The ensemble of Marvel’s Luke Cage is an array of blackness, of brownness, a portrayal that is absent of whiteness. One man holds vigil for the white community and [SPOILER ALERT] he’s a bad guy. I’ve never watched a TV show that didn’t provide a multitude of supporting characters who looked like me. Usually, I can put myself into the shoes of a character because they look like me; they sound like me; they face the same hardships I face. This experience was, for me, otherworldly. In my world, superheroes are white. Even female superheroes are white: Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Black Widow, Rogue, Elektra, Jessica Jones, Catwoman (with the exception of the portrayal by Halle Berry), even the Powerpuff Girls are pale with colorful eyes. Storm is the only recognizable black female superhero, but I don’t see her getting her own stand-alone anytime soon.
It struck me—a twenty-seven year old white woman with a post-graduate degree—this is the first time in film/television history that black folks have an entire series where superhero and villain alike look like them, talk like them, and has faced the same oppression they have. Of course, we can look to Black Panther who, while first introduced in Fantastic Four in 1966, was a key character in the 2016 Marvel film Captain America: Civil War, but his stand-alone film will not debut until 2018. Watching Luke Cage reminded me that I take my white privilege for granted. I often forget my comfort when I look at Hollywood where all I see are representations of my skin-tone and mid-western facial features. Marvel’s Luke Cage brought me out of my comfort zone, but I was so lost in the visual beauty and dynamic plot that I forgot to be uncomfortable.
In Harlem, Pop’s Barbershop is the area where tension dies at the door and solace is found. Pop is a hero without the super. He saves young black children from the corruption of swear words and street crime. Kids come to the shop after school to avoid the pressures of being soft in a world where softness is preyed upon. The swear jar on Pop’s counter is a beacon to adults that innocence is to be protected. For a short while, I felt safe in Pop’s shop.
Enter Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes. A frequenter of Pop’s Barbershop in his youth, Cornell had the potential to be a powerhouse musician. The larger-than-life portrait of Biggie Smalls hanging in his office is a nod of his ambition. He takes the helm of his grandmother Mama Mable’s criminal empire and masks his dirty venture with the smooth sounds of jazz and blues, he names his club Harlem’s Paradise. Paradise is filled with the sultry sounds of Mahalia Jackson, John Lee Hooker, and Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings. The club itself is a representation of music’s near magical ability to transport the listener in time and space. When Stokes walks into Harlem’s Paradise, I like to think he becomes Cornell and the musician he was supposed to be, leaving Cottonmouth at the door. Cottonmouth’s chaotic evil is outshone only by his cousin Mariah Dillard. I’m hard pressed to find a positive quality in Mariah. She reminds me that it’s important to find heroes in the everyday. Heroic characters like Detective Misty Knight, Claire Temple, the musicians spotlighted at Harlem’s Paradise, even chess-playing Bobby Fish are vital because in the real world Luke Cage is just a story and he can’t save you from a crooked
Marvel Studios acquired the rights to Luke Cage in 2013 and production began the following year. One cannot help but see the parallels in Luke’s hooded figure and that of Trayvon Martin. We see the real world throughout the series as black men are stopped by police merely for wearing hoods atop their heads. The officers are shaking in fear as they scream for the hooded figures to turn around. As I see their trembling guns and sweaty brows I’m awash with anger, with indignation, with vindicated for my mistrust of authority. I stand with my shoulders back. I wear my hood up and pulled tight around my bald head. I know my skin will break needles and stop bullets. I am tall and proud at my full six feet three inches. For thirteen episodes, I forget Katie and her privilege. For thirteen episodes, I am Luke.
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