By Alyssa Saunders
As a famous rapper once said, you’re nobody ’til somebody kills you, and when you’re great, it’s not murder, it’s assassinate. So what happens to the man who can’t be killed by normal means… especially if he’s black? Can he still be a great man, amongst a sea of murdered African-American males?
Luke Cage had a lot to live up to when it was first released in September. Not only were comic book fans of the character excited to see the series after his initial introduction on Jessica Jones, black audiences were hopeful to see how Cage’s racial identity would play on screen. With the superhero’s history, it’s important to understand why people are ready to see one of the rarest things: a black man celebrated for his ability to survive bullets, rather than memorialized for his death by a gun.
Luke Cage was created in the ’70s- a transformative time for African-Americans, when entertainment for and by black folks increased. “Blaxploitation” films became popular in this era, and depicted black men as proud, strong characters that rose above their poor, urban backgrounds to “fight the man”, usually a white authority figure.
Luke Cage’s superhero origin story follows a similar path: Cage (then Carl Lucas), is forced into a scientific procedure after he attempts to expose misconduct in the prison. The corrupt CO and sympathetic, yet self-serving, scientist who torture and change him are both white characters who attempt to tame Carl and use him. But in an obvious allusion to slavery, Lucas frees himself from bondage and escapes.
He now has bulletproof skin and superhuman strength, and while he is initially content with laying low and being a good husband and man, other forces conspire against him and turn him into a reluctant hero for hire. It’s a similar trope his future Defenders teammates follow as well: superhuman abilities created in an accident, and they decide to help the little guy rather than be a part of a larger initiative like the Avengers. but Luke Cage is different because his race has more to do with his identity, compared to Matt Murdoch’s staunch Catholicism or Jessica Jones’ PTSD.
While the series is rooted in ’70s pop culture, it is unflinching in its depiction of current issues in the black community, specifically black on black crime. Most of the aggressors in the show are people of color, not the snarling white stereotypes seen in blaxploitation films- a valid complaint critics have with the genre. Of course, police have a presence in the show, but they are there to help. The white, male detective could’ve easily been painted as the face of police brutality, but is instead treated as affable, if not inept, and his black, female partner carries the brunt of the police work in the series, weaving her way into the lives of Cage and other people in the community.
The baddies in the show are black or Hispanic men and women who, for the most part, do want to see their community flourish, but often let their greed and self interests get in the way of doing actual good, and create many innocent casualties.The closest Luke gets to being killed are bullets shot by his own brother. Pessimists might point out that lessening the negative impact of white characters in the show is an attempt to keep white viewers happy, but the strife within our own communities is not something the show wants to dumb down or ignore.
The references to murdered black men who gained fame and became immortalized through their violent deaths are rampant, especially throughout the first two episodes. Crispus Attucks, The Notorious B.I.G, Trayvon Martin and Martin Luther King Jr. are all used to examine the focus we place on black men who die by gun violence. Attucks in particular is memorialized in the second episode, as Cage explains to a young black punk who antagonizes him:
Do you even know who Crispus Attucks was? The first man to die for what became America. He could’ve acted scared when those Brits raised their guns. Blended in the crowd. But he stepped up! He paid with his life. But he started something.
The importance of mentioning this specific gun victim is that Attucks is remembered more for being a hero than for being just another black man dead in the streets.You could say the same about Martin Luther King Jr., but King was defined by his civil rights activism that ultimately got him killed. Attucks’ sacrifice had nothing to do with race, but with his passion for his country. Was it even possible for Attucks to blend into the crowd that day? Like Cage, did he feel more inclined to step up because he saw something bad happening, and was shot not because he was destined to by the color of his skin, but by the strength of his character?
This show examines gun violence in the black community in an often disjointed, sometimes disorganized way, but the message is clear: being a “bulletproof black man,” metaphorically or physically, is a rarity in this world. When every year African-American males are killed by compatriots or cops in record numbers, it’s refreshing to have a show that not only features a black male character in the main role, but also believably shows his vulnerability while celebrating his strength- something not usually shown on TV. As Luke Cage wears no costume but a simple hoodie indicative of Trayvon Martin, he bears the weights and hopes of the fictional and very real community he represents and fights for.
What did you think of Luke Cage‘s first season? Let us know in the comments below!