It’s impossible to talk about Netflix’s newest Marvel series—Luke Cage—without noting how deeply rooted in African-American culture it is. And it’s impossible for me to mention that without immediately acknowledging how awkward, and problematic, it is for me as a white person to write a post about this quality of the show.
And yet, this is why I think the series is important.
Luke Cage is the third Netflix show based on “normal” superheroes living in New York City. Like the characters in Daredevil and Jessica Jones, Luke Cage (Mike Colter) doesn’t wear spandex and has no ambition to save the world. On their best days, these heroes make their impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhoods a slightly more hopeful place to live.
Luke Cage, like Jessica Jones, also functions as a platform for social views. If Jessica Jones went out of its way to reverse the idea of the “male gaze” in its plot and cinematography, Luke Cage goes all-in on creating a superhero world that’s about far more than superheroes.
First, the obvious: Luke Cage, a large and physically intimidating black man, has super-strength skin that is resistant to bullets. It’s impossible to type that sentence and not immediately think of the scores of recent police shootings of African-American men. That the show—at least during the first six episodes I’ve seen—doesn’t forcibly draw attention to that is to its credit. Luke Cage doesn’t need to sledgehammer its point with the power of its eponymous hero’s fists. Cage’s skin being a source of his strength rather than a source of danger is in itself a powerful idea. Yet the show goes so much further.
Unlike any Marvel movie or series I’ve seen, Luke Cage puts music front and center. An early fight scene is set to a Wu-Tang Clan song. The soundtrack also references the blaxploitation films of the 1970s. The nightclub owned by the villain is the setting for extensive numbers by real artists such as Raphael Saadiq or Faith Evans, whose powerful performances create a specific sense of space.
In choosing his name, Luke Cage is claiming the path Jesus claimed.
Beyond that, characters continually make reference to the importance of knowing black history and living in the legacy of both local and national black heroes. The “n-word” is used several times, but each time another character—usually Cage himself—pushes back against its use, claiming it is demeaning. In other words, by the end of the first episode Luke Cage establishes an atmospheric presence that is proudly, purposely black.
The casting of the show, meanwhile, is almost uniformly African-American, with only one white supporting character getting more than a few seconds of screen time. As a white viewer it’s impossible not to notice this. As I watch Luke Cage, it’s not that I’m treated as an outsider to this world as much as I’m being invited into a world that isn’t mine. By watching Luke Cage and subtly feeling like I’m the “other,” I’m able to realize in a small, insignificant way what it must be like to live in a world in which my skin tone doesn’t fit what’s considered “normal.”
This mirrors my own faith journey over the last several years. As a follower of Jesus I’ve been forced to realize how marginalized the black community in America is, and to ask what I can do to be a part of reconciliation. Even in this—the topic of race and spirituality—Luke Cage has something to say. In the show’s fourth episode we find out that “Luke Cage” isn’t our hero’s original name. In an attempt to break from his past, Cage chose a new name from the Gospel of Luke, which his father quoted to him as a child: “The spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free...”
In choosing his name, Luke Cage is claiming the path Jesus claimed when he read that passage from Isaiah. Just as Jesus brought good news to the people of his community, including justice for the marginalized, Luke Cage is on a mission to fight for those who don’t have bulletproof black skin.
This forces me, sitting comfortably in my home and my white skin, to ask what ways I can champion the marginalized as well.