“Keep Harlem Black!” – so reads the campaign slogan of Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard). To the public it is intended as an innocuous slogan that emphasises Harlem’s legendary contribution to black music and culture, but to Mariah and her equally villainous cousin ‘Cottonmouth’ (Mahershala Ali), it means something more: their stranglehold on a community that is equally notorious for its apparent crime and lawlessness. When one day a tortured but decent man with superhuman abilities shows up on their doorstep, a war for Harlem’s soul begins.
What Netflix has done in its latest collaboration with Marvel is remarkable: here is a mainstream show that is both superhero entertainment and unapologetically black at the same time. When I say ‘black’, I do not mean to say that it is the kind of edgy product, often seen today, that tries to drop the word ‘nigger’ as often as possible (though its use is not skirted either). Instead we get Luke Cage, which under the guidance of showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker manages to call back stylistically to the 1970s heyday of the Blaxploitation genre – which after all birthed the Luke Cage character – while updating it in such a way to make it socially relevant to the issues of today. There is something powerfully subversive about seeing an unarmed black man in a hoodie being shot at (the infamous shooting of Trayvon Martin is explicitly referenced in the show) and emerging unharmed. In this way, Luke Cage sets itself apart from the other Marvel/Netflix shows by being grounded in our world – even meeting Method Man in a cameo appearance, which leads to a rap track “Bulletproof Love” being produced within the story.
Mike Colter excels in the titular role of the reluctant hero, giving a character that has unbreakable skin and a massive physique a surprising degree of vulnerability. It is Cage’s tortured past that drives him forward, with many of his unresolved conflicts dogging him throughout the narrative until he finally makes the decision to face them. This internal dilemma between his emotional wounds and his sense of duty is always made transparent to us by Colter’s sensitive portrayal. Of the villains arrayed against him, the most impressive is Ali as Cottonmouth, a slick and sophisticated club-owner and underworld mogul. Ali clearly enjoyed playing this part; his ice-cold laugh reveals his menace and those rare moments where Cottonmouth loses his composure unfailingly stand out every episode. The other performances in Luke Cage all tend to be good, with the exception of one particular antagonist, Diamondback, whose cartoonish theatricality feels ridiculously out of place in a show so otherwise grounded as this.
But that’s not to say that writer and creator Coker doesn’t make use of Luke Cage’s campy origins in a constructive way. Indeed an argument could be made that Luke Cage is the most light-hearted of all the Marvel/Netflix shows: we often hear his corny catchphrase “Sweet Christmas!” and there is a particularly humorous throwback to his original comic-book costume in the fourth episode. For about the first half of the show, Luke Cage does an excellent job of balancing this campy aspect with the gritty Harlem that it portrays. Halfway through, however, the narrative takes a very bold turn left, and from that point onwards it seems as if the show loses its focus on what it wants to be. The problems are numerous: the weak subplots, overused clichés, continuous introductions of new characters and especially the farfetched, all-too-convenient backstories represent a failure of potential that one cannot help but find disappointing.
There is however one aspect to this show that stands out above all else, and which any fair review cannot miss – the music. Coker is clearly in his element here. Both the original score as well as the licensed soundtrack show off the outsized influence of Harlem’s iconic musical scene. It is not by accident that Cottonmouth’s lair is a prestigious club; nearly every episode features a beautifully-shot musical number, demonstrating that the director clearly understands the groovy smoothness underlying all RnB. Even the episodes are all named after songs.
Luke Cage is an excellent, if flawed, work of television. What is both fascinating and commendable is how effortlessly the show makes it seem that while we do not live in his world, Luke lives in ours. One must be careful not to overdo this analogy, however. The Harlem of today is no longer the place it used to be following decades of gentrification. In other words, at least some of the Harlem that Mariah Dillard wants to ‘keep black’ is now consigned to nostalgic recollection. But the social problems that the characters in Luke Cage face are still very real, and remind us that there are countless Harlems across America that could use a little bit of bulletproof love.