Luke Cage is the first black male character to lead his own show in the Marvel TV universe. The Netflix series also signals a major shift in the type of casts—and narratives—we see explored in small screen comic book adaptations. The Luke Cage comic is well known for tackling important and timely issues within black culture, spanning everything from police brutality and drugs to empowerment, identity and survival. Originally known as “Powerman,” Cage’s comics have, for a significant part of their run, been incredibly self-aware, culturally relevant and politically resonant stories. The hope was for the series to continue that trend. But no one could be sure the comic’s commitment to exploring the intricacies and subtleties of black culture would endure in the series until it dropped on September 30.
Now we have it, and nearly everything about it—from its casting (Mike Colter, Alfre Woodard, Rosario Dawson, Mahershala Ali) to its music (a hip-hop driven soundtrack strung together by Adrian Young and Ali Shaheed Muhammad) to its locations (barber shops, night clubs and famous Harlem street corners) and themes (cultural autonomy, the origins of black entrepreneurship, and social justice)—proves that Luke Cage is an unapologetically black TV series. Here our five moments from the show that carefully illustrate how the latest installment in The Defenders series relished in and respected its own blackness.
Considering the overwhelming (and glorious) blackness of Luke Cage, the entirety of “Moment of Truth” earns a spot on this list. The episode serves as a gateway into the rest of the series look at black identity, history and culture. Not only are we introduced to what will become one of the most hip-hop driven soundtracks for a TV show ever (the first episode kicks things off with a performance by the Raphael Saadiq), we bear witness to one of the blackest cast of characters I’ve ever seen—and I’m not just talking about skin color. The series’ first episode offers us unprecedented diversity in the roles and identities of black people, from personality to profession, hairstyles to generational slang. Even the title sequence is splattered with references to Harlem’s signature skyline and historical infrastructure (The Apollo and Malcolm X Blvd, anyone?). It also offers us our first look at the series very black-centric themes, including the messages of Harlem as a cultural epicenter, the invisibility of the black man’s condition, and that black lives matter. The latter is a message that Mariah Dillard (Woodard) addresses head on, stating, “For black lives to matter, black history and ownership must matter.” What makes this even more powerful is that right before she says it, she name drops black intellectuals like Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Malcolm X—all former Harlem residents and all people who, in their own ways, were fighting for the BLM movement’s message long before our time.
“Moment of Truth” doesn’t just talk to the talk with its characters though. It walks the walk, starting with its low-key exploration of black autonomy, success and ownership through two quintessential representations of black identity, community and history: the barbershop and the music club. Of course both Pop’s Barbershop and Cottonmouth/Cornell Stoke’s Harlem’s Paradise go on to serve as settings for major plot developments. But it’s their ability to authentically illustrate how both spaces still serve as social hubs in the black community, and as homes for black culture’s longstanding intra-communal ideology battles, that ultimately makes them so relevant to the Luke Cage story. Oh, and let’s not forget to mention that steamy love scene between Cage and Misty Knight (Simone Missick). That understated, but unadulterated display of black bodies entwined is still giving me goosebumps. Ultimately, “Moment of Truth” solidly and believably launches us into Cage’s very black Harlem, and proves how much this series knows about the history of—and conversation around—its black hero.
An article of clothing once used to justify the shooting of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old killed on his way home from a convenience store in Florida in 2012, has since become a widely recognized symbol of the modern racial justice movement. It’s a symbol that Luke Cage’s first season cleverly embraces. So much so, the bulletproof man adopts it as his version of a superhero suit. Scene after scene Cage stands stall, unflinching as a barrage of cop and gangster bullets rain down on him from all sides. It’s a not-so-subtle finger to the critics who declare the clothes on a (black) man’s back define the kind of person—and threat—he is. On Cage, it doesn’t function as a source of fear, but rather as a source of hope. Cage’s choice to wear the bullet tattered hoodie turns it from a grim reminder of our culture’s dangerous game of respectability politics to a reclaimed act of defiance (and fully mounted resistance) during episode 12, “Soliloquy of Chaos.”
After running into Method Man in the midst of stopping a corner store robbery, Cage engages in a fanboy moment with the iconic rapper before swapping hoodies in order to continue traveling the city without being spotted. Prior to the Method Man meet-up, the “holey hoodie” was a dangerous target on Cage’s back. But not long after that memorable “run-in,” that corner store begins churning out their own holed hoodies, and it’s not to make a dime. Instead, wearers use the clothing as a way to throw the police off of Cage’s scent as he works on restoring safety to Harlem. The entire sequence is set to Adrian Young, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Method Man’s “Bulletproof Love,” a lyrical homage to the cultural implications and empowering presence of a black, bulletproof superhero. What once made men like Cage a target of stop and frisk, street harassment, and murder becomes their—and Cage’s—greatest shield.
In “Take It Personal” (episode 10), Luke finds himself back in the hands of one of the men who helped make him during his stay in Seagate. While Luke is essentially the result of a violently racist correctional officer’s attack, up until this point, the series never outright addresses where Officer Albert Rackam’s hatred and harassment comes from. Instead, it uses the relationship between Luke and Rackam as commentary on the inherent structural and systematic racism faced by black people within the justice system. That changes though once we see our bulletproof man lying in a tub of acid while Claire—with the help of Dr. Noah Burstein—attempt to remove Diamond Back’s exploded bullet from our hero’s abdomen. As Claire and Burstein frantically work at altering Luke’s molecular make-up in order to pierce his skin, Claire pushes for them to recreate the deadly temperature conditions that first turned Luke into a nearly indestructible man. Upon hearing this, Burstein aggressively resists, arguing that those conditions were not in fact intentional, but rather the result of a violent attack by a now very dead, and very “racist asshole.”
The line itself is more jarring than surprising, and ultimately underscores how little the series skirts around the actual issues it’s addressing. We live in a culture where a black person calling someone a racist can be seen as an offense equal to that of actual racism. It’s led to a silencing of black voices about lived experiences with racialized discrimination, as well as a certain hesitation from others to step up and call a spade a spade—even when it’s the difference between life and death, justice or injustice. In communities whose existence and turmoil, both past and present, is so directly and indirectly fueled by racism, calling the actions what they are without apology or hesitation is exactly what we need not just to affirm what’s happening, but to change it. Luke Cage made it clear that it has no intention of perpetuating a false equivalency. It will call a spade a spade, and not think twice about it.
In episode five, “Just to Get a Rep,” we are taken to Pop’s memorial and shown a heartfelt glimpse at what made the incredible man so genuinely respected—even by those responsible for his murder. “When some people saw a war zone, Pop always saw a pasture, a breeding ground for artistry and greatness,” Cage says speaking at to the church crowd. “Where some people saw hard rock kids… he saw precious jewels.” TV has an incredibly complex relationship with black life and death. From the characters to the real life people on our small screens, black bodies—and the communities they come from—are constantly exploited to help push what is often a more insidious agenda. An agenda that treats the black community’s resulting image as an afterthought. From fueling inspiration porn narratives and perpetuating black fear myths to aiding the emotional arcs of white heroes or being used to justify their “innate” villainy. In the midst of gunfire and gangs, art and creativity are rarely allowed to thrive honestly and unapologetically in our representations of blackness. That’s not true for the world of Luke Cage.
Here these things exist side-by-side without judgement, and the latter is never overshadowed. This moment during Pop’s memorial calls on every scene before and after it that transcends the stereotypical narratives about black lives and black life. Mariah may be crooked, but she’s not wrong in that Harlem’s cultural and artistic history is one of the richest and most influential in the world. Harlem’s Paradise is a center of violence and illegal activity, but in many ways it is also the cultural heart of Harlem, with the likes of The Delfonics, Jidenna, and Faith Evans gracing its stages and Biggie keeping a watchful eye. When a young boy sees an easy rob, Cage sees a black man standing in front of a building named after one of black history’s most important figures: Crispus Attucks. When Cornell sees an old building, Mariah sees the future of housing in her community. Luke proves being in jail doesn’t mean you can’t be aware of Lisa Bonet 2.0 or keep up with Beyonce. Walking down the street, dancing in the club, barreling into a building, the recognizable voices of Nina Simone and Wu-Tang Clan waft over every scene. Every episode is named after a song by Gang Starr and you can barely go an episode without hearing about the great words of Walter Mosley and Donald Goines, seeing appearances by legends like Dapper Dan. Here, violence does not define Harlem—a symbol of hope and a cultural jewel. And it certainly does not define black people, something blacks already know, but that the rest of our culture has yet to catch on to. Harlem’s criminal underbelly, like any of New York’s other defended boroughs, lies at the feet of its vibrant, thriving and empowering identity.
There’s quite a bit to unpack when it comes to the themes, messages and cultural connotations of Luke Cage, but one thing we can’t ignore is the hair. That’s because hair has served as one of the greatest representations (both figurative and literal) of American culture’s oppression of blackness. Straight out of the gate we’re offered visions of women with braids, kinky twists, perms and sew-ins. Our black men have their edges clean, sport glossy bald heads, and low-cut afros. At one point Luke even sports a wild, untamed nappy main and beard in the middle of his prison sentence term. Like much of everything else, hair acts as a metaphor to our characters’ conditions and their relation to their own blackness. You could call it all carefree if it didn’t feel so utterly intentional and powerful.