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Luke Cage – Straighten It Out (Review)

The black experience is not monolithic.

This should be obvious. Dark-skinned Americans are not a single political or cultural entity with one easily defined ethnic identity, much like light-skinned Americans have their own diverse heritages and experiences. The Irish American experience is different from the Dutch American experience or the Italian American experience or the German American experience. As such, it makes sense that the ethnic group that might be casually classed as “African American” is itself a composite of a wide array of backgrounds and histories.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the second season of Luke Cage is the ease and willingness with which the series looks outside of the culture and history of Harlem to broaden and deepen its exploration of a variety of black perspectives and experiences. The second season of Luke Cage builds on the first season in establishing a world populated by black characters and black voices, but has the luxury of extending its focus into exploring how those experiences and individuals differ from one another.

For a broad comic book television series about a superhero with bulletproof skin, that is quite the accomplishment.

One of the interesting and compelling things about Luke Cage is that the show has never really been engaged with questions about the relationship between black and white America. Although the very idea of a “bulletproof black man” is charged and loaded in the context of the country’s fraught racial politics, Luke Cage has never really been preoccupied with how its characters engage with forces outside of their community. Although structural racism undoubtedly exists (and is repeatedly discussed) in the world of the show, it is not a driving narrative force.

This lack of interest in exploring the idea of structural racism as imposed by external forces on the community perhaps accounts for come of the more controversial aspects of the first season, such as its attempts to deal with police brutality against the community in Take It Personal or law enforcement’s aggressive tactics towards black suspects in episodes like Soliloquy of Chaos. Of course, the show repeatedly acknowledged the racial dynamics in play through dialogue and conversation, but it differed greatly from what was actually depicted on-screen.

In its first season, Luke Cage avoided tackling these issues head-on as race issues in Take It Personal, controversially diffusing a lot of the racial politics of police brutality against young black men by both making the perpetrator a black police officer and excusing it by reference to the heightened emotions around the recent shooting of a police officer. Similarly, the political organisation among the black community in Harlem was arranged in support of law enforcement rather than protesting it, which seemed out of step with contemporary politics.

Luke Cage came in for a lot of criticism based on these narrative choices. The police brutality plot that ran through the second half of the first season was heavily criticised. The series was accused of peddling in “respectability politics.” The best zinger came from Justin Charity, who noted the politics of having Luke Cage fight against crime boss Cornell Stokes and blaxploitation villain Willis Stryker, “Any other uptown native might’ve been quicker to discover that Harlem’s greater, untouchable menace is the NYPD. But what, Luke Cage wonders, about black-on-black crime?”

These criticisms are entirely valid. When Luke Cage deals with racism external to the community, it is usually in abstract terms; Shades warning Mariah about how “some people” will always see her in Soul Brother #1, Luke talking about a hypothetical woman clutching her purse in Wig Out, Foggy talking about a hypothetical jury in All Souled Out. Racism and oppression undoubtedly exist within the world of Luke Cage, and are acknowledged. However, they are not the primary antagonistic forces, but instead act on the characters in a number of more subtle ways.

The closest thing that the second season of Luke Cage offers to an externalised racist force arrives quite late in the season, with Annabelle Sciorra playing Rosalie Carbone in Can’t Front On Me and They Reminisce Over You. Carbone initially tries to deal with Mariah and then finally strikes a deal with Cage over operations within Harlem. During these negotiations, she does little to hide her contempt for the community. “Blacks are the only ones who can’t keep themselves organised,” she complains in a meeting with Mariah in Can’t Front on Me.

At the same time, Luke Cage takes care to provide Carbone with a distinct ethnic identity outside of generic whiteness. Carbone is explicitly identified as an Italian American, and presented as a leading figure within the world of organised crime. It is very much a stereotype, but a justifiable one given how the character exists on the periphery of the narrative. With Carbone’s casual racism, Luke Cage hints at the idea that similar divides and gulfs exist within what might be described as “white” America.

Indeed, there are a variety of possible reasons why Luke Cage chooses not to focus on the forces of external systemic racism against its central characters. Even for the broad archetypal quality of a comic book series, it might be too much to have Luke Cage punch racism in the face. Given that these shows have to be accessible to all audiences, confronting this racism directly might make white audiences uncomfortable. However, it is also possible that Luke Cage simply isn’t interested in giving over space in its narrative framework to these forces.

There may be a suggestion that this might be the motivating factor in the closing monologue that Straighten It Out affords to Reverend James Lucas. Lucas is very much a mouthpiece for the season, providing an opening monologue layered with thematic foreshadowing after the opening credits in Soul Brother #1. In his sermon at the end of Straighten It Out, Reverend Lucas advocates against wrath. “It poisons you,” he advises his congregation. “Hate only wears you down. It does not hurt your enemy.” Perhaps Luke Cage would rather choose celebration over anger.

One of the most interesting aspects of Luke Cage is how willing it is to give space to its characters and their perspectives. There is something to be said in crafting an accessible and enjoyable superhero series in which the primarily black cast are allowed to exist entirely on their own terms without having make room within the narrative for white perspectives that are already well served in popular culture. Luke Cage gives over space to its black voices and its black characters, without any apology and without any concession.

The primary cast in Luke Cage is almost exclusively black. The supporting characters who are not black are often from other marginalised groups, such as Shades. Even the Harlem police department is primarily black. Among the recurring law enforcement cast are Captain Tom Ridenhour, Detective Nandi Tyler, Detective Mercedes Knight and Deputy Chief Priscilla Ridley. It is hard to understate what a big deal this is. Even Black Panther had to make room for two major white characters in its primary cast; the “Tolkien white guys” Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis.

The second season of Luke Cage is even more predominantly black than the first season had been. The first season had a recurring role for Frank Whaley as Rafael Scarfe, who was a major player in the first half of the season before being killed by Cottonmouth in Suckas Need Bodyguards. Whaley reprises the role for some flashbacks in All Souled Out, but it is a minor role. The other most prominent white characters in the second season of Luke Cage are the relatively undefined Bailey, and Danny Rand who visits for a one-episode guest shot in The Main Ingredient.

However, one of the interesting aspects of the second season of Luke Cage is that it makes a point to emphasise the diversity that exists within its cast of black characters. After all, the black experience is not homogeneous. There are huge differences along lines of class, geography and heritage. In the mid-nineties, Lisa Anderson talked about feeling like an outsider in Harlem:

I was 22 years old, the child of well-traveled, hard-working West Indian professionals, the product of secure Houston suburbs, private schools and four years at Princeton. In my world were the black folk who were the nurses and the scientists, the teachers and the engineers, the lawyers and the corporate vice presidents. In my world, professionals didn’t live around the corner from the underclass. The only ghetto my sister or I ever saw as children was the gritty Fifth Ward in Houston; my father wanted to encourage us to keep working rigorously. These worn houses, he said, were where bad grades could send us.

To put it simply, when it came to Harlem, I was clueless.

I had never seen used condoms or crack vials on the ground on a simple walk to the mailbox. I had never been in a place where people had to grab their home-delivered newspapers before thieves took them to sell. I had never thought I would fear clusters of black men at my subway exit. I had never before come head to head with a world so unlike my own. And it repulsed me.

My reflection in that world was disquieting. It bounced back as limited, elitist. If I were white, it wouldn’t have surprised anyone that I didn’t bond with the locals. If I had lived on Striver’s Row, the “street-comfy” people would have kept some distance. But I wasn’t white, and I wasn’t on Striver’s Row.

Sifting through my year in Harlem made me aware of my unspoken assumptions and beliefs about who I was, as an educated woman, as a black woman. I lost the comfortable illusion that we were all one big, classless society, and that made me realize how much easier it is to talk about race than class, how much you have to reveal about yourself to talk about class.

I look back on that year with some regret about my aloofness. But even now, I don’t think I could have been any other way.

Despite sharing the same racial identity, as much as race can be considered anything but a social construct, the gulf of experience was too large for Anderson to cross. She could not comprehend the experience of those living in Harlem until she lived it first-hand. Even then, it existed very much at odds with her own experience of her own identity, underscoring how different those things were.

The first season of Luke Cage focuses almost exclusively on Harlem. The series dived deep into the neighbourhood’s history and heritage. However, the second season makes a point to expand its focus beyond the boundaries of that urban district. It is telling that Bushmaster is introduced in Soul Brother #1 staring across at the island of Manhattan. “Where is Harlem?” he asks, underscoring how different his experiences must be, and how far he exists outside the show’s framework. Indeed, the character has not even heard of Luke Cage until Straighten It Out.

The second season of Luke Cage consciously and repeatedly pushes its focus beyond Harlem. The fictional geography of Luke Cage is anchored in Harlem; Harlem’s Paradise, Pop’s, the church. However, the addition of the family restaurant in Brooklyn broadens the show’s scope. That restaurant becomes its own anchor, hinting at the idea of a black experience in America that exists outside of Harlem. Luke makes a trip there in Wig Out, only to be marked as an outsider. “He’s the man from up in Harlem.” Mariah makes her own journey in The Main Ingredient, as invader.

These tensions between these communities are repeatedly articulated across the first season. When Mariah considers selling her guns in Soul Brother #1, Cockroach is adamant that she should maintain continuity of power within Harlem itself. “Keep Harlem black, the way it should be,” Cockroach appeals. “Southern black. Ain’t talking about no cigar-smoking black, no ganja-smoking black. Black black. I think you know what I’ve talking about.” It is very clear what Cockroach is talking about. (It is also ironic that Cockroach is the only buyer that Mariah doesn’t seriously consider.)

It could be argued that the first season of Luke Cage was very focused on what Cockroach describes as “southern black”, what Coker describes as “the standpoint of the migration experience from the South to the North within the Stokes family.” Indeed, when the first season did leave Harlem, it involved a pilgrimage for Luke back to his family’s home in Savannah, Georgia in Take It Personal. With that in mind, it only seems appropriate that the second season should broaden its perspective to look at other ideas of blackness.

It makes sense that the second season of Luke Cage should expand its focus on the black experience by looking at Jamaican culture. The West Indian experience is one of the most distinct from that of the stereotypical African American identity, and the ease with which they are confused in popular culture can be deeply frustrating. As Briana Adams noted of her own experiences on coming to the United States:

I find that one of the most challenging aspects my experience has been being stripped of my West Indian identity and being forced to identify as African American. Most people assume that if your skin is dark, that you are black and therefore African American. Few people who actually know my country of origin take the time to ask me what I would prefer to be identified as and my response is always “Afro-Caribbean” because although I was born in a territory owned by the United States, that does not mean that my experiences and my overall identity fall under being African American. In fact, both of my parents are Caribbean immigrants who came to the Virgin Islands to make a better life for themselves. My lineage on both sides of my family traces back to several different islands, meaning that my ancestors were brought to the Caribbean on slave ships to work on sugar plantations and the like.

I often find myself not really fitting in with the black community at Penn State because we although we share a melanin complexion, we differ in values and the environmental influences in which we were raised.

Again, there is a gulf of experience there, a different identity shaped by different cultural values and different political histories. The divide between the African American experience and the West Indian experience is equivalent (if not greater) than the gap which exists between the Irish American experience and the Italian American experience. Skin tones might be similar, but they come from two very different places.

The second season of Luke Cage repeatedly emphasises the differences between the African American Stokes family and the West Indian McIver family. Even with their similar skintones and shared history of colonial oppression, there is racism and stereotyping at play. It is repeatedly suggested that the Stokes see the McIvers as beneath them. “You know, history remembers queens and kings,” Mariah taunts in I Get Physical. “Not the flunkies.” In The Main Ingredient, Mariah dismisses Bushmaster’s rituals as “voodoo sh!t” and describes her rival with contempt as a “peasant.”

This class narrative plays across the second season. The McIver family return time and again to the parable of the two people and the hill; the rich person who lived atop the hill and the poor person who lived at the bottom. The story is most explicitly articulated in I Get Physical, when Misty visits Gideon Shaw in an immigration holding facility.  Shaw explains that the story of the two men and the hill has become an obsession for Jon McIver, and how it has shaped his entire worldview.

“The man on top thinks he’s better than the man below,” Shaw explains. “Why? Because the man at the top, he doesn’t want for anything. His belly’s always full. His house his own. He thinks he can’t get attacked because he can see all around. But that doesn’t bother the man at the bottom of the hill, see? Why not? The man at the bottom knows, at any time he wants, he can walk up that hill, with his blade, and cut off the big man’s head while he sleeps.” Misty responds, “Why are you telling me this story?”

To Shaw, the struggle between the Stokes and the McIvers is rooted in class. “John always talk about his mother and father being wronged,” Shaw explains. “Wronged by those Yankees who think they’re superior. Because they live on the top of the hill. Bushmaster come back uptown. Coming for what is his. He’s going to see the family that live up on Sugar Hill. He’s going to take everything back that’s his. Every bloodclaat thing. It’s like the Bible. Water destroyed the world last time. This time fire.”

In this way, the second season of Luke Cage suggests that divisions of class and historical experience are stronger than bonds of race. The recurring metaphor of the hill suggests that the wealthy and powerful must always live in fear of those beneath them, knowing that at any moment the impoverished might rise up and avenge themselves upon those who have everything. The obvious implication is that the Stokes are at the top of the hill, and the McIvers are waiting at the bottom.

It is an interesting approach to a superhero story, albeit one with obvious precedent. The Dark Knight Rises used the genre as a lens through which filmmakers and storytellers could explore issues of wealth and class, resulting in one of the most prescient and underrated blockbusters of the twenty-first century. It is fascinating to see the second season of Luke Cage building these elements into its core narrative, and seeing similar ideas explored with regards to wealth and exploitation.

In contrast, the McIvers are contemptuous of what they see as weakness in the Stokes. “Your grandfather was a slave,” Anansi taunts Mariah in The Main Ingredient. “That’s the problem with you Yankee, you’re don’t have the strength to fight your masters down. You’re lazy. You’re content with the scraps.” Before his escape in For Pete’s Sake, Bushmaster regales his guards with stories of rebellion and resistance. “That is the true mark of the real Jamaica. Resistance. Independence. Fire.” This adds a layer of irony to Mariah’s murder of Anansi in The Main Ingredient.

The second season of Luke Cage cannily defines a distinct identity for its Jamaican characters. Part of this is in the way in which the sets are dressed; often with flags visible, but often also in shades of green and black. Similarly, the series’ soundscape adjusts to accommodate these characters. The rap and hip-hop associated with Harlem gives way to ska and raggae, the soundtrack including the work of artists like Stephen Marley and Max Romeo. Indeed, Bushmaster’s final scene in They Reminisce Over You is set to Redemption Song.

Executive producer Cheo Hodari Coker worked hard to provide a more specific identity for Bushmaster than had been offered in the source material:

The key was finding a villain that could plug us into that world. So just looking at various people that have come up against Luke in the comics, you eventually come across Bushmaster, who has this weird background where he is supposed to be a member of the mafia. Well, the Marvel version of the mafia where he’s from a mysterious Caribbean island. I decided to make it specific and make it Jamaica, because it was also the perfect opportunity to kind use the show as a Trojan horse talking about Jamaica’s history. Jamaica has a history of resistance and pride, and the music reflects that.

This is a great example of the second season building on the first season, representing a deepening and broadening of what made the first season so effective. There’s a great deal of care in the crafting of the McIver family.

In fact, it is relatively refreshing to see West Indian characters given such prominence in mainstream popular culture. In particular, it is very satisfying to hear the characters allowed to speak in their accents and with their own slang. It is difficult to overstate the potential challenge here; allowing characters to speak with such a distinct voice runs of the risk of alienating casual audience members. After all, similar complaints were made about the dialogue in The Wire, which employed authentic slang and rhythm. It was quite common for audiences to watch The Wire with subtitles.

The second season of Luke Cage understands that the dialogue might be frustrating for audience members unaccustomed to hearing it. When Luke asks for his assailant in I Get Physical, D.W. responds with “Bushmaster” as a best guess based on his statement, “Couldn’t tell if he was singin’ or talkin’.” However, there is value in allowing these characters to speak in their dialect with their accent. It forces the audience to actively engage with what they are watching, and also underscores the distinction that exists between the West Indian experiences and those of Harlem.

According to Coker, there was a great deal of attention paid to the accents of the characters, and a desire to make these characters seem as grounded and as specific as possible:

The same way that Black Panther doesn’t have any one specific accent – there’s elements of South African culture, there’s elements of East African culture, of West African culture, all kind of an amalgam of what makes up Wakanda – we very specifically were going for a Jamaican vibe and influence of the culture for Bushmaster and for that world. Some people who have heard the accent say that we nail it. Some people say that’s more Trini. It’s not quite a Jamaican accent. What none of them say is that we did something offensive or did something where we weren’t trying to be as authentic in terms of the feel as possible. That really was the thing. We wanted to be as respectful as we could. And also hopefully have the opportunity to just shine light on other elements of the black diaspora outside of America and outside of Africa. The Caribbean is such a rich place and Jamaica personally is one of my favorite places in the world. I’ve been lucky to on various projects to have spent a lot of time down there. Having the opportunity to celebrate Jamaican culture within the show in a way that was a full celebration of the culture, not just ganja and menace, I’m hoping that people see that we really did try to provide a balance.

This attention to detail extends beyond the dialogue and the delivery, right down to the production of the series itself. There is a lot of care in the way that Luke Cage approaches Jamaican culture.

The flashbacks in The Creator take the audience to Jamaica, to provide a clearer sense of Jon McIver’s background and origin. The episode serves as something of a companion to piece to Manifest in the first season. However, it is particularly notably how Luke Cage approached the concept. For Iron Fist, Danny Rand’s trip to China in The Blessing of Many Fractures was shot entirely in New York, leading to a somewhat unconvincing portrayal of the region. This was arguably a microcosm of the issues with Iron Fist, particularly its inauthenticity with regards to Asian culture.

In contrast, Luke Cage actually took its production team to Jamaica in order to shoot those flashback scenes. The writers and producers understood that it would be impossible to convincingly recreate the island’s unique surroundings within the confines of New York, and so the series incurred considerable expense in order to present a credible history for the McIver family. This small gesture goes a long way, suggesting that Luke Cage is committed to presenting an authentic Jamaica as it is to presenting an accurate depiction of Harlem.

Of course, Luke Cage also acknowledges that geographic origin is not the only divide that exists within the black community, the only source of tension and anxiety within a group often classed as a homogeneous entity. Luke Cage repeatedly touches on the notion of colourism within African American culture, dating back to the first suggestion that Mariah Dillard bristled at the nickname “Black Mariah” early in Moment of Truth. However, the second season makes a point to articulate and explain this form of prejudice, which is quite often overlooked.

To be fair, as more African American writers and producers are granted more freedom to articulate their experiences and their perspectives in film and television, issues like this can be discussed and explored in an open forum. For example, it was refreshing to see the notions of colourism and classism brought up in the conversation between Olivia and Annalise in the crossover between Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, which aired on ABC. Similarly, it is also refreshing to see the topic broached in a streaming superhero series.

Colourism is a form of prejudice that exists within minority communities. As Lori L. Tharps acknowledges, the topic has only recently entered mainstream conversation, with many tracing its origins to the eighties:

The funny thing is, the word colorism doesn’t even exist. Not officially. It autocorrects on one’s computer screen. It does not appear in the dictionary. Still, the author and activist Alice Walker is the person most often credited with first using the word colourism, out loud and in print. In an essay that appeared in her 1983 book, In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens, Walker defined colourism as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.” Light-skin preference had been common practice in the black community for generations, but Walker gave it a name and marked it as an evil that must be stopped in order for African Americans to progress as a people.

In an era where people are increasingly aware prejudice both individual and systemic, it is very worth bringing issues like that into focus.

Again, this perhaps reflects on the interest that Luke Cage has on exploring the tensions and anxieties that exist within these communities, rather than focusing on the pressures that are exerted from outside. This decision to focus its gaze inwards, and to focus on problems and tensions within what might traditionally be described as “the black community”, remains one of the more delicate and controversial aspects of Luke Cage. However, it does afford the series a relatively unique viewpoint, and also affords room for more complicated discussions.

Colourism is a prejudice that exists within the community, it affects the way in which people within minorities interact with one another. Given that the primary cast of Luke Cage is largely composed of minorities, it makes sense that the series would broach the topic and acknowledge how it shades and defines interactions between members of these communities. While Luke Cage acknowledges that Mariah faces racism from outside of her community, it repeatedly emphasises the challenges that she faces within the community itself.

In In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, Alice Walker argued that colourism was a problem that the community had to fix itself internally:

Still, I think there is probably as much difference between the life of a black black woman and a “high yellow” woman as between a “high yellow” woman and a white woman. And I am worried, constantly, about the hatred the black black woman encounters within black society. To me, the black black woman is our essential mother – the blacker she is the more us she is – and to see the hatred that is turned on her is enough to make me despair, almost entirely, of our future as a people.

Again, this comes perilously close to the accusations of “respectability politics” that haunted so much of the first season. However, it is handled with enough nuance and skill that it works.

In that wonderful extended scene between Tilda and Mariah in For Pete’s Sake. Over the course of the season, Bushmaster keeps repeatedly identifying Mariah as a “Stokes”, while Mariah asserts her identity as “Dillard.” Eventually, Mariah concedes to her daughter, “Dillard is fantasy. Stokes is real.” Tilda understands, “I get it. The Dillards are creole and light-skinned, the good ones with the good hair. And the Stokes are dark like delta mud, violent and complicated. That’s why you always hated yourself.”

Mariah initially resists the assertion. “You think I hate the Stokes because I’m colour-struck?” she challenges her daughter. “You don’t know sh!t.” However, she eventually seems to concede the point. “Kids used to make fun of me because I was dark, said I was an African,” she recalls, explaining the origin of the nickname “Black Mariah.” Talking about marrying into a wealthier family to help cover for her husband’s homosexuality, Mariah explains, “They were so happy he wasn’t gay, it didn’t matter how black I was.” All of this prejudice is within Harlem.

Indeed, the second season of Luke Cage doubles down on the distinctive identity of the first season by focusing on fault line within what might be described as a “black identity.” The season touches on geographical divides, on gender divides, on colour-based divides. Offering a compelling portrait of blackness in America, the second season of Luke Cage cannily and cleverly argues that there is no singular homogeneous monolithic black identity. Reality is more complicated than all of that.

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

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