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Luke Cage – Take It Personal (Review)

The politics of Luke Cage are kind of tricky.

To be fair, a lot of this has very little to do with the show itself. Luke Cage is the first Marvel Studios project headlined by a black character. It is also the most high-profile black superhero project since Catwoman and Blade: Trinity in 2004. More than that, it is the first major African American superhero story of the modern franchise age, arriving on Netflix two years before the scheduled release of Ryan Coolger’s Black Panther adaptation. This means that Luke Cage carries a phenomenal burden of representation.

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More than that, Luke Cage arrives at a time when racial politics are more overt than they have been in a very long time. The politics of race have long been an essential part of American political discourse, but they have seldom been placed front and centre in the way that they have been over the past couple of years; the shooting of Trayvon Martin by vigilante George Zimmerman, the high-profile deaths of young black men at the hands of law enforcement, the protests in Ferguson, scandals like the poisoned water in Flint.

When Luke Cage was released to stream, the United States was in the middle of a particularly heated (and racially charged) election cycle. The Republican Presidential nominee, Donald Trump, was threatening to deport Mexican immigrants and build a wall along the border. A cornerstone of the Republican primaries had been a debate about limiting immigration of Muslims. Trump described African American communities in apocalyptic terms, while also arguing that talk of racism was more damaging than racism itself. Trump appealed to resurgent white nationalism.

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This was the climate in which Luke Cage was released. As such, the show was always going to be political, whether it chose to engage with those politics in a literal manner or otherwise. As showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker argued at Comic Con in 2015 and as Method Man explicitly states in Soliloquy of Chaos, the world is ready for a bulletproof black man. No matter what story Coker and his team chose to tell, there would always be a raw political element to the story.

At the same time, there is also a certain clumsiness to the show’s politics that become clear in the way that Take it Personal deals with some of that baggage.

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Much (but by no means all) of the current racial tension in the United States is centred upon the relationship between law enforcement and the black community. A lot of the recent civil unrest and political comment is driven by the deaths of young black men at the hands of law enforcement officials. The Ferguson protests arose in response to the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer, with the grand jury declining to indict the officer. A similar incident spurred protests in Charlotte, not to mention Milwaukee or even Baton Rouge.

The frequency of these incidents, and the muted response to them on behalf of the authorities, invite questions about systemic and institutional racism in law enforcement. Commentators wonder how laws are enforced in the United States and how police officers are held accountable for these sorts of deaths. This has seen the emergence of political movements like “Black Lives Matter” to force the issue into mainstream political debate and discourse. They have certainly succeeded.

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This has inevitably met with no shortage of tone-deaf responses, from the ill-judged “all lives matter” to Steve Clevenger stating that they should be “behind bars like animals” to rather blatant threats from law enforcement unions against celebrities who have endorsed the movement. However, there is a strong conservative impulse to defend law enforcement, to portray police departments as unequivocal heroes who keep the wolves from the door, which explains why Donald Trump has argued there is “too much” talk about institutional racism.

This controversy probably explains why Luke Cage tiptoes around the idea of institutionalised racism and violence by law enforcement officials against members of the black community. For all the coverage of white viewers who feel excluded by the show’s predominantly black cast, there is still a sense that Luke Cage is genuinely afraid to say anything that might be interpreted as a condemnation of law enforcement or an accusation of systemic institutional racism within existing power structures. Luke Cage genuinely doesn’t want to upset conservative viewers.

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To be clear, Luke Cage certainly evokes the imagery of police violence and brutality. Over the course of the season, suspects are beaten while in police custody. Misty throws down with Claire in Blowin’ Up the Spot, while a young black man is brutally beaten in an interrogation room over the course of Take it Personal. There are other obvious cues. A white cop chokes out a black kid in Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?, a very clear nod towards the infamous (and tragic) death of Eric Garner.

There is enough material here to ensure that Luke Cage is overtly and consciously political. Take it Personal features a montage of police officers sweeping through Harlem like a force of nature, while Soliloquy of Chaos features a black man in a hoodie fleeing law enforcement officials carrying explosive rounds. As the bullets hit the concrete, they explode, an exaggerated statement of the casualness of the brutality. Luke’s hoodie becomes a symbol over the course of the series, riddled with bullet holes to demonstrate how thick his skin needs to be.

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The hoodie is one of the most iconic images of the series, with Method Man staring at wonder at in Soliloquy of Chaos. This was a very conscious and deliberate choice on the part of executive producer Cheo Hodari Coker, who wanted to use the hoodie to make a political statement:

Of course I wanted there to be a subtle, or in this case, not so subtle nod to what one faces as a black man in society wearing a hood. Unfortunately, what happens is that people will make assumptions about who you are based on that hoodie and that’s the whole thing. I wanted to show that heroes could wear hoodies, too. I don’t care what your socioeconomic status is, if you’re a black man in a hoodie, you can be misinterpreted.

So that’s what struck with Trayvon Martin and that’s why it haunted so many African American men and women, particularly African American men that are fathers. This kid was in his own neighborhood and this kid was literally trying to get home and it wasn’t even a cop. It was basically a neighborhood vigilante that killed him.

It struck so many of us because then we were like, What do I tell my kids? How do I tell you how to go about going out in this world where wearing the wrong clothes? And not even in a gang situation. Just literally the act of wearing something that makes somebody assume a stereotype puts your life in danger. That’s the kind of frustration of all of it honestly. 

It is important not to diminish this accomplishment in the strikingly apolitical Marvel Cinematic Universe. This is a long way from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which placed any criticism of American foreign policy at the feet of literal Nazis who had infiltrated the United States government.

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To be fair, Luke Cage does a lot better than The Winter Soldier in engaging with the real issue rather than using it to segue off into much more generic comic book storytelling. The police officers in Luke Cage are violent, even those who aren’t on Cornell’s payroll. Innocent young black men are beaten, even those with no tangible connection to any crime in question. Although he only appears in a handful of scenes, Jacob Smith serves to demonstrate that this sort of violence need not originate with a super villain.

However, the series is always careful to hedge its bets. Most strikingly, the bulk of police violence in Luke Cage is conducted by people of colour, which helps to undercut any commentary on issues of institutional racism. This is obvious in both scenes focusing on named characters like Claire and Misty or supporting characters like the officer and the young boy. It is also quite evident in the montage sequence of the police sweeping through Harlem in pursuit of Luke. This piece of visual storytelling undercuts an otherwise effective sequences.

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After all, that montage plays over a sequence of Inspector Priscilla Ridley arguing with Jacob Smith about how best to handle the situation. “We’re gonna shake the ground,” Smith promises. “Smoke him out. That’s how you find a roach. You fumigate.” Ridley is uncomfortable with the metaphor. “You’re talking about a community of people, not pests.” Although Take it Personal stops just short of having Smith engage in overtly racist generalisations, it is heavily implied when he promises, “I’m not some idiot who’s afraid of blacks and Hispanics.”

Luke Cage goes out of its way to excuse acts of police brutality. Scarfe’s corruption is exceptional, his violence and indifference are a deviation from the norm. When Misty is challenged on choking Claire, she responds, “Things got rough with a hostile witness. You think that’s the first time that happened?” Even in Take it Personal, they are presented as a response to the death of a white officer, rather than as a matter of course. The officer who beats the young had a particular personal attachment to the victim that rendered him emotionally volatile.

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To be fair, this is not a problem unique to Luke Cage. It is a wider cultural issue. As Noah Berlatsky outlines, most cases of police brutality are rooted in mundane activities rather than heightened drama:

But this need for incident and excitement fundamentally misrepresents the nature of policing in most communities, with very unfortunate consequences. In Ferguson, Missouri, the Justice Department found that police disproportionately targeted black residents for infractions: traffic stops, jaywalking, “failure to comply.” In these cases, police weren’t bad men fighting other bad men. Instead, as Jamelle Bouie writes, “Officers weren’t protecting citizens as much as they were corralling potential offenders and sources of revenue, with a huge assist from the city municipal court.” Imagine a True Detective season in which Rust and Marty wander around the bayou issuing traffic tickets to fill a quota. “The Yellow King says that’ll be $100 for going 60 in a 55mph zone, ma’am.” Rust thinks he’s got a bleak worldview, but he doesn’t know the half of it.

Along the same lines, most high-profile police shootings haven’t involved police accidentally mistaking an innocent person for a violent criminal, a la SVU. Police killed Eric Garner after hassling him for selling loose cigarettes. Philando Castile was pulled over for having a busted headlight. John Crawford III was shot while holding a toy BB gun in a Wal-Mart. In these instances, police didn’t make tragic errors in pursuit of protecting the public, nor did they make a grim decision to use evil against evil. They just escalated situations for no reason, resulting in unnecessary suffering and injustice.

Indeed, the New York City Police Department’s made scramble to catch Luke Cage makes a certain amount of sense in the context of the story. The police brutality is rendered as an aberration rather than a fact of life.

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With all of that in mind, it makes sense that the politics of Luke Cage should become jumbled and confused with everything else going on around them. The show often feels trapped between two extreme contrasting positions. There are certainly shades of that in the way that the season casts Luke as a fugitive. He is black man stopped by two white cops in DWYCK. He insists, “I’m just taking a walk. Minding my own business.” One cop responds, “I need to see some I.D.?” Luke clarifies, “To walk?”

It might seem like an example of the awkward and intrusive stop-and-search activities that tend to lead to these sorts of shootings, except that Luke is actually a wanted man. As such, although the stop-and-search is intrusive, it is entirely justified. More than that, the sequence culminates with Luke brutally beating up the cops. His violence is captured on the dashboard camera, a rather clumsy inversion of the way that these dashboard cameras have served to document and record numerous acts of violence committed by law enforcement upon black men.

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There other clumsy moments. Misty is perhaps the most sympathetic member of the cast, presented as an ideal in law enforcement. In DWYCK, she outlines how she came to work in the field, primarily the death of her best friend when she was a child. “Cops didn’t push,” she reflects. “They didn’t really give a sh!t. She was just another poor worthless b!tch from the polo grounds.” However, Luke Cage seems to suggest that such apathy is largely a historical concern, with detached and cynical nihilists like Scarfe existing as the exception rather than the rule.

Even within Take it Personal, there are some very strange choices. Mariah and Stryker conspire stir up anxiety and resentment from the community, and Mariah chooses to do that through staging what looks and feels like a “Black Lives Matter” rally in which she speaks sandwiched between two large images of the brutality inflicted upon a young black man by New York’s finest. However, the show struggles to make the theme work with the story. “Do I trust the cops?” she asks. “Not blindly.”

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However, Mariah continues, “We need to arm our men and women in blue so they can protect us.” It seems like a rather strange character decision, to focus on the brutality inflicted by the police department upon the community before arguing that they should receive more high-powered weapons. There is very much a logical gap in Mariah’s thought process and the evil plan. It seems like Luke Cage is hedging its bets somewhat, refusing to have its primary villain embrace law enforcement unequivocally or to call them out for the consequences of their actions.

Take it Personal reveals that Mariah and Stryker’s big evil plan (beyond killing Luke Cage) is to arm the New York Police Department with explosive bullets made from alien technology. The show is clear that this is a very bad thing, and it is not hard to imagine why a show focusing on black Americans would consider giving police officers alien super guns might be a bad idea. However, Now You’re Mine chooses to hedge its bets, with Blake Tower arguing the police aren’t really the issue here; if these weapons go to the police, eventually the Punisher might get one.

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This is very much nonsensical hedging, as if the show is worried that viewers might be offended by the idea that law enforcement might be untrustworthy with these super weapons. The whole plot thread feels a little jumbled, as Abraham Riesman outlines by reference to Mariah’s plot:

She stages a rally demanding justice for Lonnie, one in which people carry signs that may not read “Black Lives Matter,” but which certainly evoke that breed of collective protest. “Now, I know what brought us here tonight: The police putting their hands on yet another young black man,” she says to the crowd. She notes that she doesn’t blindly trust cops, but that her fellow protesters can’t lose sight of “the real threat,” echoing the statement she made earlier to reporters: “Powered people like Luke Cage.” Her proposal? “We need to arm our men and women in blue so that they can protect us.” Perhaps we’re supposed to see Mariah’s logic and tsk-tsk over the fact that she’s pushing for police power, not against it. Nevertheless, it’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.

Again, there is a sense that Luke Cage is trying to be political, but without being too political. In some ways, this feels very much a limit imposed by the fact that Luke Cage is a Netflix television show produced by Disney aiming for as wide an audience as humanly possible and eager to avoid political controversy.

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It is a very thin line to walk, but one threaded throughout the series. Indeed, one of the stock criticisms of the show is that it is very conservative in nature, very much engaged with issues within the black community rather than necessarily engaging with systemic or institutional ideas beyond that. There is a conservative vibe running through the show, a sense of African American masculinity that runs somewhat close to “respectability” politics that suggest that the community can and should fix every (or at least most) injustice internally.

These themes bubble through the season. In Moment of Truth, one character comments on Luke sweeping the floor of the barbershop, “Black man working. Ain’t nothing wrong with that.” The fact that Luke has to work two jobs to make ends meet could be seen as a commentary on modern economic inequality, if the show didn’t make it explicit that Luke only needs two jobs because he insists on being paid underneath the counter. Similarly, the season’s fixation upon black fathers and legitimacy could be seen as another example of that conservatism.

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That fixation very much comes into play in Take it Personal. At the end of Blowin’ Up the Spot, Stryker claimed to be Luke’s brother. Luke could not reconcile himself to that fact, having idealised his father as a preacher who lived in Georgia. However, Luke and Claire both take a road trip back home in Take it Personal, visiting the old church so that Luke might determine the truth of Stryker’s claim. Inevitably, it turns out to be true. Stryker is Luke’s half-brother, the result of an affair.

Luke’s father is presented as another in the show’s litany of failed father figures “James, Carl needs you,” his wife urges. “Now more than ever. How can you be here for your community and every other family in the congregation, but you’re never here for us?” In many ways, James Lucas mirrors Pop. Pop sought to act as a father to his own community to atone from his own failures as a father. This is a stock superhero trope, but – given the stereotypes that exist around African American fathers – the recurring theme could be considered problematic.

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Justin Charity points to the show’s attitude towards the “n-word” as another example of its inherent conservatism:

In a recent interview with Vulture, Colter takes credit for his character’s belabored distaste for “n****.” “I remember talking to [Coker] about it, and I was adamant that Luke was not a person that used that language,” Colter said. “He needs to be someone we can aspire to be. And I felt like, if he was the kind of guy that used that language all the time, like someone on the street corner who didn’t respect himself or the people around him, then he, in a sense, had lost already, had given up.” Colter and I will agree to disagree regarding whether the Wu-Tang Clan or Larry Wilmore are admirable men. It just sucks, given the popular hope that he’d be a hero sworn to fight against black death and white power, that Luke Cage’s superpower is the ability to fashion his abs as a washboard for dirty speech.

All of this criticism and debate is reasonably fair, in that it is important to talk about such things.

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However, there is also a sense that Luke Cage is being held to an impossible standard. After all, what is wrong with a black television show espousing a politically conservative point of view? The African American experience is not monolithic, and there are a wealth of viewpoints to consider. The biggest issue is that Luke Cage is just about the only high-profile superhero project in the past decade, and one of the most high-profile deep-penetration black television shows in recent memory.

It seems that audiences expect Luke Cage to perfectly capture a singular black experience in this cultural moment. It is not physically possible for the show to do that, and it is an example of how popular culture has failed this audience that Luke Cage seems like the only possible avenue for that sort of story. After all, it seems like more radical and liberal politics would work better with another black superhero like Night Thrasher. It is entirely understandable that viewers feel disappointed or disillusioned with Luke Cage, but it seems unfair to dismiss the show as a failure.

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Indeed, there is something to be said for the inclusion of a relatively conservative black perspective within popular culture. In some respects, popular culture has come to treat conservatism as a dirty word. More than that, there is a sense that Luke Cage is much more interested in the personal than the political. The political overtones of the show are unavoidable, but the emphasis of the show very strongly speaks to Cheo Hodari Coker’s particular interests and insights.

For example, the season’s emphasis on fatherhood comes from Coker’s own childhood. A large part of Luke Cage is about the title character reconciling with his father, realising that his father was a deeply flawed human being. The central conflict between Luke and Stryke is one of legitimacy, with both men wrestling with the legacy of their father. There are certainly elements of this that seem to bleed over from Coker’s own personal experience into the story that he has crafted; right down to the revelation that Luke’s father was a Tuskegee Airman who retired rurally.

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There is a lot of Coker’s own history in the story of Luke Cage, very much informing how he approaches the character:

My grandfather was a Tuskegee Airman. He flew with the 100th Fighter Squadron. I grew up in Connecticut, near Storrs, really around him. I remember being eight years old, and he had Perrier before they even sold Perrier in stores. He was a gourmet, reading Craig Claiborne, reading Bon Appétit. He drove a Porsche. Because he was in the Air Force, he would buy the Porsches wholesale in Germany, and he would fly them over when space was available. That’s what kind of James Bond shit he was on.

The other reality was that my mother and father split when I was two years old, and my father’s mother, until I was six or seven years old, lived in Hamilton Street Projects, in New Haven. When I would visit her early on, even when I was five and six, that was a different reality. That kind of split consciousness has always been part of my journey. My mom and dad met at U. Conn., and their lives couldn’t have been more different in terms of their upbringing. My mom growing up on Air Force bases, and my dad growing up in New Haven. My dad going to jail for a while. Then when he got out, he never quite got over the experience, and he started drinking really heavily, and was really a very heavy alcoholic to the day that he died.

With all of that in mind, it is perhaps a mistake to read aspects of the show as bold and general political statements. Maybe they are best interpreted as one particularly perspective rather than some bold monolithic commentary.

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That is not to say that Luke Cage is apolitical. The show manages more than its fair share of political commentary, even beyond the powerful iconography of a bulletproof black man fleeing the authorities in a hoodie. There a number of very clever and very conscious observations threaded into the show, even if they are not rendered as overt text in the way that many audience members would prefer. The show might struggle a little bit in exploring issues of institutional racism or police brutality, but it is still a very thoughtful and well-observed piece of work.

For example, it is difficult to imagine any other Marvel Studios project taking the time to tie the rise of gun culture in the United States to the abolition of slavery following the Civil War. More than that, it ties that observation to a broader sense of the culture of fear. “I’m a politician,” Mariah warns Stryker at one point. “Not a gun dealer.” Stryker taunts her, “What’s the difference?” After all, this is a political climate where the United States Congress keeps buying the army munitions that they clearly do not want, for reasons of political and financial expedience.

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“Sell the fear,” Stryker urges Mariah. “Those people need to look at that dashcam footage and ask themselves if the world is ready for bulletproof n*****s that eat cops for breakfast. Black fear. After abolition, it’s how gun laws got enacted in the first place.” Of course, that might be something of a generalisation, but there is a lot to suggest that gun culture is rooted in the political and moral philosophy of the South, not to mention the explosion in gun ownership immediately following the Civil War.

This might all seem trite and simple to anybody with a particular interest in the social and political history of the United States, however it is a very provocative statement by the standards of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After all, this is a film and television franchise that bent over backwards to ensure that no character voiced anything that might sound even remotely like a political opinion in Captain America: Civil War. It is very easy to take Luke Cage‘s observations on race and culture as obvious, but there is a lot to be said for how candid the series is.

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Luke Cage might not completely embrace its relevance to this particular moment, somewhat bungling its police brutality plotline in what seems to be a desire to avoid offending conservative viewers. However, that does not diminish the show’s accomplishments in terms of embrace black culture and identity, grappling with the iconography and the history of the African American community. Luke Cage is a show that works a lot better when it paints its politics in broader strokes, reserving its finer detailing for the small moments of black experience.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Luke Cage:

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