How Luke Cage and 13th Rethink Black Heroes—and Reclaim the Black Image

TV Features Luke Cage
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How <i>Luke Cage</i> and <i>13th</i> Rethink Black Heroes&#8212;and Reclaim the Black Image

Late this summer, there began an inspired reimagining of the inner lives of black Americans. From Atlanta to Insecure, Queen Sugar, blackish and Underground, an empowered and imaginative Black creative class has emerged to revisit—even revolutionize—portrayals of black love, life, ambition, family, and, in the case of Ava DuVernay’s 13th and Cheo Hodari Coker’s Luke Cage, the black criminal. And with the Black Lives Matter movement remaking politics and calling into question the long-suffered—but rarely spoken aloud— burdens of black criminality, the revolution in black portrayals gave both Netflix offerings more urgency and prescience than almost anything else onscreen this year.

13th is a measured, compelling study of the American government’s long history of creating and capitalizing on images of black criminality. Compiling interviews with an array of pedigreed activists, scholars, lawyers and, most crucially, former convicts, 13th deconstructs the centuries-old image of the black criminal, birthed with the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery—except for prisoners. It’s a historically grounded examination of anti-black oppression and its many permutations.

Luke Cage is as much a parable of the ways black life is inhibited by oppression as it as a fantasy of the power to break free from it. Given impregnable skin and super strength in a freak accident, Cage is a superhuman that, but for his gentlemanly nature, could break any chain, any prison, and any person that tries to hold him back.

While the sparkling ‘60s-inspired soundtrack and dynamic leading performances make for entertaining superhero fare, though, Luke Cage isn’t as clear-eyed as 13th in its politics (and it tries to be very political), a misstep reflected in the maddeningly inconsistent characterization of Cage himself. He’s a reticent guardian, a cocky playboy, a booming “bring the muthafuckin’ ruckus” action hero, a victim of a racist police state, and a condescending believer in the “old school” that hates being called “nigga.” What emerges is a hazily defined image of what Luke Cage is actually trying to say about the politics of black life.

This is what’s at the core of the mixed reception the show received among younger black reviewers. Luke Cage falls victim to the same bias that afflicts much early black nationalist work: it conflates black masculinity with blackness: The struggles of a black woman affect only black women, but the struggles of a black man affect all black people. As the presumed “default,” masculinity has long been the blank slate for political parables because women’s issues are seen as too niche to be broadly generalized. Thus, Cage is meant to signify black power, progress, victimhood, innocence, heroism. He’s over-symbolic, and the show’s political impact is lessened for it. By the end of Luke Cage, I still didn’t have a firm grip on Cage’s motivations and personality.

13th, meanwhile, is focused, fluent and composed, persuasively connecting the transatlantic slave trade to the modern American prison system and Black Lives Matter movement without bombast or hyperbole. But the sheen of timeliness can’t conceal all its flaws. The opening sequence is hurried and confusing, jerking from native Africans arriving in America as slaves to the 1960s civil rights movements in fewer than 10 minutes. From there, it builds chronologically, until backtracking asides on Angela Davis and Mamie-Elizabeth Till. Then, just before its last act, 13th rewinds again for a heavy-handed sequence of loosely connected images of black protest. These diversions break the smooth and smartly composed pace, like clicking out to unrelated links while reading a well-written article.

13th’s narrative occasionally falls victim to misdirection, but it’s consistent in its message: Racism is a business. As New Yorker staff writer Jelani Cobb tells the camera early on, “One thing we have to bear in mind, when we think about slavery, it was an economic system.” 13th is an investigation of how the prison system began to stand in for the system of slavery as an economic crutch. Following the 13th Amendment, scores of young, black men were arrested and imprisoned for minor crimes as a means of re-appropriating the black body as a producer of the menial labor that propelled trade.

And so it is today. By scrutinizing black communities with an overzealous police presence and heavily criminalizing black behavior, the American government (Republicans and Democrats alike) covertly built the prison industrial complex over decades, brick by brick, turning Black mothers, fathers, sisters and children into cogs in the inhumane, moneymaking prison machine.

At its best, Luke Cage focuses on how to navigate these systems and still come out alive. Early in the show, Councilwoman Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) holds a rally admonishing the NYPD for police brutality when a reticent witness is assaulted during an interrogation. Soon after, she facilitates arming the very same NYPD with special bullets that may even give Cage pause. She has a quick exchange with her partner: “I’m a politician, not an arms dealer” she says. “What’s the difference?” he replies. “You sell fear.”

Fear is invaluable. It creates need. Mariah and her partner flood Harlem with fears of a dangerous “superhero turned super menace” on the loose, then sell experimental weapons contracts to Uncle Sam, militarizing the very department she knows targets black people.

“You make the poison, then you sell the cure,” her partner tells her.

It’s a sharp reference to a historical moment explored in-depth in 13th. The stellar midpoint of the film connects the “tough on crime” policies of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s—espoused by Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton—to the infamous “war on drugs,” a bald-faced lie that led to police militarization, mandatory minimum sentencing, and a gluttonous system of punishment that devours communities whole for profit. Politicians spent years trying to shout over each other with exaggerated, alarmist rhetoric about black dealers and “crack babies” flooding suburbs and corrupting white children. Drugs were the disease and guns, prisons, and the police state were the “cure.” Decades later, black communities are still suffering the effects of both.

The narratives and nuances of criminality in Luke Cage are sharpest when Cage himself takes a backseat and the show shifts the focus onto its female stars: Mariah, Claire, Misty and her boss, Priscilla. It’s not just because it’s already groundbreaking to have women of color feature prominently in a superhero show, though that is exciting. 13th, if nothing else, shows us the damage of generations of a racist elite controlling the image of blackness. Having characters navigating blackness and womanhood and these compounding oppressive systems offers many more opportunities to show the range of relationships we all have with criminality and carceral justice, pushing at the boundaries of typical portrayals of blackness.

13th is excellent, but in trying to contextualize the entire history of anti-black oppression in under two hours, it just doesn’t have the time to show the complementary, counterintuitive, even counterproductive relationships we form with the systems that define us before we can even name them. To that end, Luke Cage and 13th make for vital companion pieces after a summer defined by the frayed relationship between black Americans and the police state. Both take black struggle and turn it into celebrations of black heroes, black history and the reclaimed black image.

Sidney Fussell is a critic and reporter covering technology, culture, and gaming. You can follow him on Twitter @sidneyfussell.

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