Black Realism in Marvel’s Luke Cage

So let’s talk about Black television for a minute.

In an industry saturated with shows featuring predominately White cast-members, Black audiences are finally enjoying an influx of Black prime-time entertainment. Courtesy of powerhouses such as filmmaker Ava DuVernay and Writer/Producer Shonda Rhimes, programs like How to Get Away with Murder, Empire, Queen Sugar, Being Mary Jane are discussed on social media threads.  Among these dramas, though, is one caught and retained my attention:

Luke Cage.

Based on the Marvel comic book series, The show chronicles Luke Cage, a reserved, elusive, thoughtful Black man with unbreakable skin and immortality.  Before the groundbreaking web series debuted on Netflix on September 30, activists and comic book geeks anticipated its arrival. While many folks discussed the differences between the comic and more modernized version of the characters, others focused on the show’s political significance.  I myself shared the official trailer on my Facebook page, geeking out while watching actor Michael Colter calmly approached his adversaries as bullets ricocheted off his chest.

Yet when I was finally able to watch the series (Netflix crashed on the day Luke Cage debuted), I wasn’t ready for the pro-Blackness that played on my laptop screen.  Everything from the Black political literature to the music spoke to me.  Its blaxplotation-que references apologizes for the actual 1970s films that caricatured us and African culture.  Luke’s strength and immortality represents the resilience of Black people in general (and with the current political climate, I needed that reminder that we are survivors).  But what I truly appreciate is how the storylines in Luke Cage parallels the reality of Black people.

Let’s start with the origin of Luke’s abilities—how and where he gains them.  Known as Carl Lucas, Luke is imprisoned for a crime he hasn’t committed.  And while locked up, he obtains super powers when a cellular regeneration experiment goes horribly awry.  The fact that Luke’s in jail for absolutely nothing accurately reflects how the judicial and prison system targets Black people. According to the recent Federal Bureau of Prisons statistics, Black men are 5.1 more times likely than their male counterparts to be incarcerated in a federal prison.  As far as Black women, the number of Black women prison has increased to 700% between the years 1980 and 2014.  In fact, they are most likely to be placed behind bars, according to the Bureau of Justice.

There’s also the fact that Luke is experimented on against his will. In the episode “Step in the Arena,” Dr. Reva Connors assures Luke and the other inmates in her support group that no experimentations are being conducted at Seagate Penitentiary.   However, that turns out not to be the case.  In reality, government regulations prohibit prisoners and other vulnerable populations from being experimented on without written consent.  Until well into the 1970s, however, Black prisoners and mental health patients are used as test subjects, usually given false information by White researchers conducting these experiments.  This has caused the deaths of many poor Black people who’ve been injected with cancer cells and other deceases.  This is one of the many reasons why—to this day—Black folks distrusts the medical profession.

Speaking of professions, this brings me to the portrayal of law enforcement on the show. And just the cops on the show, there are those in real life who are secretly employed by crime lords.  If y’all watch documentaries like “Mr. Untouchable” and “Cocaine Cowboys,” there are numerous accounts of officers getting paid for doing everything from tampering with evidence to murdering witnesses willing to testify in court.  And because they’re “blue,” they’re more likely going to get away with it.  Furthermore, corrupt officers and crime lords attempt to break the will of Black folks who challenge corruption by targeting their support system. The majority of the officers Luke encounter, for instance, utilize their resources and information against the superhero’s support system. Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes exercises similar tactics when Luke dismantles his business.  If he remains silent about Cottonmouth’s crimes or dismantle his support system by framing him either murder or vandalism, the powers that be would ultimately break his spirit.

This incessant need to control Luke’s personal power is one of the reasons why the NYPD harass young Black and Brown men in “Take It Personal.”  In that episode, Luke is framed for a cop’s murder and the cops go off and shake down every single person who might look like a Luke Cage supporter. This is similar to the stop and frisk program that once went down in New York City some years back. Black and Brown people (mainly young Black and Latino men) are stopped at random and frisk by officers.  The said officers would then claim that the person “looked suspicious” though there is no proof.  This discriminatory practice continued until it is considered unconstitutional by Judge Shira Scheindlin in 2014.

And I bring up stop and frisk because knowing our rights against law enforcement and other industrial complexes is yet another precaution we Black folks have to take.  We’re often targeted and/or murdered by various industrial complexes, so being armed with information needs to be a requirement in order to stay alive.  Do you know you’re not obligated to speak to the police?  Or allow them to search your property without a warrant? Or even let them hold your attention?  If you said “No,” unfortunately, you’re not alone because it’s common.

The cops acknowledge that many folks aren’t aware of their legal rights, so the former employs intimidation to invoke fear and compliance.  But if those apprehended know the necessary information, then the fear tactics will be ineffective. This is why I love the interaction between a detective and Lonnie—the son of Patricia, a single mother going to law school to become a lawyer. While being interrogated at the precinct by the officer, the teen informs him of the illegalities of him being detained without the presence of his mother, which is illegal.

And did so with confidence (Thanks Patricia!).

That scene is important because the writers are demonstrating for the Black audience how to use knowledge against government-sanctioned oppressors. Not everyone is blessed with a parent who’s an aspiring attorney, so please educate yourself as much as possible. The more you know, the more confident you are when dealing with law enforcement.  And confidence reduces anxiety. Long story short, not only will self-education save your life, but it’s actually a form of self-care.

So is acknowledging sexual abuse and intergenerational trauma—another issue that the Luke Cage series covers very well.  Councilwoman Mariah Dillard is not only the member of a known crime family, but is a survivor of child sexual abuse. As a young girl, she is molested by her Uncle Pete, who still has access to her and Mama Mabel’s business until he is killed by teenage Cornell.

If y’all been watching the show, notice that Mariah’s offender isn’t punished on her behalf.  In fact, her molestation is swept under the rug as she’s sent off to a boarding school. On the surface Mama Mabel was trying to keep her safe. But by not removing Pete from the home and business, however, she basically blames Mariah for her perpetrator’s behavior. In real life, young Black women and young girls are usually held responsible for the sexual violence inflicted upon them.  And the offender is someone they know most likely, so they are going to show up at the house with impunity. Which is what happens to Mariah.  The moment Pete glances at her seductively, she averts her eyes away from his uncomfortably. Her body language suggests to the viewers that she wants nothing to do with her uncle’s advances, yet is most likely blamed her the man’s behavior thus receiving very little to adequate support. So it’s no wonder she snaps when her cousin Cottonmouth accuses her of enjoying her abuse.

Despite all she went through, Mariah is one of the strongest female characters I’ve ever known.  There are many think pieces about Luke and his political significance, but the women in the series are just as important.  Characters like Detective Mercedes “Misty” Knight, Claire Temple (my absolute favorite), Inspector Priscilla Ridley, and others are strong, intelligent, independent, resilient, street smart and so forth, utilizing their skills and inner resources as survival mechanisms (some of them work alongside Luke are accomplices in their own way).  These characters are no different from the real Black and Brown female activists who sacrifice their time, energy, freedom, and even their lives for the cause and their male comrades.

And, like real life female freedom fighters, these characters are accomplices to a fault. There’s this notion that women (Black women in particular) are to master their emotions at all times.  While pride is a wonderful trait to have, wearing an emotional shield continuously can also be our undoing.  The reason why Detective Knight almost loses her mind is because she thinks her vulnerability is the equivalent of lacking control–which places her in harm’s way psychologically.  Her mentality is a prime example of the Strong Black Woman stereotype that’s been forced upon Black women.  Again, there’s this reasoning that we’re strong, therefore we can handle anything thrown at us.  But that’s not true and it’s extremely tiring—as Detective Knight demonstrates.

As you can see, I love Luke Cage.  Its realism, complex characters, obvious admiration of Harlem for its identity and culture enriches the series.  For me, it’s more than a show about a Black superhero with unbreakable skin.  It mirrors the injustices Black people endure as a people and how corrupt industrial complexes attempt to annihilate our spirits—all to no avail.

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