To deal with my anger over the seemingly unending number of black men and women killed at the hands of those tasked with the duty to serve and protect, I often play N.W.A’s “F–k tha Police” to cope—except I don’t play it loud. I’m afraid the boys in blue (not the Crips; I’m cool with them—the other gang that wears blue) will see a black man in a nice car playing a song with bass and I’ll end up another hashtag. Luke Cage doesn’t need to worry about that. His skin is impenetrable.
Luke Cage the series premieres Friday on Netflix, and while the character is a black superhero from Marvel’s golden era, Cage’s power is one that many black parents wish they could bestow upon their children today. Holding my firstborn son immediately after he was born, I made two promises I intend to keep. I whispered that I would never leave him, and I vowed always to protect him. The latter promise is why I wish I could give him Cage’s power, because to me he is a superhero.
To raise a black man in this time of unyielding violence requires superhuman strength. And so, in this light, Cage does dual work. I grew up wanting to be Superman and Batman. When I discovered Marvel Comics, I wanted to be Cyclops and Wolverine—when I played, I visualized myself as a white man. I saw whiteness as the embodiment of integrity and strength.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. While Luke Cage is too mature for my 8-year-old son’s eyes, to know that a black man of incredible stature embodies virtue and justice means that black kids, like my son, will have people who look like them to discover in time. Perhaps this is why Ta-Nehisi Coates, the writer of Marvel’s Black Panther, agreed to tweet about the show. He, too, is a father and a lover of comics—he knows the power of representation.
Rarely are white audiences asked to enter into the emotional life of contemporary black American characters. To have a show that decenters whiteness and places a black man and black culture at its core forces those watching to see the humanity in those who inhabit black bodies. So committed is this show to expressing a black politic that about 30 minutes into the first episode, Alfre Woodard, who plays Mariah Dillard, a local Harlem politician, says the phrase “Black lives matter” with emotion and conviction. It’s a jaw-dropping moment. Disney financed, promoted and included in its lucrative Marvel Cinematic Universe a show that is unapologetic in its blackness.
Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker names James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni as influences and the cultural ethos of the series. Coker was intentional about bringing the history of Harlem to bear on the setting. From the endless hip-hop references to the political commentary on our contemporary moment, Luke Cage is not trying to provide an undercurrent of blackness. The series places it front and center and dares the audience to look away.
Revolutionary moments do not occur in a vacuum. As James Cone argues in The Spirituals and the Blues, art produced by oppressed communities reflects their lived conditions—and that work, when communicated in a way that decenters whiteness, can be revolutionary.
When slaves made their way to freedom via the Underground Railroad, spirituals full of theological depth and existential longings guided their way. As black bodies swung in the Southern breeze, the Harlem Renaissance pushed back against normative understandings of what art should do. While black men and women were in the streets fighting for freedom in the 1960s, Nina Simone sang “Mississippi Goddam,” while Baldwin used the written word as only he could. And walking amid poverty-stricken streets, hip-hop artists redefined what music could be.
I suspect that historians and cultural critics will look back on our moment and see what we cannot. They may comment upon the melodic, experimental work of Desiigner and Chance the Rapper and call it post-hip-hop. They might discuss the absurdist comedy of FX’s Atlanta and place it alongside the work of Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco. I also suspect that they will look at the contemporary use of black comic book characters as the revolutionary embodiment of our hopes and dreams.
Coker’s Luke Cage will be thought of as groundbreaking and radical in its own right.