Netflix’s ‘Luke Cage’ succeeds with a Black role often neglected

by | Oct 5, 2016

Netflix seems to have successfully adapted a 1970s blaxploitation comic into a 13-episode, insanely relevant story about a bulletproof Black man and his journey to becoming a hero in Harlem, NYC.

Netflix seems to have successfully adapted a 1970s blaxploitation comic into a 13-episode, insanely relevant story about a bulletproof Black man and his journey to becoming a hero in Harlem, NYC.

Marvel’s highly anticipated series Luke Cage premiered over the weekend and it quickly became a hit with reports that the large amount of streaming traffic actually crashed the Netflix servers.

Actor Mike Colter brings our relatable hero Luke Cage to life in this series. Having such a strong resemblance to the character, Colter completely owns the role and plays him with such ease and magnitude that his casting seems ordained.


Cheo Hodari Coker, the director of the series, makes the conscious, unapologetic decision to show the very real violence that Black folks in Harlem, and around the U.S, experience.

Violence in Luke Cage’s story is constant and various in where it’s coming from and the form that it takes. From the beginning we meet Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (played by Netflix’s succesful House of Cards supporting star Mahershala Ali). Cottonmouth is a gang leader operating out of a club known as Harlem’s Paradise, along side his cousin Mariah Hill, a councilwoman in the middle of a re-election campaign.

Together, they operate and control Harlem’s underworld of drugs and arms dealing under the radar for Hill’s New Harlem Renaissance program aimed at maintaining Harlem’s mostly Black neighborhood and history.

Within the first few episodes we see Black and Latino people get killed as Cottonmouth and Hill attempt to increase their control over the city. As Luke Cage’s first heroic act, he intervenes as a young Latino man named Chico becomes a target of Cottonmouth, on behalf of Pop, a father figure to them both. Chico and two of his friends stole a million dollars from Cottonmouth that was intended to repay to Mariah.

Cottonmouth, feeling the scrambling at the repeated interventions from Cage and the pressure from Mariah and his boss referred to as Diamondback, becomes more dangerous. From the very beginning we have a story where violence is a very real possibility if it service the needs of those with power.

The violence from Cottonmouth isn’t the only source of violence we see in Cage’s story. Police violence comes to the forefront of the story as the series progresses. About midway through, an old cop is killed as part of a plan to frame Cage. This act throws the police department into a frenzy, they fan out into the street targeting black men with hoodies, searching for Cage or for anyone who may have information on him.

As a result a young black boy gets assaulted by a cop, bringing further trauma to the community.

These moment directly mirror initiatives like NYC’s Stop and Frisk and the very real danger of overzealous cops hurting innocent Black people with force and violence.

As the series progresses, the city police force is armed with weapons and bullets designed to pierce Luke Cage’s “bulletproof” skin and kill him. Militarized police forces like Harlem’s in the show aren’t figments of the writer’s imagination. We’ve seen these heavily armed police forces here during protests in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore.

The police search the city for Cage, who is on the run, however Harlemites show solidarity with Cage after a cameo appearance by Method Man, Sway, and Heather B. Colter.

Before long, Black men around the city are wearing bullet-ridden hoodies, a nod to a momento left given to Method Man by Cage, but more honestly, a reference to Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Black teenager who was killed by George Zimmerman in 2012.

We see how he and other characters respond and navigate through this violence in their own narratives.

The main cast of Luke Cage is entirely black with each characters having unique depth and complexity. Cage is known by all as being bulletproof and invincible and that has been played up in the show, juxtaposing him with the grim reality of unarmed Black folks being shot and killed by police. But Cage is the special exception, the one no man can hurt.

But in true super hero fashion, Cage’s super strength and invincibility all mask the deep pain and tumultuous experiences that run through his past and present, but the past of all Black people as well.

He isn’t the righteous hero that Captain America or Thor are, but much more complicated, and for that reason, much more realistic – the direct connection he feels to the legacy of discrimination pours through the same skin bullets can’t penetrate. This complexity is extended to other characters in the series who often face moral dilemmas that are inherently influenced by the realities Black people face daily.

We are introduced to another Black superhero, Misty Knight played by Simone Missick, whose relationship to the city is similarly personal like Cage’s. Harlem is her home and she sees it slowly crumbling as Cottonmouth and Hill seize power. She is easily the most competent cop and character on the show, but she is almost always undermined while working within the system.

After an encounter with an attacker, she struggles with having control of herself and her city and the show portrays that with so much honesty and integrity. she’s not the stereotypical female supporting character — Misty is by no means a sidekick to Cage, she often finds herself hunting him down even if its to warn him. But, either way, she has her own agency to approach the crime in Harlem the way she sees fit and has her own story and issues to work through.

Even Cottonmouth as a villain has an intriguing story. This dark, harsh, crime lord has a backstory filled with abuse, death, and violence that shaped him into the man he is today. The complexity of these Black characters is refreshing to say the least. Even minor characters, who may have more stereotypical roles, still have have integrity and interesting stories.

Though it is heavily based in reality, the show often plays homage to its comic book origins.

During a flashback scene of how Luke Cage gained his powers, there is a moment where he is dressed exactly like the early comic drawings of his character. Also, the use of his catch phrase, “Sweet Christmas” and general comic corniness adds that levity to the show’s otherwise more serious tone.

For all the good this show offers, it wasn’t without its issues. There are more than a few twists within the show that seem sudden and aren’t well introduced. The appearance and development of Willis Stryker (aka the Diamondback,) as the major villain of the story seemed rushed and a bit flat. His backstory is complex, yes, but the way it is presented is a bit boring and doesn’t at all explain the lengths he goes too to oppose Luke Cage.

There are a few episodes where the dialogue seems a bit robotic and predictable and fail to trigger the emotions that the writers (we hope) intended.

Another issue I’ve always had with the character of Luke Cage is that he personifies the ideas of Black people that reinforce problematic beliefs about Black bodies. There has always been this idea of Black people posing more physical prowess and Black comic characters often play off that stereotype, Black Panther being an example of that perception.

Ideas that Black people are more resistant to pain were seen in the 1991 Rodney King beating. The video shows King being beaten by eight or more cops and then attempting to rise to his feet prompting them to strike him again. The cops in the case got off because they were able to beat the excessive force charge with the video, showing King still moving after being beaten.

The myth of the Black body being more resilient is the premise of Luke Cage being bulletproof and invincible. Despite him being fictional, he the character projects an insidious idea of the Black bodies being able to overcome violence and fear.

Overall, Luke Cage is a fantastic show. From the moment it began, I enjoyed seeing the narratives of Black and Brown people within Harlem, and how the city exists with Luke Cage.

When both television and cinematic spaces are white dominated, to have a show that features Black and Brown almost exclusively is a much needed and refreshing change of pace. Coker and his team masterfully weaves reality and fiction with this new installment of the Marvel universe. As Method Man said in the show, “There’s something powerful about seeing a black man that bulletproof.”

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner

more in community

Its here! The RVAMAG & GayRVA Reader’s Poll 2022

We have never been the sort of publications to bombard you with polls year after year... but let's face it, every now and then a heat check is in order. After a global pandemic --- Richmond's entire culture has undergone a big change and with this reader's poll, we...

The Last Richmond Fall 2022 Photo Set Of The Year!

To be totally honest, there are only so many photos of the city skyline or James River we can look at. We get a ton of people sending us this stuff everyday. That's totally cool (and we support this happening) but at some point we gotta call it and let our audience...

Goodbye Halloweek 2022! The Richmond Halloween Parade Photos!

Every community needs a few traditions that are homegrown and represent the overall vibe of the people in it. Dominion Energy Riverrock is a great event. The Sport Backer Marathon races are a pain to drive around but hell yeah, let's get people healthy! But think...

Virginia Patients Impacted By Adderall Shortage, Doctors Say

The Food and Drug Administration added Adderall to its drug shortage website last month, and doctors say Virginia patients being treated for ADHD are feeling the impact. The leading reasons for the shortage, which primarily affects immediate-release Adderall and...

The HALLOWEEK 2022 Photo Dump!

The weather was amazing this weekend and people were out celebrating the best holiday of the year, Halloween! A great mix of creativity, some creepy-ness, friends and parties -- Halloweek brings out all the fun freaks downtown and here is the proof. Hot dogging it at...

The Richmond Zombie Walk 2022 Photos!

The 17th Annual Richmond Zombie Walk rambled, groaned and dragged its way through Carytown this past weekend. Photographer Dave Parrish was on hand to document the entire thing.  


Pin It on Pinterest