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Luke Cage: a view from Harlem

January 16, 2018 - 10:23 -- Admin

With the expansion in cable television, and the even more recent rise of online television, we live in a golden age of television. The range of TV series, including high quality TV series, available is unprecedented.

Marvel v DC

I have a weakness for police procedurals, crime shows and superhero shows (though not the animated versions). Among the “big two” comic conglomerates, DC comics has had a longer record of TV success than Marvel, though Marvel has started to expand its television presence. DC is doing particularly well in TV series at the moment. From the success of Arrow (2012-), DC has spun off The Flash (2014-), Legends of Tomorrow (2016-) (the core of the so-called Arrowverse) plus creating Constantine (2014-15) and Supergirl (2015-). From the DC imprint Vertigo Comics comes Lucifer (2015-), which is the most wickedly funny of the various current set of comic series (as is only proper).

DC’s most iconic comic characters are Superman (1933) and Batman (1939). In terms of current TV series, Supergirl is, of course, Superman’s cousin while Gotham (2014-) is the story of the path, starting with the death of the Mr & Mrs Wayne’s, of Bruce Wayne to becoming Batman. The previous great C21st DC superhero TV success being Smallville (2001-2011), the story of Kal-El/Clark Kent’s path to becoming Superman.

Outside the Christopher Nolan Batman films, Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Marvel has done much better in recent films than DC, both in fan/critical response and box office. The standout exception for DC being Wonder Woman (2017), which was not merely a great superhero film, but also a great war film. Otherwise, the recent DC outings have been too dour, too pedestrian: reasonable B-grade films, although with block-buster budgets, but nothing special.

Apart from the first Captain America film, The First Avenger (2011), the various Marvel Cinematic Universe films have been more fun, better received by the fans, and generally bigger box office than the recent DC film efforts. My favourites are Doctor Strange (2016) and Deadpool (2016), but I have enjoyed them all.

Their film success has encouraged Marvel to produce various TV series. They started with a direct leverage from the successful Avenger movies, with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013-) and Agent Carter (2015-2016) plus a group of specifically New York focused series; Jessica Jones (2015-), Daredevil (2015-), Luke Cage (2016-), Iron Fist (2017-) who converge in a group series The Defenders (2017-). Marvel has also launched The Punisher (2017-) as well as an explicitly X-men series, Legion (2017-).

I have been watching (on DVD); Arrow (2012-), The Flash (2014-), Legends of Tomorrow (2016-) and Gotham from DC comics plus Daredevil (2015-), Luke Cage (2016-) and Jessica Jones (2015-) from the Marvel universe.  I have also been watching, and greatly enjoying, Lucifer (2015-).

In the case of Jessica Jones (2015-), I only watched it because some of the events referenced in Luke Cage (2016-) happened in the first season of Jessica Jones (2015-). Although I watched all the first season of Jessica Jones (2015-), I found it at times a difficult watch. Not because it was not well done–it is very well done–but because the mind-controlling psychopath Kilgore (wonderfully played by David Tennant) was an uncomfortable villain while I found Jessica Jones’s abrasive inability to manage people effectively frustrating: too much overt emotion, too little thinking it through. Luke Cage’s caring calm was distinctly more engaging.

Man in a hoodie

Luke Cage is an unusual superhero in at least two respects. First, no mask: he is just an African-American man in a hoodie. Second, no special name; Luke Cage is the name he already goes by around first Hell’s Kitchen, in Jessica Jones (2015-), and then Harlem (though it is not his legal name).

That Luke Cage is of African descent is less unusual: Marvel is bringing out a Black Panther film this year. Luke Cage does have special powers (bulletproof and unusually strong), the result of a freak medical experiment/accident, but that is hardly an unusual superhero back story.

(As an aside, I have come to very much dislike the use of white and black as racial terms. As journalist William Saletan nicely puts it, race is not a causal unit. It does not even bundle causal units together in other than the crudest of fashions. The terms white and black strip people of their cultural and civilisational heritages–we do not, after all, use the term yellow races any more. In the case of the US, white bundles people of European heritages together while black bundles people of various African heritages together–whether the descendants of slaves who have been in what is now the US for centuries, more than enough time for ethnogenesis; more recent Afro-Caribbean migrants further removed from the experience of slavery and with no Jim Crow in their history; or recent African immigrants who tend to be highly educated and highly successful.)

The character of Luke Cage was introduced in Jessica Jones (2015-) where he ran a bar in Hell’s Kitchen. By the time the Luke Cage series starts, he has moved to Harlem and is sweeping hair in a barber shop and dishwashing at the Harlem Paradise nightclub.

People and place

As a TV series, Luke Cage has some notable features. The first is much less of “quick cuts” approach to scenes and shots in this online series than is usual in TV shows: there is much more lingering use of camera angles. Second is the on-screen music is much more front-and-centre. In particular, the scenes at the Harlem Paradise night club include guest singers, whose talents are showcased rather than touched-upon background. But not only there: a rap artist rapping at the end of a radio interview gets the same showcasing.

The third is a very solidly African-American perspective. This is a series very much placed in Harlem, and the history of Harlem is not one of slavery or Jim Crow; they were things that happened elsewhere. There is much reference to “black” history in the series, but it is a running reference to the achievements of notable African-Americans. The invoked public history is a heroic history of example and achievement, not a victim history of oppression.

A recurring touchpoint within the series is that of missing fathers. Only about 30 percent of African-Americans are now born in wedlock. If one wants to see communities experimenting with large-scale dispensing with fatherhood, then African-American communities are it. Not encouraging examples, and certainly Luke Cage as a TV series treats missing fathers as a lack, a failure, a flaw and a burden.

A continuing theme in the series is the use of the word nigger (or nigga).  Luke Cage (Mike Colter) himself refuses to use it, and Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodward), the Harlem councilwoman with the crime family background, announces to her night club-owning crime-boss cousin Cornel “Cottonmouth” Stokes (another fine performance by Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali: but all the leads are well-played) how much she despises the word in one of the first scenes of the series. Cottonmouth himself says in that same scene that “it is easy to underestimate a nigger, you don’t see him coming”. The characters who embrace crime and violent street bravado are the ones that bandy the word about.

Civilised order versus gangster barbarism is very much a theme of the series (roughly as many African-Americans identify as conservative as identify as liberal). Doing work is a character positive, as is running a (small) business. Liberty versus coercion is also a theme in the series; though coercion in the broad, not merely state coercion. The oppressed/oppression language of politics which African-American life is so often framed by appears lightly in the series, and then in the context of cops and young black males.

But the series refuses to indulge in easy racial stereotypes–the most dire case of police brutality is between a large African-American detective and a teenage African-American boy, while good and evil, strength and weakness are treated as orthogonal to race or ethnicity. The police themselves are portrayed as people, not stereotypes.

The writing and acting are generally excellent. But fine acting has become the norm in the better TV series from the US. The days when you watched American shows for the bang-bang and car chases and British shows for the acting and the wit have long since passed.

Fathers may be significantly absent, but family is not. Cottonmouth’s erratic, almost febrile, violence makes so much more sense as you learn his (and his cousin’s) family backstory. While Luke Cage’s own family drama turns out to be central to the story arc of the first season (and, it is hinted at in the last episode, perhaps longer).

The contrast between a grandmother who corrupted her family and a father who failed his sons is another example of the series refusing to indulge in easy stereotypes. As is detective Misty Knight’s (Simone Missick) wrestling with being in the system yet dubious of it after she is confronted by betrayal from within it and Luke Cage’s example outside it.

Natural versus imposed diversity

I enjoyed the intelligence and story-first approach of the series. It is also an excellent example of the correct way to do “diversity”: make sure story comes first and diversity comes naturally out of it.

If one is clever about it, one can successfully alter, for example, the sex and race of iconic characters. A classic example is Lucy Liu‘s wonderful Joan Watson in Elementary (2012-) which–like the mostly superb Sherlock (2010-)—gives us a contemporary Sherlock Holmes; but a recovering drug addict Sherlock who lives in New York and has a sober companion hired by his father as a condition of living in one of his brownstones foisted on him. Enter the (former) Dr Joan Watson who has giving up being a surgeon to be a sober companion and through whose eyes we find out about Sherlock. The dynamic works and is a great basis for storytelling. It is also nice to see two attractive (heterosexual) characters of the opposite sex in a strong and dynamic relationship with absolutely no hint of sexual tension.

(Pausing here for fan joke: Joss WhedonSteven Moffat and George R.R. Martin walk into a bar and every character you’ve ever loved dies.)

Both DC and Marvel comics have falling readerships. Marvel in particular has gratuitously failed to leverage the success of its movies. There has been too much of “we command the cultural commanding heights and we are going to show our institutional dominance” approach of expanding diversity by obliterating historical voices (as in gratuitously changing the sex/race/sexual/gender identity of iconic characters) and too little  increasing the range of voices with their own inherent stories.

In other words, too much of the rebooted Ghostbusters model and not enough of the Mad Max; Fury Road example. The two films’ respective IMDB ratings (5.3 and 8.1) and box office results ($229m worldwide on a $144m budget–it failed to make its production budget in the US–versus $379m worldwide on a $150m budget; remembering that you have to add on about 50% to the production budget to include distribution costs) indicate which is the more successful road to go down.

Because it is the path more respectful of story: respectful of function and purpose which is audience-directed, not gratuitously imposed moralising, which is self (“look at us”) directed. Luke Cage is first and foremost good storytelling, which is how it is able to invoke people and place so well, and do it with a clear and engaging voice.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

ADDENDA: Ooh, the irony, the lesson:

Every year, the LGBTQ+ advocacy group GLAAD recognizes and awards a selection of television shows, films, and books that feature powerful portrayals of queer people. This year, a number of Marvel’s comics were recognized for the contributions they’ve made to queer culture, but those nominations were bittersweet for one incredibly disappointing reason: They’ve all been cancelled.