In Which Bulletproof Is The Only Word You Need Remember

Variations

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Luke Cage
creator Cheo Hodari Coker
Netflix

There is a scene near the end of Netflix series Luke Cage where an African-American cop beats up a twelve year old boy in an interrogation room. We cannot be sure that such a hideous act never occurred in Harlem, but as something that could happen, now, today?

Luke Cage creator Cheo Hodari Coker is just getting started. The evil villains of Luke Cage are an arms dealer named Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali) and his cousin, a city-councilwoman named Mariah (Alfred Woodard). Here is their devious plan: they plan to take money they’ve made selling guns to other gangs and repurpose it for the good of the community. Luke Cage (a horrendous Mike Colter, oh my god is he the worst actor in a long time) has an idea to foil this plan: he takes the money and gives it to the police. What do they use for? I can tell you candidly it will not be invested in Harlem.

Let’s talk about why some minority communities turned to crime to begin with: hint, it wasn’t because they were evil. It was because the easiest access to wealth that some Italians, Jews, blacks, Irish, and later on other groups had was illicit. Racism and bigotry prevented other opportunities. But now Mr. Hodari Parker has come up with another reason, only I am not quite sure what makes Cottonmouth so bad. Presumably Mr. Coker realizes that the United States government sells guns as well?

It is painful but also amusing to watch Luke Cage’s idea of what makes someone a bad person. It would seem that during his extensive stay in jail for a crime he did not commit, Cage would have learned not to judge a book by its cover. The naivete of Luke Cage’s titular hero threatens to turn this show into a kiddie version of the same.

Besides being bulletproof, Cage can also bend guns in half, destroying them. He does this to cops and criminals alike, since they both open fire on him frequently. Someone tries to kill Luke Cage by opening an entire magazine of bullets on him in every episode; by the finale it is the most boring gag imaginable. Between the scenes where Cage mauls gun-toting adversaries like a stuttering bear, there is another more entertaining show that actually takes the time to pay tribute to Harlem as a cultural touchstone in black America.

Luke Cage does not actively hate cops, but he never tries to help them accumulate evidence on the people he has recklessly determined are bad for his community. Cage has sex exactly once during his own show, and the subject of his affections is a police detective named Missy Knight (Simone Missick). After a few hours together he catches feelings even though he has been floating negs to her all evening. You would think super strength would complicate the idea of sex immeasurably, and true to form, Missy gets a call and never comes back to Cage’s dingy apartment above a barber shop.

Luke Cage takes time to establish the lengthy backstory of Cornell Stokes, who is given very little to do as a “villain” other than laugh and play the piano. (Once he punches a guy in the face and cackles. Who among us is not guilty of that?) Stokes loves music because his early ambitions were to create it himself. At his fantastic club, Harlem’s Paradise, Mr. Coker presents a series of musical acts intended to reflect the extensive diversity of African-American music. Outside of one time, we never see the club packed and joyous, perhaps because of Luke Cage‘s budgetary restrictions. These financial limits also make Cage the least action-heavy of all the Marvel shows.

Cage is so clearly not a role model. His ex-girlfriend Misty Knight is a lot closer to one. She never faces any racism or sexism in her job as a police detective, and all of her superior officers are also black women around the same age. I guess since Luke Cage’s sister series Jessica Jones was so focused on the particulars of women’s suffering from violence and sexism, Luke Cage is so reluctant to touch on any of those things.

Women in Luke Cage are never powerless. Alfre Woodard’s magnificent performance as Mariah here generally keeps the entire show from falling apart. Coker has the most fun writing for her character when she is telling the truth and has something useful to say; at other times, she is too much of a garden variety hypocrite. In flashbacks that go back to Mariah’s life as a teen, he does a fantastic job giving us an idea of how blacks viewed their white neighbors, and related to each other as members of the same clan. When Claire (Rosario Dawson) comes on the scene as Cage’s sidekick, she feels weirdly outside of events because she cannot understand them in the same way.

Luke Cage has various new things to say about what it means to be black in America, and the vivid world that surrounds Cage is infinitely more intriguing than its centerpiece. The show’s most tedious episode explains Cage’s origins. The years he served in prison were not particularly difficult; he escapes a fire and busts out of the walls of the penitentiary. Free at last, he works as a dishwasher and sweeps up hair in his friend’s barbershop. Unfortunately for us, he quits both of these jobs in short order and never works another day. It is unclear how he supports himself after that, although he steals $80,000 from a heavily protected safe to purchase his friend’s barbershop.

The fact that Luke Cage used to be a police officer should give him some context for how he relates to men and women in blue. Instead, the fact that he is identified as black completely dominates his previous identity. He struggles to form relationships with anyone who does not have a similar background. Even being a former cop gives him no advantages or disadvantages in prison: he is always seen as who he is in the moment – a dangerous, powerful/powerless black man. This subtle indictment is never focused on or identified, which perhaps makes it all the more deft.

Policing urban communities is the kind of thing people are always saying, “Let’s have a frank, open conversation about this.” But like, later. Next week? After the election. Maybe we should be happy that the subject is being mentioned at all in a genre that is usually considered mindless entertainment. I blame Mr. Coker, who displays his characters reading and reflecting on fine literature, for giving me hope. In different moments, Cage brandishes paperbacks of Walter Mosley and Ralph Ellison. Then, as he becomes more and more concerned with his survival, he finds that he no longer has time to read.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

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