The uproar surrounding the 2016 Academy Awards was caused by a lack of diversity among the academy’s nominees. That is only part of the problem associated with the way Hollywood portrays race on theater and television screensall across the United States. Too often roles written for persons of color reflect only historically damaging events. It is rare that mainstream film and television series portray black or Latino communities simply as communities of people living their everyday lives. Marvel’s “Luke Cage” does just that.
The significance of “Luke Cage” is that it introduces widespread audiences to a community and culture that is often neglected in the superhero world. Much of New York City is found in other superhero stories, but Harlem is regularly the forgotten borough. Not in “Luke Cage.”
Creator Cheo Hodari Coker takes a common superhero plot and surrounds it with a community rich in culture, keeping the premise fresh and interesting. But what really makes “Luke Cage” different than much of the work coming out of mainstream Hollywood featuring black characters, is that it places the happenings of the series in the same realm as many of Marvel’s other stories such as “Daredevil.” When it comes down to it, Luke Cage is a superhero, he just happens to be from a black community.
The pilot episode entitled “Moment of Truth” introduces us to Luke Cage (Mike Colter), a fugitive with superhuman strength working multiple jobs just to make it by in Harlem. One of Cage’s jobs is working as a dishwater at Harlem’s Paradise, a club owned by crime boss, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). After one of Stokes’ arms deals goes bad, he is left on a manhunt for the men responsible. Stokes’ cousin, councilwoman Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), is heading a community initiative called “New Harlem Renaissance” and has enlisted Stokes’ men to help her collect funds. Cage is faced with a decision of whether to keep a low profile or use his super powers for the betterment of the community.
In the opening episode, “Luke Cage” lays the groundwork for potentially interesting characters by providing a likable hero with apparent motivations. Although it isn’t exactly clear what those motivations are, up to this point, they clearly exist.
Whereas superhero plots rely on their hero in order to work, they rely on their villains to succeed. Stokes is the kind of villain that has potential to be a really great baddie. But after one episode, the mystery surrounding his character makes such a claim a little premature. At the very least, the Cage/ Stokes dynamic is intriguing, and demands further investigation upon its viewers.
Something that “Luke Cage” does very well is immerse it’s viewers in music. At times, the pilot episode could have easily been confused for something out of the pages of a Brett Easton Ellis novel. The music references and purpose are riddled throughout the episode’s scenes. Over and over, the face of The Notorious B.I.G. appears of the wall of Stokes’ living quarters, just begging viewers to take note.
The soundtrack is the kind of contribution that is worth listening to on its own. Just as is the case in one of Ellis’ novels, music and culture play a main role in the storytelling element of the series. That alone is enough to make audiences return for following episodes.
As is the case in “Daredevil,” another Marvel/Netflix collaboration, “Luke Cage” is quite gritty. It spares no sight of violence. There is a sense in this universe that certain people are very bad, and they must be feared. This easily makes a compelling argument for why these tortured superheroes are necessary. In the pilot episode, Cage barely gets his feet wet, but if some of the scenes displayed are any indication, he is in for some extreme encounters as the season unfolds.
Although it is likely this story could be copied from Harlem and placed in a completely different community, “Luke Cage” doesn’t ignore its setting. The opening episode references current social issues with being black in the United States. It doesn’t ignore what is happening as part of a greater social landscape. That is what makes the show so important.
In a time where there is clearly racial tension, it is imperative to create strong black characters that are reflective of the people in real communities all across this country. “Luke Cage” helps close the gap that mainstream Hollywood often perpetuates. At its core, the series gives audiences of many different backgrounds an opportunity to enjoy the kind of thrilling story Marvel produces on a regular basis, while treating them to a unique cultural experience not usually represented in such platforms.