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Luke Cage – Soul Brother #1 (Review)

The Netflix Marvel shows benefit greatly from a sense of place, a firm geography.

Part of this is down to the simple logistics of their production. DaredevilJessica JonesLuke CageIron FistThe Defenders and The Punisher actually shoot on location in New York City, especially in Manhattan. Film and television often use other locations for filming purposes, often to capitalise on tax incentives. For its first fives seasons, The X-Files used Vancouver to double for all of the New United States. Spider-Man might be an iconic New York fixture, but Spider-Man: Homecoming was shot primarily in Atlanta to capitalise on filming incentives.

This lends the portrayal of New York an authenticity that is often lacking in other productions, a real sense of existing in a real space. After all, The Incredible Hulk filmed its climactic Harlem battle in Toronto of all places. At least You Know My Steez was able to shoot Harlem for Harlem. Of course, there have been points where this location shooting has been an issue, such as attempts to use New York to double for China in The Blessing of Many Fractures, but it mostly works. (The Jamaican scenes in The Creator work much better. In part because they were filmed there.)

More than that, each of the Marvel Netflix series unfolds in a particular version of New York City, distinct in time and space. Jessica Jones unfolds in an archetypal disconnected beautiful city version of New York, with Jessica standing atop the Brooklyn Bridge to bid farewell to the city in AKA Top Shelf Perverts. In contrast, Daredevil and The Punisher unfold in a version of the city that is perpetually stuck in the late seventies and early eighties, perhaps typified by the mood and tone of Bang. In contrast, Luke Cage is firmly anchored in the mood and the tone of Harlem.

However, the second season of Luke Cage does something very interesting with its Harlem setting. The second season develops a parallel version of Harlem that seems to branch off its real-life counterpart. In keeping with the pulpy comic book aesthetic of Luke Cage, there is a consciously heightened quality to the Harlem inhabited by its central characters, defined by its own geography and its own spaces. The second season of Luke Cage suggests a version of Harlem with its own archetypal environments and settings, its own iconography and geography.

The production team infuse Luke Cage with an authentic Harlem aesthetic, but they also understand that the power of superhero stories is rooted in iconography and symbolism. The version of Harlem created in the first season of Luke Cage and developed in the second season is very much a point of intersection between the real world and the more stylised realm of comic book superheroics.

Harlem is very much the heart of Luke Cage. Although Daredevil is set within Hell’s Kitchen, the relationship is fundamentally different. Daredevil is not engaged with the history and heritage of Hell’s Kitchen, outside of that grungy late seventies and early eighties aesthetic. Indeed, the threat of gentrification in the first season of Daredevil is largely an abstract one relying on the contrivance of the events of The Avengers. After all, it has been pointed out that Hell’s Kitchen was gentrified long before Daredevil tackled the subject.

In contrast, Luke Cage is much more invested in the culture and history of Harlem. Cornell Stokes likens his nightclub to the famous “Cotton Club” in Moment of Truth. Harlem’s iconic tailor Dapper Dan made a cameo appearance in Just to Get a Rep, and Mariah teases the possibility of introducing Luke to him in Can’t Front on Me. Harlem-based historian Jelani Cobb makes a small cameo early in They Reminisce Over You to discuss the concept of Luke Cage. There is this interesting intersection throughout Luke Cage of a real Harlem and a fictional Harlem.

To be fair, there is slightly less focus on the cultural history of Harlem in the second season of Luke Cage, a conscious decision on the part of executive producer Cheo Coker in order to expand the series’ thematic scope:

In the same way season one was kind of a Trojan Horse for a deep dive into the history of Harlem, season two really gets into the history of not only Jamaica but also of the migration experience and the diaspora.

However, this is not to suggest that the second season of Luke Cage neglects or ignores Harlem. Instead, the season builds on the work done in the first year to better overlay its own fictional version of Harlem over the real deal.

As a whole, one of the more interesting aspects of the second season of Luke Cage is how it broadens and deepens the ideas touched upon in the first season. There is a strong sense of developing ideas further, and building on what came before. This is obvious even early in Soul Brother #1; in the flashbacks to the first season while Reverend James Lucas is practicing his sermon or while Shades is talking through the various power players at the meeting including the brother of one of the bosses killed in DWYCK.

(This is not to mention the mirroring of the introduction to Luke Cage in Moment of Truth to his reintroduction in Soul Brother #1. Both scenes play on the image of the character standing outside a stash house, ready to put on his hoodie, start his tunes and cause some damage. While the stash house raid in the first season is built up over three episodes, only actually happening in Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?, the second season very cannily riffs on the iconography of the moment and has Luke go through with it before the opening credits of the first episode.)

The second season of Luke Cage layers its fictional version of Harlem over the real thing in a number of different ways. It is perhaps most obvious in elements like the celebrity of Luke Cage himself, who has taken on an oversized importance in the community. “I am Harlem,” he boasts into the camera after D.W. films hims surviving a pretty impressive assault. “And Harlem is me.” Luke has left his mark on this fictional Harlem as evidenced by things such as the graffiti that reads “Bulletproof Love” or the merchandise section that has popped up in Pop’s.

Luke Cage is a potent cultural force in the world of Luke Cage, attracting the attention of ESPN anchors. Jemele Hill and Michael Smith watch his training session in Straighten It Out, while Stephen A. Smith discusses his take down by Bushmaster on First Take in Wig Out. Particularly in the early part of the season, characters like D.W. discuss the manner in which Luke is literally mapped on to the geography of Harlem through the “Harlem’s Hero” app. Claire even uses it to trace him to the club in Soul Brother #1.

Cheo Coker again described the addition of the “Harlem’s Hero” app to the show as an effort to capture Luke’s movement through spaces both real and fictional:

The fact that we give Luke an app, the Harlem’s Hero app that we’re basically following him around. People would take photos of Luke and mapping him. Like D.W. says, “It’s Waze for you.” It becomes this thing where he’s constantly followed and all eyes on him.

Of course, a lot of this was seeded in the first season, particularly with Method Man’s cameo and the talking heads element in Soliloquy of Chaos towards the end of the year. The second season just deepens that.

At the same time, the second season places an increased emphasis on the elements that Luke Cage is inserted into Harlem, creating a tangible internal geography and social structure for its version of Harlem that serves to delineate the fictionalised version of the neighbourhood from its real-world equivalent. It does this by placing increased emphasis on locations like Harlem’s Paradise or Pop’s as spiritual markers within the community. Obviously, those locations existed in the first season, but the second season places a lot more dramatic weight on them.

In many ways, Luke’s journey across the second season can be charted in archetypal terms. Between Soul Brother #1 and They Reminisce Over You, Luke journeys (in both a literal and metaphorical sense) from the barbershop to the nightclub, from hanging out at Pop’s to taking control of Harlem’s Paradise. Like Luke himself, and reflecting the pulpy source material that informs the series, both of these locations are archetypes that serve to typify certain perspectives and experiences within Harlem itself.

The barbershop is repeatedly identified as “Switzerland”, as it was during the first season. It was a place where Pops and Cornell and Luke could talk, supposedly without violence or repercussion. This reflects the historic cultural importance of barbershops within the African American community, as Quincy T. Mills outlines in Cutting Along the Colour Line:

The modern black barber shop joined black churches, beauty shops, and the black press to anchor the black public sphere in the twentieth century. Describing the role of black churches at the turn of the twentieth century, historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham has noted, “Separate and independent of the state and also the market economy, the public sphere operated as a realm where all citizens interacted in reasoned discourse, even in criticism of governmental authority.” On the surface, the same might be said of black barber shops. Especially during the era of Jim Crow, black men had few spaces where they could congregate and deliberate freely and with a sense of privacy. When George Schuyler, a black journalist and critic, traveled to the South in the 1950s to gauge the mood of black southerners, he made a point of visiting barber shops even though he usually shaved himself. “The barber shop is a forum,” he told an interviewer. “If you hit it when no one is talking that’s unfortunate, but it’s very difficult to hit a barber shop with any people in it when nobody’s talking … as soon as two people show up, you’ve got talk in the barber shop.” Consdiering Schuyler’s conservatism, his presence and political views would have sparked heated debates with liberal customers. Nonetheless, Schuyler’s expectations mirror many of our own. African Americans continue to frequent black barber shops, churches, and beauty shops because black culture guides the dynamics of these spaces.

Four African American men, the barbershop frequently existed as what might be described in modern language as a “safe space.” It was a place where black men could congregate and talk about what they wanted to talk about without fear of social consequence. The importance of the barbership in African American experience is conveyed through films like the Barbershop franchise.

The first two seasons of Luke Cage hint that the social fabric of Harlem was torn by the attack upon Pop’s in Code of the Streets, when Shades and Tone fired blindly into the shop in an attempt to kill Chico. That was the incident that set Luke at odds with Cornell, and which set in motion everything that followed. Reinforcing this idea, the second season ends with Shades returning to the shop. “The old rules are being broke,” Shades warns Luke. “Everything is changing for the worse.” Luke responds, “You and Tone started that when you shot up this place and killed Pops.”

Of course, Luke Cage is a comic book television series, something that it arguably understands much more than Jessica Jones and Iron Fist, and arguably even more than Daredevil. Although not as visually experimental or innovative as something like Hannibal or Legion, the two seasons of Luke Cage do have a relatively heightened production design that embrace their comic book roots. Luke Cage is dominated by strong colours; the red of Harlem’s Paradise, the gold of Mariah’s brownstone, the red glow of the growhouse in The Main Ingredient.

There is a fair argument to be made that Luke Cage is the most consciously “comic-book-y” of the Marvel Netflix series, as demonstrated by the relative easy with which characters like Willis Stryker and John McIver adapt to their supervillain code names. Even within Soul Brother #1, there is a decidedly comic book vibe. “Hand me my cape,” Luke urges Claire. “Whatever, Power Man,” she remarks cheekily as she hands him his hoodie. Luke had a superhero custume, and walks off getting blown up in a botched ambush.

In terms of tone, Luke Cage is closer to Richard Donner’s Superman or Kenneth Branagh’s Thor than any of the other shows in the line. This is a series that luxuriates in images like Luke patting himself down as he walks slowly out of an explosion, which embraces the idea of a superhero who takes pride in the act of superheroing, and which explores the internal logic of the genre. If anything Soul Brother #1 embraces the idea of Luke as an icon; raiding the stash house is a calling card, his hoodie is a cape, and tapping of opponents on the forehead is a signature move.

This approach to storytelling within Luke Cage capitalises on one of the core strengths of superheroes as a genre. It allows writers to craft archetypal narratives packed with symbols and idea, archetypes and abstractions. It provides a fantastical prism wherein seemingly normal elements might be imbued with a much greater weight. There are obviously elements of this in how Jessica Jones deals with sexual assault or various thematic and religious aspects of Daredevil, but Luke Cage is much more comfortable with this heighten aesthetic than its companion series.

As such, it seems like Pop’s is not just set up as a barbershop, but instead becomes representative of the very idea of the barbershop in the African American experience. This is not just a social space that encourages conversation, it is instead a literal safe space in the middle of a turbulent climate. Luke shielding Chico in Code of the Streets becomes symbolic of the protection and security that the barbership has traditionally offered to young African American men from more dangerous and precarious social environments outside.

As Melissa Victoria Harris-Lacewell notes in Barbershops, Bibles, and BET, the barbershop is important to the African American experience for reasons that extend beyond mere historical convenience:

Barbershops and beauty salons bring people together, not because of shared history per se, but because of fundamental differences in hair texture, necessary products, and services. Black hair care remains the one service that black people provide almost exclusively to other African Americans. This sort of essentialised racial space makes blackness a sufficient condition for membership in a way that can, but does not necessarily, happen in other arenas. In organisations, for example, individuals come together because of the particular mission of the organisation. When one attends a black church it is bother to worship God and to be with other black people. In schools, educational attainment is the primary goal. With media and hip-hop, entertainment is the motivating factor bringing people together. But in the public space of the barbershop, blackness is both the necessary and sufficient condition for membership.

In this context, the barbershop is presented as a neutral space in just about every sense of the world, one in which all people are equal and without any outside purpose or value.

This increased emphasis on the symbolic geography of the fictional Harlem presented in Luke Cage extends to the treatment of Harlem’s Paradise. If the attack on Pop’s in Code of the Streets sparked the crisis that unfolds across the first two seasons of Luke Cage, then Harlem’s Paradise is a focal point. Pop’s is treated as neutral ground for non-combatants, particularly during the second season. Even when Shades and Comanche stake it out in The Basement, it is a place for quiet reflection. D.W. exiles Luke from there in They Reminisce Over You to preserve the peace.

In contrast, Harlem’s Paradise is presented as a battleground. It is a source of constant turmoil and conflict. While Pop’s is an oasis of calm, Harlem’s Paradise is in constant turmoil. It is coopted by Bushmaster in If It Ain’t Rough, It Ain’t Right and For Pete’s Sake, turned into a site for his spiritual rituals. Even after Mariah takes control of it again, it is attacked by Bushmaster in Can’t Front On Me. Although Mariah tries to make it more secure, installing a panic room, Harlem’s Paradise is presented as a turbulent and violent place caught in turmoil.

Again, Harlem’s Paradise is an archetype, it draws from the importance of nightclubs in the social and political development of Harlem. It should be noted that the nightclub scene in Harlem was socially turbulent. Although these clubs were an essential part of the neighbourhood’s history, the local community often had to fight to reclaim therm from outsiders. As Chad Heap notes in Slumming, these clubs were designed by white gangsters for white patrons:

During the 1920s, the nightlife of Harlem and Bronzeville preoccupied white Americans more than any other slumming vogue ever had. Whether visitors to New York and Chicago or longtime residents of these cities, they longed to gain a glimpse both of the thousands of Southern blacks who had only recently settled in the area and of the flourishing jazz culture they brought with them as part of the Great Migration. But night after night, hordes of affluent white slummers came no closer to encountering black urban life than the elaborate floorshows they observed in popular cabarets like Harlem’s Cotton Club and Bronzeville’s Plantation Café. Replete with romantic fantasies of the antebellum South, as indicated by their names, these largely segregated nightspots provided white patrons with the very performances of blackness that they expected to see: jazzed-up versions of the jocular mammies, shiftless urban dandies, and alluring jezebels that peopled the most problematic minstrel performances of the nineteenth century. Only when white amusement seekers ventured off the beaten path to visit black-owned or managed nightspots, such as Bronzevelle’s Dreamland Café, Small’s Paradise in Harlem, or one of the hundreds of smaller speakeasies or buffet flats strewn across the backstreets of these black neighbourhoods, did they come anywhere close to participating in authentic black urban culture.

Indeed, it is worth noting how Luke Cage contextualises Harlem’s Paradise. Cornell might liken it to the more renowned “Cotton Club”, but the title alludes to the black-owned “Small’s Paradise.” In fact, the series repeatedly reinforces this connection through its iconography. One of the most obvious markers of Harlem’s Paradise is the portrait of rapper Biggie Smalls which has been repeatedly used in some of the series’ more iconic shots.

Harlem’s Paradise is described by Mariah as “the crown jewel of Harlem” in They Reminisce Over You, and she is not wrong. It is an important piece on the board in terms of the show’s geography. It is hub of activity. It hosts a variety of famous musical acts, including Joi in this very episode. It also serves as an important location for the community, with Mariah using it to host what amounts to a neighbourhood watch meeting in Take It Personal. However, the site is constantly under sustained threat. The local police spend much more time there than at Pop’s.

Harlem’s Paradise is effectively the key to controlling Harlem through force. It represents economic power in the community. Whoever holds it at a given moment is kingpin of Harlem. This is why Shades is so worried about Mariah signing over legal ownership of the club as part of her gamble for legitimacy that begins with Soul Brother #1. The club is something tangible and material. It is not something abstract and ethereal. It is a real geographical location that affords its owner real leverage out in the real world.

Again, there is a sense that Harlem’s Paradise is drawing upon the cultural importance and iconography of these clubs within the history of Harlem. As Shannon King notes in Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway?, these nightclubs during the thirties allowed some of the African American population to climb the social ladder:

Although Prohibition represent a continuation of white control, it also provided new employment opportunities for Harlemites willing and able to work in the district’s resorts. Throughout the first three decades of the twentieth century, the majority of blacks toiled at the lowest rung of the labour market, and despite the work of black protest organisations, their efforts fell short of providing blacks remunerative employment. Harlem’s nightlife boom in the twenties meant more and sometimes better paying jobs for blacks than could be found in the formal economy. As Lerner explains, “African Americans in New York looked to the illegal liquor trade during Prohibition, as well as to employment in Harlem’s nightclubs and speakeasies, as important sources of economic opportunity.” The expansion of commercial entertainment offered employment opportunities not only for musicians, dancers, singers, and actors, but also hostesses, waiters, and chefs. According to journalist Floyd Snelson, a contemporary, “thousands of dollars nightly found their way into the black belt.”

In All Souled Out, Mariah advises her daughter Tilda, “Black wealth is black power, honey.” This is perhaps a cynical perspective, but Luke Cage suggests there is some truth to the matter. After all, even before Mariah took formal control of Harlem’s Paradise, it was suggested that a lot of her economic power came from Cornell.

At the same time, Luke Cage repeatedly suggests that there is something corrupting in the power afforded by Harlem’s Paradise. At the point when Bushmaster uses Harlem’s Paradise to host his rituals, it becomes clear that his strength is also a source of sickness. (Although Bushmaster is shown engaging in such rituals before that point, his deterioration is less overt.) Similarly, Mariah’s management of Harlem’s Paradise is coupled with her moral descent, to the point that she seems on the cusp of a hedonistic breakdown in The Creator.

Mariah even seems to weaponise the corruption represented by Harlem’s Paradise in They Reminisce Over You, when she leaves Harlem’s Paradise to Luke in her will. Her explicit motivation is that the club might tempt and corrupt Luke. Luke is open to that corruption, having toyed with the idea of claiming the power that it represents since at least the closing scene of The Creator. Sugar admits, “Harlem doesn’t need a sheriff any more.” Luke responds, “You’re right. It needs a king.” If that is the case, then Harlem’s Paradise is the throne room.

It is tempting to think of Harlem’s Paradise and Pop’s as opposite poles within Harlem. It is not that simple. Pop’s is “Switzerland.” Neutrality cannot exist in opposition to any force with a moral value. Indeed, the second season of Luke Cage makes one major addition to the geography of this fictionalised Harlem. It is suggested as early as the first scene after the credits in Soul Brother #1, with Reverend James Lucas practicing his sermon for his congregation. The most important addition to Harlem comes with Reverent Lucas, with a renewed emphasis on the church.

This is not the first time that a church has appeared in Luke Cage. The second season flashes back repeatedly to the events of the first season, but it is perhaps revealing that one of the first flashes in Soul Brother #1 is to Luke taking the lectern at Pop’s funeral in Just to Get a Rep, underscoring the one point in which the first season used a church for heavy thematic purposes. The second season adds a reverend to the supporting cast, and the series spends a lot more time in church; Claire visits in Wig Out, while it offers sanctuary in If It Ain’t Rough, It Ain’t Right.

Indeed, the second season repeatedly contrasts Harlem’s Paradise and the church, suggesting that perhaps the church holds a counterweight within the archetypal geography of the season. The second season repeatedly and consciously parallels Luke Cage and Bushmaster as its two bulletproof black men. However Bushmaster’s inheritance from his absent father is the nightclub. “What was build by the father now belongs to the son,” he reflects in If It Ain’t Rough, It Ain’t Right. In contrast, the second season suggests that Luke needs to reconnect with the church.

After all, the final scenes of They Reminisce Over You are played as tragedy, Luke in a place where he clearly does not belong. Over that scene plays the voice-over of a conversation between father and son, suggesting that perhaps Luke has lost his way and drifted from his father. This connection is inadvertently reinforced by the note at the close of the season, marking the tragic passing of actor Reg E. Cathay. That was obviously never the design, and it’s impossible to know if even the voice-over was originally planned, but it does emphasise how Luke is lost.

Again, the church is an important landmark in the cultural history of the African American experience. As Peter J. Paris notes in The Social Teaching of the Black Churches, the church is a source of inspiration, hope and strength:

[T]he black churches have always had a profound concern for the bitter and painful realities of black existence in America as well as an abiding hope in a bright and radiant future (eschaton) free from any form of racial injustice. The latter, hope, designates the locus of ultimate value where all people are in harmony with the transcendent, holy, and supreme God of the Judeo-Christian fiath. Traditionally, the black churches have interpreted human life, including all of its suffering and pain, in accordance with that ultimate goal in which they have never lost faith. The convergence of that sacred principle with their efforts for improved temporal conditions reveals the integral relationship of religion and politics in the black churches.

There has always been a strong theological element to Luke Cage, reinforced by the character’s parentage. In fact, his very name was taken as part of a nod to his father’s religious beliefs.

Indeed, there is a fairly solid religious and socially conscious reading to the arc of the second season. As much as Reverend James Lucas might be a prideful and spiteful man, there is some truth in his observations. There is a reason why Soul Brother #1 allows Lucas the luxury of an extended opening monologue in which he critiques his own son for serving as something of a false idol – he likens the community’s worship of Luke to the worship of the golden calf in Exodus, a rather stark comparison to make.

However, much like the church serves a social as much as a religious function, there is a more humanist underpinning of James Lucas’ sermon. He worries about the faith that the community has invested in Luke Cage, because Luke Cage is just a human being. Luke Cage is an individual. Even though he has remarkable abilities, he is still just a man. He has all of the flaws that a man has. He is prideful and spiteful, as demonstrated even within Soul Brother #1. He declares that he is Harlem, and he damage’s Sugar’s livelihood out of pettiness.

More than that, Lucas argues that hero worship is undermining the strength of the community as a whole. “What I’m telling you, I’m telling you, is that you – you! – have to take the opportunity to become the hero for yourself,” he urges his followers. “You have to take all your hopes, dreams and – yes! – your fury, to make a plan that will generate the change that you want to come. And you have to realise that not one man can save a community. One man cannot do it by himself, no matter how good, no matter strong. And believe me, Luke Cage is nothing but a man.”

There is a sense of the series’ trademark conservatism coming into play here, the trust in institutions and wider society that made the first season such an easy critical target for its treatment of relations between the community and law enforcement. However, Soul Brother #1 pitches a broader and more generalised appeal to the community. Lucas is arguing for the values of the church as fundamental to the larger arc of the season, that it is important for people to come together and that the pursuit of personal power (no matter how well-intentioned) is corrupting.

This is, after all, the larger arc of the season. Luke repeatedly pushes away those characters who are close to him. It is a trait that he inherits from his father, but he lacks the self-awareness to recognise it. He loses Claire and he loses Misty. Luke isolates himself from support structures that could help. Even within Soul Brother #1, Luke is too arrogant to believe that he could work with law enforcement. “You need to work with us,” Captain Ridenhour tells Luke. “Legally.” Luke blows him off.

As early as Soul Brother #1, the series emphasises Luke’s isolation. Director Lucy Liu and writer Cheo Hodari Coker repeatedly structure the episode so as to keep Luke apart. Luke standing by himself in the middle of an otherwise empty shot is something of a recurring motif in the season premiere. Even when Luke engages with other characters, wide shots emphasise the space that exists between characters at various points in the narrative. There is a sense that Luke has set himself apart from the community that he is trying to protect; closer to the club than the church.

In establishing these three locations as central to the struggle for Harlem’s soul across the second season, Luke Cage is able to frame its heightened superhero drama in almost allegorical and metaphorical terms, pitching the story at a level of abstraction that allows for all manner of interests concepts and discussions. The second season of Luke Cage benefits greatly from its decision to double down on what worked in the first season, to deepen those metaphors and to build on those established archetypes.

While the second season of Luke Cage devotes less time to the ambient texture and mood of Harlem than the first season did, it skillfully takes advantage of the hard work that has already been done. The first season of Luke Cage created a compelling sense of life within Harlem, and the second season builds on that to explore the particulars of life within this heightened comic book (still recognisable) version of Harlem. It is a remarkable feat, and it immediately distinguishes the second season of Luke Cage from those of Daredevil or Jessica Jones.

However, having already established Harlem as the centre of the show’s universe, it can then casts it view beyond. It’s no coincidence that the second season of Luke Cage takes the show out of Harlem and into Brooklyn and even further afield to Jamaica.

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

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