You Want Some?
A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Diversity has become a buzzword more often than it has become practice and that in and of itself is frustrating and indeed, insulting. When a marginalized individual, a person of color, a woman, and or someone from the LGBTQ community to name a few, want their stories told on screen, that desire is treated as if it is a niche desire. When it is fulfilled in any way, one will see a plethora of articles about how “this [insert actor or film/television series here] is shattering the ceiling of Hollywood.” Rami Malek’s (Mr. Robot) win for Best Actor in a Drama Series at the recent Emmys is an example. After his deserved win, a Hollywood press went ecstatic that they can tout their progress after a non-white man won the award after eighteen years. Next year a white man may win the award once more but in that case, expect a deluge of articles about how diverse the nominees were. Susanne Bier and Jill Troloway won for Best Directing in a Limited Series (The Night Manager) and Comedy Series (Transparent), respectively, but that doesn’t mean that we have all of a sudden arrived at a Renaissance for women behind the camera. We marginalized folk are expected to be grateful for the small amount of opportunities available for our stories to be told and the overall negligible times those stories get lauded, which is not going to happen considering that The Revenant was up for Best Picture. What would help considerably is marginalized storytellers, from directors to writers to actors, coming forth and telling their own stories. That isn’t to say that their stories can’t be told otherwise, but that personal perspective is critical if we wish to truly progress in this specific context. Jessica Jones, the Marvel property arguably the most intricately tied to Luke Cage, benefited immensely with having a woman at the helm. Luke Cage similarly benefits from having a black show runner in Cheo Hodari Coker, who understands the culture and historical significance of Harlem in a way someone who isn’t a black individual in America simply can’t.
Even if one doesn’t understand all of the references and cultural motifs present from the opening credits onwards, it’s vital to have someone who understands them presenting them to the audience in a mote understood context. The barbershop, a cultural fixture in black narratives in the modern age, features prominently in the pilot as a place of refuge for Luke and wayward youth alike. The owner of the barbershop is an ex-gangster named Henry Hunter, affectionately referred to as “Pop.” Pop’s past pushes forth his desire to create a place of safety for youth that may find themselves on the streets. He sees them as if they were his own children and in Luke, he sees perhaps the son to whom he has the greatest connection. How much Luke has revealed to others in terms of the extent of his powers remains to be seen, but his conversation with Pop reveals a degree of intimacy that he perhaps has yet to garner with anyone else. To Pop, his gifts are well, a gift to be used to help those whom are less fortunate and dealing with injustice. It’s a worldview that most people whom aren’t in Luke’s shoes would share, but Luke as expected sees his “gifts” as something else entirely. He sees them as the consequences of torture, of him being used as an object while he was in prison. Those gifts created a prison of punishment and what he seemingly wants is a way where that prison doesn’t suffocate him entirely. It’s an understandable position, for as he discovers at the end of the episode, there’s no limitation to how many individuals would want him to be their protector. He doesn’t want to be a superhero, to be the sort of larger than life figure embodied in Mahershala Ali’s Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes. Luke simply wants to be a decent man who helps others when they need, but on his own terms. He simply doesn’t want to be owned by anyone nor does he wish to own anyone himself. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the larger than life superheroes, even if it arrives with the inevitable knowledge that that desire for simplicity simply isn’t going to hold for the time being.
Luke Cage is an important character for his image alone. During a time and place where black men and women are targeted by law enforcement at much higher rates than whites, seeing a black, bulletproof man in a hoodie speaks volumes in ways other characters simply can’t. Mike Colter, giving a tremendous performance in the titular role, notes that the hoodie was a nod to Trayvon Martin, the young teenager that was gunned down in Florida and others like him who almost never received any justice for the crimes committed against them. The black figure strikes several chords in popular culture, few of them allowing for complexity while understanding what being black means to the characters themselves. They’re almost always drug dealers and addicts, rarely figures who earn our empathy. Their bodies are made out to be eroticized but in a way that renders them dangerous, never attractive. Black bodies have often been depicted in ways that gives birth to first and foremost fear. The infamous The Birth of a Nation depicted black men as horrifying, savage monsters whose lack of humanity made them pursue white women across long distances so they could take advantage of their chastity. Such racism, coupled with an orthodox take on sexuality, was incredibly damaging. In Luke Cage, there’s a celebration of the black body that isn’t enshrined in the fear of blackness that is so prevalent in this so-called “post-racial society”. The black body in Luke Cage is formidable but desirable, erotic without the ugly undertones of predatory behavior. The approach is necessary, as necessary as it is to break any specific sexual stereotype sticking to a specific ethnicity. Seeing bodies of different types and skin colors in a context where they are desirable but not objectified (a fine balance to strike) is a vital aspect to breaking that cycle of dehumanization.
Moment of Truth is a pilot, but it suffers the most from characters who appear simply to be ciphers up to this juncture and ones that are intriguing but for right now are relegated to the sidelines. Ali acts the hell out of Stokes, a gangster who wears the veneers of respectability and sees the nickname “Cottonmouth” as a direct attack on that veneer. Luke ascribes to be something that has a true decency and Stokes ascribes to wanting the decency of the name but not the act. Other than that bit of complexity, however, the pilot doesn’t give Stokes much more to work with, leaving him emptier than he should have been for now. The immensely talented Alfre Woodard is likewise left with a somewhat clichéd role of a compromised councilwoman beholden in some part to dirty businesses in order to fund her community renaissance project. The decent change here is that the compromised politician is almost always a man, but Woodard is talented enough of an actress who has the capacity to do more than what the opening script unfortunately gives her to do. She does have a shining moment when she is clearly trying to balance the trembling ship of her respectability and shady dealings, but that in and of itself doesn’t give Mariah Dillard the complexity she deserves. Simone Missick’s Mercedes “Misty” Knight is competent and unabashedly unashamed of her sexuality, getting what she wants but not for a second letting Luke’s rather uncomfortable bar talk at times go unnoticed without a smackdown. With the cultural paradigm that is so vital to understand to see what Luke Cage brings to the table, there is a necessity also to make sure that black women are not invisible in this story. The lives of black women, whether on screen or in real life, are often treated as being second fiddle to that of black men and it would be a mistake for a show that has so far displayed a keen understanding of racism to not focus its lenses on feminism as well. Mariah and Misty are intriguing characters with the former especially not enough narrative complexity in the pilot, but one would hope that the series manages to make their stories and characters as complex and intriguing as that of the men. There is, after all, little progress to be made without intersectional solidarity.
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+The Swear Jar at the barbershop
+“Maybe you’ll need a lawyer some day.”
+Luke and Misty are apparently not fond of coffee.
+“The only direction that matters in life is forward.”
+Luke is fond of The New Yorker
+“You saw what happened to Fisk.”
+“Who’s ‘we’, fake-ass Ray Charles?”
+“For black lives to matter, black history and black ownership must also matter.”
+“That man was never President.”
“That’s even more impressive.”
+“I’m not for hire. But you’ve got my word, ma’am. I’ve got you.”
+/-The shootout sequence was scored well but was directed rather poorly
Episode Title: Moment of Truth
Written by: Cheo Hodari Coker
Directed by: Paul McGuigan
Image Courtesy: Nerdist