“Luke Cage,” the third pillar of Marvel’s proposed “Defenders” franchise, made a ton of noise this weekend — especially when Netflix went down for two hours on Saturday, one day after the series debut.
Much of that noise, however, was not due to wildly ambitious action sequences or eye-popping special effects of “Luke Cage” — it was due to commentary about race and frequent use of the “N” word in the new series.
What’s most distinctive about the series is the way it puts race — and specifically pride in Harlem — at the center of the story.
To be fair, this is a superhero whose backdrop is critical to his origin story, and that backdrop is Harlem. And if you’re going to attempt to accurately depict not just present-day Harlem, but the Harlem of yesteryear, as fought for by many, you can’t — if you’ll excuse the pun — whitewash it.
Netflix is known, after all, for its gritty realism, even if Marvel has ultimately been loath to go there too often, ultimately eschewing the world’s often disheartening underbelly in favor of technicolor swashbuckling.
The upside? It works.
This is the Luke Cage fans of the character loved in the mid-1970s, when he was touted as the first African-American superhero with his own monthly series, and the one who delivers monologues involving knowing your legacy, the hallowed ground of Jackie Robinson, and crash courses in Crispus Attucks.
The series knows exactly what it’s saying: Heroism goes beyond superpowers. And here’s a fierce, black superhero — in a hoodie.
But what’s most distinctive about the series is the way it puts race — and specifically pride in Harlem, where the show takes place — at the center of the story. It’s not just that Cage (played by Mike Colter of “The Good Wife”) is engaged in a battle for the neighborhood’s soul with Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali, “House of Cards”), but also its history and future.
Yes, the N-word is used repeatedly in the show, in passing, in songs, and at one point head-on, when Luke tells a stick-up boy who has just used it: “I’m not tired enough to ever let nobody call me that word.”
Show creator Cheo Hodari Coker told Vulture that Marvel had some qualms about the excessive use of the N-word. “But my whole thing was that, in using this word, I didn’t want it to be comfortable,” Coker said. “I wanted [it to be] that, every single time that it’s heard, you think about it.”
The secret to “Cage” — and, more pointedly, to the series’ ability to get away with such rampant use of the word — is that it is often used by the writers as a means to begin a dialogue about the word. While Cage implores those who use it to realize they are using it on someone who despises it, he then goes on to lecture them about those who came before them — those who built Harlem brick by brick, via art and politics, men who conveyed to a lost cage that, in Harlem, it’s “always forward, never backwards.”
In short, the mere usage is setting you back.
Toward the end of the sometimes meandering 13-episode season, one passerby tells a news anchor that she’s shocked that Harlem’s hero is, of all people, “a black man in a hoodie.”
Coker says Cage wasn’t meant to be a Black Lives Matter icon, telling Esquire the show was written in early 2015 — before the movement was as realized as it is now. “We didn’t mean to be this deeply social show,” he says, “but we wanted to tell a realistic depiction of the black experience.”
This is as close as the series gets to preaching, even while actual preaching does take place, and often. Scripture is woven into the dialogue even more than the “N” word. But the media hasn’t jumped on that.
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Luke Cage, with his bulletproof skin and ability to use car doors as shields, isn’t about feeling sorry for himself, nor does he suffer such fools. His best weapon might be ethnic and cultural pride, and an equal awareness of where he’s been, and where he’s going. You will not stop him.