“I’m not for hire, but you have my word, ma’am. I’ve got you.”
If you’re a fan of the super hero genre, Marvel’s Luke Cage on Netflix has got YOU. It has everything action fans love woven into next-level handling of racial politics—plus a kickass soundtrack. It’s a huge hit with audiences, and people are already anticipating a second season.
The show is not just entertaining. It’s making big statements about our culture. The very fact that Luke Cage (Mike Colter) is black and bulletproof is hugely symbolic in itself. The show’s action sequences hinge on his superpower, but that power never becomes his defining characteristic.
Luke Cage and the villains have a lot in common. They are people of action. They know that anger is a powerful thing. Furthermore, they are black and they know what that means in the world inside and outside Black Harlem, where the action happens.
However, there is a significant difference between them: Luke Cage can’t be bought. His word is good, and the value and meaning of a word is central to the dialog in Luke Cage. One particular word stands out.
The N Word
Just as in the real world, the N word in Luke Cage means different things to different people. Crime kingpin Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali) overtly identifies with it. I empathize with him when he explains to his cousin, Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), that it is, in a sense, his cover. “That’s why they never see you comin’,” he says. It conceals everything else about him while he quietly gains power.
Mariah hates the word. As a politician, she’s fighting against being negated by the N word. She certainly can’t use it openly, but we see her use it more as she embraces Cottonmouth’s criminality. Despite her ideals and aspirations, she’s more like him than she thinks. The ends justify the means for both of them. Her ideals don’t stop her from being bought. They help her rationalize it.
Cage’s refusal to be bought sets him apart from the villains, but it also makes distance from the original comic: Luke Cage, Hero For Hire. The superhero was conceived as part of the Blaxploitation genre in the 70s, and the show’s writers and producers respond to that history without erasing it. When Luke Cage says that he’s not for hire, but his word is good, the message is clear. This is not the same Luke Cage that debuted in 1972.
Cage is not interested in hiding nor ruling, nor being bought. He is the opposite of everything that the N word comes to mean in the show, so he refuses to identify with it. His identity is loaded enough.
Luke Cage Wears A Hoodie
Before the show begins, Luke Cage has already experienced betrayal, wrongful imprisonment and agony. He has as many reasons to be as villainous as Cottonmouth, and he is bulletproof. What’s stopping him from running amok?
Cage’s invulnerability is a sort of analog for enlightenment. As the old adage goes: “Before enlightenment, carry water, chop wood. After enlightenment, carry water, chop wood.” Greater understanding doesn’t absolve us from humble acts of service. It gives clarity to them.
Because he is bulletproof, Cage can exist mentally outside the paradigm that makes black men into targets, even while his hoodie uniform is a constant reminder of that reality. His humility and honesty prevent him from using his powers for ill, but initially he doesn’t use them for good either. It takes a tragedy to compel him to fight for others.
It’s worth mentioning that even the villains are easy to sympathize with. Cottonmouth shows remorse when he accidentally kills a beloved neighborhood icon. Mariah, as a patron and daughter of Harlem, has sympathetic motives, but she still ultimately wants power for its own sake. They are complex, and in some cases their own complexity gets in the way of seeing the simple truth that they are doing evil.
The brilliance of how Cage sets out to take down Cottonmouth and Mariah exemplifies their differences. He doesn’t take a life or rob someone of their personhood. It’s very simple. He walks into their headquarters and takes all the ill-gotten money funding their outfit. He strips them of their power.
As I watched the scene (also described in Variety‘s review), I was cheering him on aloud—blame it on the Wu Tang track playing in the scene. Bullets are being fired by every kind of handgun and machine gun, but nothing penetrates Cage. The audience is, however penetrated by the soundtrack, and Bring Da Ruckus has that meaning like it did back in the day. Cage just grabs the money, leaving the gangsters with nothing but dismay.
Luke Cage knows its history, but it is really talking about the future. The mantra of the beloved Pops is “Look forward,” and it is repeated by Chico just before he too, dies. It’s what gets Cage to adopt the never look back attitude himself.
In his origin story, Cage is betrayed and reduced to a body for fighting. In a twist, it’s the weird science going on in the prison that saves his life. He acquires his powers through his ordeal and also takes on a new, symbolic name: “Luke,” as in the biblical Luke, meaning Bringer of Light; “Cage,” as a reminder that freedom cannot be taken for granted.
There’s a parallel here with the historical dehumanization of black people. When Pops talks about not allowing the past to dictate the future, it can apply to anyone, but it’s especially true for black audiences. The show does its job in illuminating how this dehumanization is a two-way street.
As for Cage, creating his own future requires neither isolating nor hiring himself out. It also means he can’t kill for vengeance, even though it would be very easy for him. If he kills Cottonmouth, another will take his place. There is a larger paradigm that must be dismantled, and Cage is just getting started in Season 1.
Looking Forward to Season 2
These stories are a microcosm of much larger cultural issues. How do any of us willingly sell ourselves out? Do we consider the consequences to us and our environment? Are we justifying the means through the ends when we know better? Are we perpetuating the things we hate and fear?
Luke Cage asks these questions of its characters, and audiences must ask themselves the same things. These issues extend beyond Black Harlem and beyond black people, but because it is set there we see them play out in a unique way.
The world of Luke Cage is complex and yet recognizable. I grew up around black people living in a racist and economically difficult reality. Although I was an outsider, I was immersed in black culture for a time. The writers of Luke Cage are creating an experience for audiences that is effective in terms of bringing people into a black experience as much as any show can. The experience goes well beyond the political issues being addressed. It goes into the culture. It will be interesting to see how the writers continue the themes and questions of Season 1 while inevitably expanding the world and characters.
The dynamics with the Latino gang are another story waiting to be told. Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing more of Domingo Colon (Jacob Vargas). Short, polished, flashy and audacious—he has to look up while he’s talking smack to Cottonmouth as he’s dropping half eaten Milky Way minis and their wrappers at Cottonmouth’s feet. I imagine Season 2 will not disappoint and other fans are just as eager to see it.