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Luke Cage: An Exploration of Black Identity

By Marquise Griffin

“Man, it is what it is.
You can’t understand a man
if you ain’t live what he lived.”
            -Method Man “Bulletproof Love”

I have a vivid memory of being in the Chicago Union Amtrak station in 2014, waiting for my next train, while CNN footage of Eric Garner being choked to death by New York’s finest played on a loop on the TV screens. Until that point, I had managed to avoid seeing the video since part of me dies each time I see my brethren unjustly killed. I felt disgusted seeing the video, not only because I was not prepared to view it, but also because of the (non)reactions of the people around me. The ones staring at the screen looked impassive, unbothered by the repeated display of Garner surrounded by several officers, as the caption stated that Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who grabbed Garner by the neck, would not be indicted. It occurred to me that while video footage has provided undeniable proof of police violence against Black and Brown people, the public is nevertheless largely unsympathetic to our lived experiences. Repeatedly showing footage of police killing Black people seems to normalize police violence rather than challenging it. This demonstrates that it’s not enough to show that Black and Brown people are killed by police. Critical Race Theory emphasizes that racism has been invisibly normalized in society and asserts the importance of storytelling in order to provide a counter narrative to the dominant hegemony of White supremacy. It is in this context that Luke Cage, a Marvel Netflix original released last year, truly matters and excels.

I had been anticipating Luke Cage since it entered development in late 2013. I took it as a consolation prize that the show was set to be released before Black Panther, which was originally slated to premier in 2014, but got delayed when Marvel decided to go with Guardians of the Galaxy instead, deeming it more marketable. I watched Luke Cage as soon as it was released on Friday, September 30th, and finished it in two days. I talked it about it with everyone I knew who would care anything about it, from superhero fans to Black history and culture aficionados to people who were simply looking for a new show to get into. I told them it would be a game changer for superhero shows given its audacious display of Black culture. In some ways, this is an understatement because it does not fully capture how the release of Luke Cage in the era of Black Lives Matter is so significant.

The eponymous protagonist was created in the early 1970s as the first Black American superhero to have his own title and publication. Luke Cage is a unique show within the live-action superhero genre given its protagonist is a Black man from the inner city. The first episode opens in Harlem with Luke in Pop’s Barbershop, owned and run by Henry “Pop” Hunter. Pop and his barbershop are both pillars of Harlem, and Pop’s motto – “Always forward. Always.”— becomes Luke’s maxim as he struggles against adversity. By opening the series with a scene at the barbershop, viewers are immediately drawn into a space that has served as a sanctuary and haven for inner city communities, helping residents cope and process urban life. In Black American communities, the barbershop is an informal forum for the sharing of wisdom, stories, discussion of current events, and most importantly, inter-generational community.

african american male looking at his new hair cut in a handheld mirror
Jermaine’s Main Street Barber Shop, Kalamazoo, MI. Photo credit: Ma Zawi

When Luke Cage was first published as a comic, he operated under the codename Power Man, and in the opening scene Pop makes this reference as a wink to the comic fans. It is also an important allusion to Luke’s larger role as a Black man with super strength and bulletproof skin. To be a Black man impervious to conventional weapons, to have a body that neither corrupt police officers nor inner city gang members can harm, essentially means being impervious to all the physical ways in which violence is inflicted upon Black bodies. Of course, Luke can still be harmed emotionally and spiritually and Luke’s vulnerabilities are explored throughout the series. Some critics have described Luke as a flat character who is overly stoic and rarely displays emotion. On the contrary, Luke is incredibly self-aware of his power and strives to keep his strength in check. Because he is on the run from the law, he doesn’t want to draw attention to himself, but he does not want to hurt anyone either, and he strives to remain in control of his emotions, especially his anger.

Even as a mere mortal without super-strength I can relate to the constant need to not lose control. As a black man, I’ve been told nearly all my life that I look intimidating or unfriendly. And though I don’t have super strength, I’m quite muscular and wear layers of dreadlocks which, due to cultural tropes and stereotypes, add another dimension to the perception that I’m intimidating. In this context, Luke Cage’s portrayal as someone who is undemonstrative and aloof makes absolute sense to me. As a comic book nerd I’ve always imagined what it would be like to have superpowers, but if I were to somehow acquire super strength, I know that having this ability would complicate my life and make it way more stressful than it already is. To be honest, I’m not sure it would be worth it. Is it any wonder that Luke is so reluctant to be the Power Man that Pop wants him to be?

I admit that I was a bit frustrated with Luke’s initial determination not to use his powers, though I also understood his desire to be inconspicuous. He just wants to keep his head low, make a living, and quietly live his life. Yet, Luke’s solid moral compass won’t allow him to stay out of the fray when he sees trouble brewing in Harlem. Instead, he intervenes out of concern for his fellow human, his righteous anger with the ubiquity of crime in Harlem, and because he sees how ineffective the police are at curbing crime. As I watched the series and learned more about Luke’s personal history, I also began to see how his past shaped his character.

Luke Cage was not always Luke Cage. Before he was endowed with his powers, he was Carl Lucas, a cop who was framed and imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. While in prison Carl is forced to participate in a fighting ring by a racist guard who profited from betting on him to win matches. Carl originally agrees to fight in order to save the life of a friend whom the guard threatened. However the more he participates in the fights, the more he loses his sense of empathy and compassion, until all that remains is rage and violence. Carl’s friend warns him to hold on to his humanity, and after this friend is killed, Carl refuses to fight any longer. When Carl is nearly killed, a doctor gives him a version of the super soldier serum that made Steve Rogers into Captain America. Carl escapes from prison and Luke Cage is born.

Luke’s origins mirror the ongoing obstacles that Black and Brown prisoners face when they re-enter the free world. Treated inhumanely, often coerced into providing free labor, prisoners typically exit the system hardened and ill-prepared. They face extremely limited opportunities for employment, disenfranchisement, and the stigma of being a “criminal.” Following Luke’s escape from prison, he is only able to find employment due to the kindness of friends (i.e. Pop’s barbershop) or employers who don’t do extensive background checks (i.e. Cottonmouth’s nightclub). And even though his records are completely wiped from the system and he changed his name and appearance, Luke is still dogged by paranoia and suspicion until he fully embraces his role as a protector of Harlem.

More than his super strength or bulletproof skin, I believe that Luke’s main power is his resiliency, drawn from his knowledge of Black history and his moral upbringing as the son of a preacher. Luke’s ability to persevere allows him to reintegrate into society despite his fugitive status. And his sense of justice eventually leads him to become a hero of the streets where he singlehandedly combats drug and weapons trafficking. Luke’s moral compass reflects his understanding that the world is not black and white but exists in shades of grey. Despite (or perhaps because of) his former career as a cop, he does not see law enforcement as effective in upholding order or preventing crime. Luke’s own sense of justice evolves over the course of the series, from one that is initially focused on keeping his nose clean to one that cannot ignore the reality that he has the power to prevent others from being hurt. He comes to the conclusion that not intervening would make him complicit in wrongdoing.

Most significantly, Luke is a hero who takes control of his own narrative. Rather than allowing the media, the people of Harlem, or his enemies to define him, Luke proclaims exactly who he is and why he engages in vigilantism. Initially Luke operates while only wearing a hoodie to conceal his identity, a clear allusion to Trayvon Martin. Too often, Black victims of police brutality are put on trial for their own deaths as was the case for Martin. When Luke’s reputation is challenged, this galvanizes him to take ownership of his story, go public with his actions, and set the terms of his legacy.

With its predominantly Black cast, situated in a predominantly Black community, and a super-strong, Black, bulletproof hero, Luke Cage follows a strong mythic and folklore tradition of using stories about heroes to empower ourselves and our communities. The heavy use of biblical imagery and Black history that is featured in the dialogue, background scenery, and character arcs of the series were quite cathartic for me. I was enthralled by the frequent allusions to the Bible, Black historical figures and celebrities, and current events in Black America. I would sometimes pause the show just so I could look up a reference I was unfamiliar with. In this sense, Luke Cage is far more than a typical superhero show; it is an exploration of the evolving nature of Black identity as it confronts modern systemic oppression. Some critics argue that Luke does not show enough breadth or complexity, but for me, his character is entirely relatable. He displays restraint and resiliency against adversity, compassion as well as an instinct for self-preservation, and a deep desire to live his life with dignity and self-respect. Netflix crashed the weekend that Luke Cage was released because so many people were trying to stream it. This demonstrates the hunger for more media portraying the lived experiences and aspirations of Black and Brown people and their communities.

Marquise Griffin is a native of St. Louis, MO and earned a Bachelor’s degree in English with an emphasis on Literary and Cultural Studies at Kalamazoo College in 2015. He is now working on his Master’s degree in Education at the University of Missouri-Columbia. His degree program is Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis with an emphasis on higher education administration. Marquise will graduate with his Master’s in May of this year and plans to use his degree to increase the educational competency of historically marginalized communities.


1 Comment

  1. Claire P.

    Wow. I enjoyed your erudite, empowering narrative of Luke Cage’s transformation. I was just speaking about this movie with a “brown” colleague recently. While a fan of the movie, she critiques the stereotypes of the inner-city, black community. I wonder what you have to say about this.