I’ve been a fan of Netflix’s Marvel series since day one when Daredevil totally blew my mind. Since then, I’ve followed along through all their releases, sometimes staying up way too late, always on the edge of my seat, crying, cheering, shouting, getting into long, drawn-out discussions with my husband about the importance of these characters.
They’re all gifted. But they all have baggage. Matt Murdock’s alter ego is so unbelievable because everyone thinks he’s blind. Jessica Jones is a woman with a brutal past of abuse. That these two shows have opened up important conversations about these topics isn’t up for debate.
But Luke Cage is different. Luke Cage is a black man. A massive, muscled, dark-complected black man in a hoodie. Sure, he has a storied past; sure, he’s bulletproof, which in and of itself is a huge conversation due to the recent violence across the United States. But there’s more.
No matter how you cut the cake, though, I realize that I watch this show from a point of white privilege. There’s just no way around it. It’s not just that seeing Mike Colter on screen is enjoyable (because, well, y’know) but it’s that this is his world. He’s in Harlem, not Hell’s Kitchen. That there’s been an outcry over the lack of white characters is absolutely befuddling to me because, clearly, they’re missing the point. As Jeremiah Tolbert recently wrote so well:
I was supportive of the cause of more diversity and representation in our entertainment, but I didn’t understand it very well until now. I hadn’t walked a few episodes in the shoes of a person of color, so to speak. I hesitate to even make that analogy, because my short, weekend experience can’t begin to compare to a lifetime of that. I gained a little perspective, that’s all. But it helps me understand and empathize better, to connect with the words I’ve been hearing and reading for so long, but never fully understanding.
Luke Cage just being a black hero in a black world needs to be uncomfortable for the majority of white viewers. Especially considering his blaxploitation past. Our super hero world is so painfully whitewashed, so consistently pasty, that a show that doesn’t just feature a black hero, but a black cast, makes us uncomfortable. And it’s this understanding, I think, that set the tone for the show. Because it isn’t about long, drawn-out fight scenes and witty banter, though there certainly is both. It’s about the progression of characters. It’s about painting a picture of Harlem–the good, the bad, the ugly, and how hard it is to tell the difference when you live in such a place. It’s immersion through storytelling, a glimpse into a world many of us are removed from.
I won’t spoil for those who haven’t seen, but one of the most important moments in the first few episodes comes down to two speeches: one by Cottonmouth, and one by Luke Cage. One is about vengeance and power, the other is about community and personal responsibility. As Luke says: “I don’t believe in Harlem. I believe in the people who make Harlem what it is.”
The crowd hears both speeches and is moved. Because they’re both right, to some extent. Luke and Cottonmouth are mirror images of each other, but circumstances have set them apart. Their character development and progression are what define the show. Even villainous Cottonmouth has redeeming qualities and passions, thankfully, a far cry from Kilgrave et al.
If you started this show and you felt uncomfortable, ask yourself why. And then consider that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable because discomfort leads to questioning and questioning leads to action and change. I’m not saying that Luke Cage is going to solve racial violence or police brutality. But Luke Cage is the hero we all need right now.
Natania is a member of the Netflix Stream Team.