Marvel’s Luke Cage
Luke Cage is a case study for the state of modern television. In the quest to legitimize itself beyond “mere” entertainment, the medium has borrowed the language of cinema in a way that can ignore what makes TV so interesting in the first place. Given such lofty goals, a show like Luke Cage can forget the wonder and joy that comes with entertaining an audience. This ethos isn’t unique to Luke Cage, though. It plagues Netflix’s Marvel shows, which often suffer pacing issues and lack enough plot to fuel each season’s 13-episode run.
Case in point: “Take It Personal” creates no suspense about Luke surviving the shrapnel of the Judas bullets in his system or Dr. Burstein’s trustworthiness because both are foregone conclusions. At first glance, the episode is frustratingly splintered between two story lines that converge at the very end when the major players find themselves at Harlem’s Paradise during a nonviolent rally arranged by Mariah for her own ends. The first involves Claire and Luke learning more about his abilities and childhood in Georgia. The second is the turmoil in Harlem that’s sparked by Diamondback killing a white cop and framing Luke.
Like most episodes of Luke Cage, “Take It Personal” can seem too disconnected to work as a whole. But as I took a closer look at it, I realized a dominant theme snakes throughout: The episode is concerned with the stories we tell ourselves, and how those myths shape the world around us. Perhaps that is one reason why Mariah plays such a big role. No one is better at spinning a story, even as she’s forced to act quickly when Diamondback’s reckless attack forces her hand.
At San Diego Comic-Con, showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker said, “The world is ready for a bulletproof black man.” Luke Cage uses the aesthetics and language of the Black Lives Matter movement to give its narrative potency. But the series isn’t all that interested in the racism that has caused Black Lives Matter to bloom and shape the black community itself. If Luke Cage is to be believed, the greatest threats are not from the police or gentrification, but from within.
Mariah is particularly odious. She’s a politician who believes she’s helping Harlem while working with Diamondback to arm the very police that crack down on this community without just cause. “Harlem is my birthright!” she screams at Diamondback. But what’s the point of reigning over a kingdom you had a hand in breaking? A more telling exchange takes place earlier in the episode:
Mariah: “I’m a politician, not a gun dealer.”
Diamondback: “What’s the difference?”
The story Mariah has told herself for so long is that she’s nothing like the cutthroat Mama Mabel. She doesn’t think she has any of the malignant swagger of Cottonmouth. She believes she’s a godsend for Harlem itself, but the truth is something far darker. This darkness becomes undeniable when she commits her worst manipulation yet.
After Diamondback kills a white cop while wearing a hoodie and some superpowered gloves, word spreads that Luke did it. This doesn’t fit with who Misty understands Luke to be, but it nevertheless stokes fear in a community teetering toward chaos. The police use this as an excuse to strike down upon the streets of Harlem with an unmitigated fury, calling black and Latino people “pests,” and saying this beloved community needs to be “fumigated.” Watching scene after scene of black people getting abused and manhandled by cops made me wince. It was one of the few times Luke Cage has had the urgency that Coker’s quote about a “bulletproof black man” communicates. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before someone innocent gets swept up in this maelstrom. It just happens to be Lonnie Wilson — the young black kid we saw in the barbershop whose mother, Patricia (Cassandra Freeman), hit on Luke.
Lonnie is a good kid who knows his rights. He doesn’t crack during the interrogation because he trusts Luke. That doesn’t matter. People backed into a corner with power will often lash out on whatever target they can find. Here’s the odd narrative choice, though: A black cop is the one who brutally beats Lonnie. He’s left crumpled on the floor, crying for help until Misty comes in. His face is a mask of welts, bruises, and blood. That the most unflinching moment of police violence in Luke Cage comes at the hands of a black cop is puzzling, to say the least.
Luke Cage is far from perfect, but it has some of the best female characters on television. Seeing Patricia, Inspector Priscilla, Misty, and Mariah argue with each other feels revolutionary. When was the last time you saw four women north of 35 discussing such weighty issues on TV?
Mariah uses this tragedy to motivate people. She uses the fear about Luke to bolster her own career and give the police ample motive to arm themselves with the guns Diamondback is selling. Mariah is in her element in front of the crowd. You can see a light in her eyes as she makes clear the “real threat” isn’t the cops who hurt Harlem and beat boys like Lonnie, but men like Luke. As Abraham Riesman writes, “[I]t’s an odd choice to have the show’s one scene of rallying against racist violence simply be the cover for Mariah’s sinister plot.” It is a disconcerting addition within the fabric of the show’s politics, but it also serves another purpose: It reminds us that Mariah is Luke’s most impressive antagonist. Unfortunately, Luke Cage may need a reminder itself. Learning that Diamondback is Luke’s half-brother doesn’t make either character more interesting.
To be fair to the episode, there are worthwhile aspects to Luke’s travels through Georgia. Learning that Reva lied to Luke about almost everything makes her a mystery again. (It also calls into question their actual marriage, which we’ve never seen.) During the flashback when Luke returns to the church where his father preached, a sequence of great camera work literalizes something that Claire says later: “The past is present.” In the flashback, a young Luke witnesses his father’s affair with Diamondback’s mother. When the door swings open, the mirror reveals Luke as an adult watching everything as if he stepped into the past itself. It’s very reminiscent of my favorite sequences in Eve’s Bayou.
Yes, the past is always present. The stories we create for ourselves often become the legends that determine our fate. Each character on Luke Cage is forced to face the narratives they believe about themselves; they must scrutinize their own stories. For Luke, it’s reluctantly accepting the hero’s role in order to save Harlem from Diamondback. For Mariah, it’s recognizing the depths of her true morally compromised nature.
In this day and age, television is one of the most prominent ways we tell stories about ourselves and each other. The ways these stories are told matter. That’s why, when considering the politics of Luke Cage, a question nags at me. What does it say that the show’s story of black resistance and struggle highlights villainous figures like Mariah, rather than a police force that harms the community it is meant to protect?