As of late, the superhero genre has been lauded for its attempts to represent minority groups in their pictures. DC and Warner Bros., for example, were the first to provide a leading female, blockbuster superhero with Wonder Woman, an iconic, successful film that nearly broke $1 billion worldwide. The following year, Disney/Marvel shattered records with Black Panther, a movie that went on to be their highest-performing solo feature of all time. With both studios attempting to reclaim that success again, it has become apparent that diversity is in demand from audiences.
However, something that has garnered less attention is the strides that have been made with representation for superheroes on the small screen. With DC shows like Black Lightning, an entire show dedicated to a black superhero, or The Flash & Legends of Tomorrow, which are shows that feature the amazing performance of Keiynan Lonsdale as Kid Flash, the first black LGBT+ actor to play a major superhero, the rise in minority representation cannot be ignored. The same can be said with Marvel TV. For instance, Jessica Jones was an amazing, brilliant character study of rape victims, gender politics and female ingenuity, while Luke Cage attempted to speak to the black experience with a bulletproof superhero based in Harlem who cannot be killed by any old average metal.
In my opinion, Luke Cage tried, but failed, at claiming Black Panther‘s effortless blackness- and without a PG-13 rating to hold it back. In its first season, its titular character, played wonderfully by Mike Colter, ignores the deeper foundations of what it means to be black. The show provides the concept of a “bulletproof black man,” but fails to elaborate on it outside of a few moments. Additionally, from a structural and story standpoint, Luke Cage is doesn’t take the extra step to cultivate these issues into a series that accurately represents the ‘Black Experience.’
Now, that’s not to say there weren’t elements to Luke Cage that I liked. As I said, I think Mike Colter does a great job of playing the hero; and his supporting cast was very captivating to watch. For example, Alfre Woodard as Mariah Dillard was a revelation, and Mahershala Ali, while not in the story much in the back half, was sensational as the one truly amazing villain in the series. Simone Missick’s portrayal captivated and stole every scene as Misty Knight; and of course, we can always count on Rosario Dawson to deliver a great performance as Claire Temple. It just makes it all the more frustrating that the show dropped the ball on the issues that mattered when it could have been firing on all cylinders.
An aspect that significantly contributes to Luke Cage‘s damaging misrepresentation of the Black experience is the missed opportunity to show Luke doing something about police shootings and police brutality. Think about how powerful it would’ve been to watch Luke, struggling against the force of a hundred bullets, shielding a little black boy with his body from the police’s fire. I got chills just typing that. When you hear ‘bulletproof black man,’ an image like that immediately comes to mind. Instead, all of Luke’s villains are black, which wasn’t necessarily a horrible thing, but it comes across as bit thoughtless in my opinion. Additionally, police brutality, in which Luke Cage addresses this issue in a few sequences, is never shown on screen in practice.
It’s not that interracial violence doesn’t matter, but research shows that the number of black people shot by police is higher than the number of inner-community shootings. Interracial violence is not an abnormal issue among all racial groups. In a predominantly black neighborhood, if someone kills someone else – more than likely, both people will be black. The same goes for predominantly white neighborhoods – yet, we never hear anyone asking about white-on-white crime. The “what about black-on-black crime” argument plays into deeply-ridden, racist stereotypes about black people, and how much more “violent” they are than white people, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure, black people are incarcerated at three times the normal rate, but more often than not, these incarcerations are for minor infractions. So where was all of this in Luke Cage? For a show that heavily involves black people, it barely touches upon black issues in America; and if they do, they are explored in an inconvenient, surface level way.
Finally, we had Luke visit the prison system. However, it’s never once discussed how unfair it is that he spends so much time there. Mass incarceration is a new form of slavery – yet Luke Cage never ponders, aloud, why black people are so much more policed than any other race, despite being a black man himself. In addition to this, all of the prison scenes are more about showcasing Luke’s strength than they are about his blackness with his new-found power. And while the show’s exploration of his past with his wife, Reva, was interesting, I would’ve appreciated an elaborated discussion of a black man with new powers adjusting to his experiences in his neighborhood more.
Luke Cage seems so removed from his own blackness that by the end of the show, when we have a Method Man cameo/montage to the song “Bulletproof Love,” it felt hallow to me. Whenever Luke does attract the attention of police, it’s because he’s squaring off against Diamondback or breaking up a fight between black teenagers. Whole the show does cling to the popular stance of the Black Lives Matter movement, it doesn’t clearly associate Luke with the movement’s energy.
With In prospect, Luke Cage Season 2 set to release on Netflix on June 22nd. There is so much potential for these issues to be tackled and addressed in the proper way. This cast of Luke Cage is very talented, and have the potential to truly challenge the real world issues Black America faces today. Raising discussions as philosophical and expertly crafted as the ones in Black Panther is the key to creating a Luke Cage series that embraces its own blackness, and creating an environment where audiences of all colors can use to reflect on society at large. While I enjoyed the characters of Luke Cage and enjoyed moments of the series a lot, there was so much left on the table that could have truly made the series special. As long as the show-runners tackle these issues with the same bravery of their main character, Luke Cage Season 2 can become the series that unapologetically explores and represents the ‘Black Experience.’