariah, claiming that he should’ve been the one that got to go off to boarding school. Mariah yells and explains that Mother Mabel sent her away to keep her safe from Uncle Pete, who repeatedly molested her.
Cottonmouth tells her that she seduced Uncle Pete and that she wanted to be raped. Mariah hits Cottonmouth over the head with a bottle and throws him off a balcony in the club. Subsequently she rushes to his barely breathing body and beats him to death with a microphone. This was the most powerful and iconic scene of the entire series, but the best character development through a lens of Black familial trauma and sexual abuse survival.
In a million ways, Mariah Dillard is my superhero. It’s obvious in her corrupt dealings that she also does value Harlem, but knows that the only way to move work that she wants to do is through illegal means. This speaks volumes to the issues that Misty often faces in which she is trying to create reform and safety in a corrupt system from the inside out without the necessary outside forces. Mariah stays doing what she needs to do to survive and create sustainability for the community — although at a cost.
Personally though, Mariah is often alone — contemplating her next move for political takeover and plans for the city. It’s obvious she is weighed down by the trauma of her past with her grandmother, Mother Mabel, and her past sexual abuse. It’s explained that Mother Mabel tried to protect her from Uncle Pete molesting her, but it’s obvious as well that the molestation happened over and over again as she shared a home with her abuser. Mariah holds so much resentment and pain around her relationship with her grandmother and it proves to affect her in the current context of the show.
In the Marvel comics though, she’s not actually related to Cottonmouth, nor is she a council woman — she is actually a superfat Black femme portrayed as a gluttonous mammy who robs dead bodies with her crew in the streets. The way she is framed within the series is complicated, almost as if she was given a thinner frame and more respectable corrupt profile to replace her fatness/gluttony as the trauma with sexual and familial trauma. I honestly believe the story would be so much better if they would’ve kept Mariah “Black Mariah” Dillard as a Black fat femme with sexual trauma and developed her story around love, power and survival. But regardless, I hold both versions of Mariah parallel to each other and still see her as the most powerful character in the series.
Deep References to Real-Life Antiblackness and Prison Abolition
Through the flashbacks about Luke’s past, he was framed and sent to prison. Within the prison, Luke discovers the corrupt system run by the prison guards to make prisoners fight each other for profit in addition to experimenting on black prisoners. After Luke escapes, he says, “I’d rather die than go back to prison.” These are direct references to real-life antiblack events and violence that happens within America every day, especially speaking to the realities of the prison industrial complex and the dehumanization of being locked in a cage. In the current context of the show, when police are looking for information on Luke Cage because he’s wanted as a murder suspect, a Black cop beats up a 14-year-old Black boy in custody. The mother says something powerful and relevant to the world: “If you’re blue, you’re just as white as them.”
Although the show is amazing, there are some themes and story lines that should be reevaluated in hindsight. Such as the lack of character development around any of Luke Cage’s love interests, beyond who they are to him. Luke Cage has three main love interests this season. His wife, Reva, who was killed in Jessica Jones; Misty Knight; and Claire Temple. None of them have a story line that exists beyond their relationship to Luke, although they’re all interesting people for the lack of portrayal they receive.
Shades, the protege of Willis “Diamondback” Stryker, is a white-passing Latino, and it really throws off the whole story line. His insertion into hood politicking seems so foreign to his reality. Every time he talks, it’s so obvious how hard he’s trying to be down. Subsequent to Mariah’s rightful rage-turned-murder against Cottonmouth for victim blaming her for being molested, Shades inserts himself in her trauma as if he understands Blackness, antiblack misogyny or sexual abuse.
Additionally, in the original comic, both Luke Cage and Willis Stryker/Diamondback were born and raised in Harlem and grew up as best friends. Their original beef that set into motion Stryker’s revenge was over Reva, the girl they both loved. In the Netflix series, they’re half brothers from Savannah, Georgia, who share a father who’s an adulterous preacher. Hence why so many characters were apprehensive towards Luke’s Harlem reputation as a gentrifier and newcomer to a space that was not his home. Additionally, Stryker/Diamondback tries to take Harlem after the fall of Cottonmouth and the attempted murder of Luke Cage. Why are these non-Harlem niggas trying to run Harlem shit? Real life questions for the writers.
Overall, Luke Cage is an amazing Black superhero series that really gives us layers upon layers to interrogate and resonate with as Black people. It’s powerful, complex, sometimes ain’t shit, but a great show nonetheless. The series offers such depth that it can elevate so many relevant and current sociopolitical contexts within the story lines that can change what media is currently offering Black audiences. I encourage everyone to watch it, critique it, and be inspired by it.
Ashleigh Shackelford is a Black queer, nonbinary fat femme writer, artist, and cultural producer. Ashleigh is a contributing writer at Wear Your Voice Magazine and For Harriet. Read more at BlackFatFemme.com.