Am I allowed to talk about Luke Cage?
Binge complete. I just finished watching Luke Cage on Netflix. Much like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, it was very well done. I’m not sure I should talk about it much further. I will, because I often do things I shouldn’t do, but I’m probably asking for trouble. Yes, that is largely due to the color of the stuff that keeps my internal organs internal.
By the way, there may be some small spoilers here. I’ll do my best to avoid it, but no promises.
I have seen a fair amount of online criticism about Luke Cage being too black. Not the character specifically, but the cast and plot as a whole. I’ve seen even more criticism of this criticism. I’m not here to criticize but to consider why Netflix/Marvel made that choice and why I agree with it.
Let’s acknowledge that the cast is mostly black. (I can say that, right?) Not all, but mostly. I’m pretty sure Detective Scarfe and Shades are the only white guys with major roles. (Maybe that one politician, and the racist corrections officer, and the doctor…but it’s not about keeping score.) So what? We’ll skip over the argument that many shows would be hard pressed to find two major characters cast by minorities because it’s been done to death and really isn’t relevant.
This is a show set in Harlem. Yes, Harlem. Are there only black people in Harlem? Of course not. However keeping Harlem black is one of Mariah Dillard’s driving motivations. Is that racist? Part of the point of the show is to make us ask that question. Us being all of us, not one race or another. Wanting to preserve art and culture aren’t racist. Wanting to see your neighborhood thrive without driving out the lower income families that live there sounds like a great goal. Wanting to exclude people of other races sounds kinda racist. But the goal and motivation turn out beside the point when you look at the methods being used by Mariah and her cousin Cottonmouth to accomplish that goal. It isn’t the motivation that makes the bad guy, it’s the actions.
I felt that the show went out of its way to paint Harlem from a lot of angles. Yes, there is crime. Yes, there is culture. Yes, gentrification is occurring. Yes, there is a strong resistance to that by the locals. This is what makes Harlem a compelling setting. There is a lot of conflict and stress and hope and despair inherent in the neighborhood itself. Harlem is a character in the show, probably the most complex character in the cast. A setting that contributes to the story, even drives the story, is a huge asset to storytelling. And that setting is viewed the most intimately through the eyes of the people most connected to it.
I’ll admit, I had a few problems with the storytelling. The ethnicity of the cast wasn’t on the list. Why didn’t they ever mention the bar that Luke was working at in Jessica Jones; you know, the one that blew up? (Maybe I missed that reference.) How did Luke and Claire apparently make a round trip from New York to Georgia in a car in a day? Why didn’t Luke’s childhood boxing training come up in the prison scenes like they did at the end? (I don’t think that qualifies as a spoiler, does it?)
There were also elements of the storytelling that impressed me, particularly because they didn’t pull the punches (much) on race-sensitive issues. The suggestion that “all the black fathers are gone” was pretty hard-hitting, even if that stereotype (like most stereotypes) isn’t accurate. The relations between the black community and the police was perhaps downgraded (especially considering the current climate) but not ignored.
So why are people complaining about it? Because Luke Cage was different in a way that made people uncomfortable. I confess, I felt a little uncomfortable at times watching the show. Not in an offended way, but in an outsider-looking-in kind of way. I felt like I was seeing into a world I wasn’t meant to see. (That feeling lessened the further into the show I got, when the hero/villain plot took over the story.) Being an outsider is uncomfortable, but also eye-opening. And somehow the show managed to give me that feeling without completely alienating me. I don’t need to have the same skin color as a character to empathize with them. I was able to feel for Luke and Misty and Pop, even at times Cottonmouth and Mariah. That’s good storytelling, anyway you slice it.