One bulletproof black superhero can’t be the end of it.
There’s a moment during Marvel’s Luke Cage where Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) tells the title character, played by the superb Mike Colter, that he can’t keep running away from his problems. “Sometimes if you want justice, you have to get it yourself,” Claire says. In a series that pays homage to the Blaxploitation films of the 1970’s while also addressing the current issues affecting the African-American community (like the gentrification of Harlem and other historically Black neighborhoods), the line is more than just a pep talk. It’s a nod to a deeper conversation that is finally happening on our screens – both in television and film.
The image of Luke Cage, a bulletproof Black superhero, is one of vital importance and an image that ties into 13TH, the Ava DuVerney documentary which premieres on October 7 on Netflix. DuVernay provides a searing look at how a single clause in the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery save for instances of criminality, led to disproportionate incarceration rates for communities of color, particularly affecting the African-American community. The film examines how there was a cultural shift towards the criminalization of the African-American community, thereby reinstating slavery under the guise of prison labor to help Southern states rebuild their economy following the end of the Civil War.
And this imagery, of the Black criminal is one that continued to be reinforced, first in inflammatory news articles that sensationalized any crime presumed to be perpetuated Black person – regardless of whether the story was true or not. But then there was a shift towards using imagery, particularly in the new medium of film, to reinforce Black stereotypes in new ways. In one particular sequence, DuVernay examines D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a film which had a seismic impact on American cinema and culture at the time by reinforcing false stereotypes about what the film perceived as the inherent criminality of African-American men.
In one of the film’s scenes, a Black man (played by a white actor in blackface) attempts to rape a white woman, who throws herself off of a cliff in melodramatic fashion to escape what she deems a fate worse than death. The film then offers the Klu Klux Klan up as white saviors, as they swoop in to execute the man and obtain what they saw as justice for the dead woman. For white Americans, it confirmed long-held fears that Black criminality needed to be held in check; for African-Americans, it was Rosewood and countless other injustices all over again.
In light of this context, Luke Cage is hugely important, not only because it offers a superhero who happens to be a bulletproof Black man in a hoodie, but because it offers viewers real insight into a Black community where every character comes to life. Stepping into Luke Cage’s Harlem feels quite different from Matt Murdock’s Hell’s Kitchen because showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker has done an outstanding job of creating a deep sense of community, where even the most minor characters never feel marginal or void of any backstory. We get a sense that every resident is valuable and the war between Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali) and Luke feels especially dangerous because it threatens to destabilize this community that feels like home.
But perhaps most importantly, the characters in Luke Cage have differing views on what is best for Harlem. While Pop (Frankie Faison) and Luke reminisce and lament an older Harlem, where younger folks helped their elders carry groceries or cross the street, the Harlem envisioned by Cottonmouth and his cousin, Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), is vastly different. Dillard is staking her political legacy on rebuilding Harlem from within, investing in the community and offering a chance for Black businesses and residents to prosper, rejecting the neighborhood’s gentrification and, in her own way, harkening back to a time when Harlem was the center of vital cultural and political movements that were birthed from within.
And these differing views on the future of Harlem aren’t just useful tools to prop up conflict and plotlines between characters, instead they are indications that the fictional Harlem in which Luke Cage resides in is conscious of the real-life discussions being had in African-American communities blighted by gentrification. These characters are complex and contradictory, they are loved and reviled and no matter how dramatic a character might act (this is a comic book adaptation after all), there is still a very grounded sense of who these characters are, where they have come from and how it informs their actions. These characters feel real.
Luke Cage hasn’t been immune to criticism, some of which has been completely tone-deaf and ignorant. While it is temping to simply dismiss and ignore the claims that the show is “too Black,” it is instead necessary to tackle this head-on, exposing and calling out racism for what it is. In 2016, after decades of entertainment dominated by white faces, after countless damaging and negative misrepresentations of the African-American community by a white dominated industry and in light of the importance of a movement like April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite, the Blackness of Luke Cage isn’t just necessary, it’s not enough.
While Luke Cage is not the only Black-centered show on television nor, thankfully, the only Black Marvel superhero, a handful is still not enough. We need more shows and films that celebrate and center Blackness, that give us communities and characters we can invest in and heroes we can root for. America needs a better understanding of what it is like to be Black in 2016, when men, women and children continue to be targeted for the color of their skin. And perhaps through storytelling, like that found in Luke Cage, we can take Claire’s advice and create our own justice by reversing the negative and unfounded imagery used against African-Americans for generations and usher in the inclusion so desperately needed on our screens.