Luke Cage is the first black male character to lead his own show in the Marvel TV universe. The Netflix series also signals a major shift in the type of casts—and narratives—we see explored in small screen comic book adaptations. The Luke Cage comic is well known for tackling important and timely issues within black culture, spanning everything from police brutality and drugs to empowerment, identity and survival. Originally known as “Powerman,” Cage’s comics have, for a significant part of their run, been incredibly self-aware, culturally relevant and politically resonant stories. The hope was for the series to continue that trend. But no one could be sure the comic’s commitment to exploring the intricacies and subtleties of black culture would endure in the series until it dropped on September 30.
Now we have it, and nearly everything about it—from its casting (Mike Colter, Alfre Woodard, Rosario Dawson, Mahershala Ali) to its music (a hip-hop driven soundtrack strung together by Adrian Young and Ali Shaheed Muhammad) to its locations (barber shops, night clubs and famous Harlem street corners) and themes (cultural autonomy, the origins of black entrepreneurship, and social justice)—proves that Luke Cage is an unapologetically black TV series. Here our five moments from the show that carefully illustrate how the latest installment inThe Defenders series relished in and respected its own blackness.
1. “Moment of Truth” is the Moment Unapologetic Blackness Arrives
Considering the overwhelming (and glorious) blackness of Luke Cage, the entirety of “Moment of Truth” earns a spot on this list. The episode serves as a gateway into the rest of the series look at black identity, history and culture. Not only are we introduced to what will become one of the most hip-hop driven soundtracks for a TV show ever (the first episode kicks things off with a performance by the Raphael Saadiq), we bear witness to one of the blackest cast of characters I’ve ever seen—and I’m not just talking about skin color. The series’ first episode offers us unprecedented diversity in the roles and identities of black people, from personality to profession, hairstyles to generational slang. Even the title sequence is splattered with references to Harlem’s signature skyline and historical infrastructure (The Apollo and Malcolm X Blvd, anyone?). It also offers us our first look at the series very black-centric themes, including the messages of Harlem as a cultural epicenter, the invisibility of the black man’s condition, and that black lives matter. The latter is a message that Mariah Dillard (Woodard) addresses head on, stating, “For black lives to matter, black history and ownership must matter.” What makes this even more powerful is that right before she says it, she name drops black intellectuals like Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Malcolm X—all former Harlem residents and all people who, in their own ways, were fighting for the BLM movement’s message long before our time.
“Moment of Truth” doesn’t just talk to the talk with its characters though. It walks the walk, starting with its low-key exploration of black autonomy, success and ownership through two quintessential representations of black identity, community and history: the barbershop and the music club. Of course both Pop’s Barbershop and Cottonmouth/Cornell Stoke’s Harlem’s Paradise go on to serve as settings for major plot developments. But it’s their ability to authentically illustrate how both spaces still serve as social hubs in the black community, and as homes for black culture’s longstanding intra-communal ideology battles, that ultimately makes them so relevant to the Luke Cage story. Oh, and let’s not forget to mention that steamy love scene between Cage and Misty Knight (Simone Missick). That understated, but unadulterated display of black bodies entwined is still giving me goosebumps. Ultimately, “Moment of Truth” solidly and believably launches us into Cage’s very black Harlem, and proves how much this series knows about the history of—and conversation around—its black hero.
The full article first appeared at Paste Magazine on October 9, 2016.