In Marvel’s Luke Cage, showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker goes great lengths to evoke the history of black art, black power, and black politics. You see it in the swagger evoked through musical cues, the lived-in physicality of the performances, and the way black characters orbit each other. It’s undeniably present when Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), a hustling politician and cousin to the season’s central villain, tells a reporter, “Harlem is the jewel of black America. For black lives to matter, black history and ownership has to matter.”
In other words, this Luke Cage isn’t the jive talkin’ man he started off as in the comics. He’s wary, he wants to be as unnoticeable as possible, and he prides himself on respectability. Far from being divorced from the history of black heroes, Luke Cage exists on an arc that began with the late 1950s noir Odds Against Tomorrow, in which Harry Belafonte confronts racism and the price that comes with a life of crime. That legacy was carried through the 1970s by blaxploitation films like Shaft, and decades later, by black gangster films like New Jack City. But without the urgency and passion of its predecessors, this first episode feels airless. The safe way it plays with rich subject matter can even feel like a continuation of Marvel’s inability to take risks.
“Moment of Truth” introduces the show’s world and characters without much elegance, but it does have its pleasures. The episode opens with a shaggy sequence that takes place in a milieu every black person knows: the barbershop. The black and Latino men who populate it speak freely about sports, celebrities who have a “ghetto pass” (like Al Pacino, thanks Carlito’s Way!), and New York itself. Luke (Mike Colter) is on the job, sweeping up hair. He doesn’t interject much, preferring to keep his head down. He understands that this is often the easiest way to survive. As the arguments continue, we meet several characters: the barbershop owner, Pop (Frankie Faison), Wilfredo “Chico” Diaz (Brian Marc), and the boisterous Shameek (Jermel Howard).
Pop is especially important, as we learn during his backroom conversation with Luke. They’re both ex-cons, they’re both worried about the state of Harlem, and Pop is one of the only people who knows about Luke’s abilities. This establishing scene also gives us our best look into Luke’s emotional state, as he and Pop discuss his dead wife, Reva (Parisa Fitz-Henley), and why he needs to move on. (Grief aside, Luke shouldn’t have much trouble finding a date. Yes, he sweeps hair for a living, but that certainly didn’t stop a woman from hitting on him while her kid got a haircut. Just look at him.)
Still, the scene doesn’t quite work. It’s too heavy-handed, despite the immediate chemistry between Colter and Faison. It isn’t helped by silly, on-the-nose dialogue, either. “You think I asked for this?” Luke asks at one point. “I was framed, beaten, and put into some tank like an exotic fish and came out with abilities.” The script doesn’t improve much from there, encapsulating the episode’s lack of a strong voice and style.
“Moment of Truth” meanders through most of its runtime, giving us glimpses into Luke’s life as he reads The New Yorker, interacts with the neighborhood folks, and struggles to pay his rent. We learn Luke works a second job at Harlem’s Paradise, a sleek nightclub that caters to city’s black elite. On this particular night, he’s put on bartending duty because a co-worker named Dante (Hugues Faustin) doesn’t show up for his shift.
Elsewhere, an illicit weapons deal goes south when Chico, Shakeem, and Dante rip off the exchange. Director Paul McGuigan contrasts the ugly shootout that ensues with the luxurious scene back in Harlem’s Paradise, where club owner Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali) drinks champagne and boasts about his growing power. But as Mariah reminds him, nothing is ever that easy. Cottonmouth planned to make a cool million by selling “that grade-A, military, Justin Hammer-level shit,” but his weapons will soon end up in a police locker instead.
Back at the scene of the crime, a paranoid Dante realizes that Cottonmouth will know he pulled an inside job. Shakeem agrees, then shoots him dead to cover their tracks. However, Dante survives long enough to call Cottonmouth’s right-hand man, spoiling the celebratory mood in the club. Now that Cottonmouth knows what happened, Shakeem isn’t long for this world.
More interesting is the scene between Luke and a customer named Misty Knight (Simone Missick), who he meets while bartending. Missick’s Misty is cagey and flirtatious, offering the most assured performance of the episode. If you didn’t know anything about the character’s history, you’d think she’s just wearing the armor black women need to survive in the world. But as we later learn, she’s a detective who winds up investigating the botched weapons deal.
Luke’s pickup lines are abhorrent. He’s lucky he looks so good. Again, pacing problems and a lack of energy rob the scene of what it needs. I’m also a bit torn on seeing Misty and Luke have sex. It’s great to see two grown, sexy black people sharing some pleasure, and it’s one of the few scenes in the episode with vibrant energy. It’s easily the most fun that “Moment of Truth” allows itself. And yet, it’s weird that they hook up before we learn much of anything about Misty. I’m not interested in following comic book canon to the letter, but I do wonder where Luke Cage plans to go with her character. She and Mariah are compelling foils for one another: two very different black women, navigating a world shaped by the ill deeds of men.
If this episode is any indicator, Luke Cage will definitely explore the toxic masculinity of those men. We see this in the contrast established between Luke and Cottonmouth. Luke is upstanding, quiet, honorable, and veers a bit into respectability politics. Cottonmouth is a criminal fronting as a businessman, hurting the very same community that Mariah wants to protect. His masculinity is rooted in power attained by violence. The character’s most damning aspects grow more apparent when Shades Alvarez (Theo Rossi) shows up — he’s a former colleague who works for Diamondback, an oft-mentioned, never-seen competitor. Criminals like Shades and Cottonmouth are smooth-talking, repugnant figures. Luke is everything they are not: taciturn, honest, and generous.
Despite my reservations about “Moment of Truth,” a shot stuck with me after I finished watching the episode. Right before Cottonmouth beats Shakeem to death with his bare hands, he stands in front of a garish painting of Notorious B.I.G., positioned just so, Biggie’s gold crown resting on his head. It’s an image that holds mythic power, and I hope Luke Cage pursues others like it.
Unfortunately, Luke has yet to find a similarly epic quality. He is the epitome of a reluctant superhero. He probably wouldn’t even call himself a hero yet, even as he takes a step in that direction after gangsters try to shake down his landlord, Connie Lin (Jade Wu), and her husband. When Luke steps in to protect them, we finally get a hint of his abilities. One man throws a punch, and his bones shatter against Luke’s face. Another tries to shoot him, and he stops the bullet with his bare hand. It’s a short, blunt, graceless fight.
The episode ultimately closes on a powerful image: Luke standing guard in front of Connie’s restaurant, his hoodie raised to evoke Trayvon Martin. “You have my word, ma’am, I’ve got you,” he says. This time, the black man is bulletproof.