Stories influence and reflect our world. It’s been that way since ancient mythology and prehistoric cave paintings— we try to understand ourselves and our place in the universe through the interpretive prism of fiction. That’s one of the reasons why inclusive, diverse representation in media is so vitally important — seeing yourself onscreen is unfathomably powerful. That identification, the acknowledgment that you exist, that you can accomplish wonders, that the worlds of movies and TV aren’t exclusive to just the nauseatingly overrepresented white male, is precious and desperately needed. Doctor Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, become an astronaut after seeing Nichelle Nichols’s Nyota Uhura on the bridge of the Enterprise in Star Trek.
Onscreen inclusivity leads to richer storytelling landscapes with a wider range of perspectives, ones that disprove dangerous stereotypes and hopefully lead to better understanding. It’s never “just a movie”; we’re shaped by what stories tell us, just as we shape the stories told.
Luke Cage is more than another successful Marvel venture in a string of solid, formula-aligning Netflix efforts. It’s undeniably urgent, undeniably relevant, and undeniably black. A thrilling, genre-bending hybrid, its hero a bulletproof black man in a hoodie walking unafraid into a barrage of gun fire and emerging unscathed, an image the power of which can’t possibly be overstated. It’s a love letter to Harlem — its history, its culture, and the community living within it. Conversations meditating about the legacies of sports figures, hip hop artists, authors, and war heroes are as important as outwitting a villain’s schemes. The visual choices and music cues are steeped in layers of black history, the latter especially woven throughout the series as its beating lifeblood (every episode is titled after a Gang Starr song). The subjects of police brutality, systematic racism, economic inequality, the criminal justice system, and politics are combined into a nuanced, seamless whole. There are no deplorable stereotypes or cheap caricatures but a rich, complex, multifaceted, stunning cast of characters with histories, dreams, goals, motives, perspectives, and experiences, both shared and different; heroes, villains, and the spaces in between, with a cast made up almost entirely of people of color. Trust, legacy, dignity, respect, and responsibility are all reexamined. It gets inside your favorite superhero genre cliches and tears them apart from the inside out; reinvents them through the perspective of a black man’s life in modern America.
Saving the world from some alien threat or a magic doomsday weapon isn’t what matters in Luke Cage — it’s about the history, heritage, and ownership of Harlem, of black America, of black people. Luke’s Harlem is a living, breathing, bleeding community with real hope and real pain, something Daredevil couldn’t accomplish even with all its “save my city” speeches ad nauseum. From first frame to final the series is a celebration, a revelation, not here to coddle or cater to your lily-pale preferences. It’s bold, brilliant, unabashed, and proud in the face of privileged white dipshits who write so-called “articles” this repugnant. If you’re a white person whining about not seeing yourself onscreen in a story about black people, when you’re literally represented everywhere else, too fucking bad. This show isn’t about you. It isn’t about me. And that’s the way it should be.
Led by the masterful talent of showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker, Cage is what happens when people other than the white, straight, cis demographic tell their stories instead of being drowned out, ignored, whitewashed, and labeled not viable enough to make money by the white-straight-cis cinematic gatekeepers. And the amount of people watching broke Netflix the weekend it premiered.
Black people aren’t afterthoughts or invisible in Luke Cage. They’re the heroes.
We didn’t mean to be this deeply social show, but we wanted to tell a realistic depiction of the black experience. Luke Cage is a black superhero. He’s not a superhero who happens to be black. The themes are universal, absolutely, but at the same time, it’s what I feel as a black showrunner. There are those showrunners that say, “I’m a showrunner first. I’m not a black… “ I resent that, because you’re saying that race defined me. My whole thing is look, “I’m black when I wake up. I’m black when I go to sleep.” It’s not the prism through which I look at every aspect of the world.
I wanted a show that could be what I call “inclusively black.” And what I mean by that anybody who watches the show could eavesdrop on what it’s like to be part of the Black experience, and all of its nuance and contradictions — and beauty.
There aren’t a lot of black showrunners. There are even less black male showrunners. They’re even fewer black male hip-hop showrunners.
It’s time for that to change. Past time.
Cage is also just stellar artistry in all the technical areas — writing, acting, cinematography, direction. It has the most beautiful images you’ll see all year as well as the most vital performances. Mike Colter is flawless in the title role, breathtakingly poignant and effortlessly, magnificently charismatic, a classic reluctant hero torn between his desire for self-preservation and a compulsion (both internal and external) to use his indestructible skin as a shield to protect the destructible. He’s strong, compassionate, grieving, reserved, wry, and self-searching all in one, a phenomenally layered emotional reservoir. His body may be impenetrable, but is heart is deep.
Mahershala Ali (Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes) and Alfre Woodard (Mariah Dillard) deserve every award on planet Earth this second as two sides of a villainous partnership that aren’t villains at all, but achingly human, devastatingly tragic, breaking-to-broken individuals reacting to their circumstances and attempting to reshape them by doing what they think is best for their childhood home. (The term villain is a narrative shorthand but does both the writing and their performances a simplifying disservice.) In a different show Cornell and Mariah’s complicated pasts and unfulfilled dreams would be their superhero origin stories: overseeing Harlem is the duty they were raised for, and they never had the chance to be anyone else, what they truly wanted to be, since they were children. They share the same endgame goals as Luke, but their approaches differ, even between each other. Watching their scenes is an acting masterclass — the ever-shifting power dynamics, the emotional undercurrents, the planes of their faces and twitches of hands speaking all.
Woodard spoke about Mariah and Cornell’s relationship in an interview with Vulture:
In African-American culture, your cousin is the one who gives you the most joy, who is your home base, who can cut you the deepest. There is still always that rivalry. Your cousins — like your siblings — help you learn how to be in the world.
Mariah’s rise in particular is utterly breathtaking, a city councilwoman genuinely devoted to preserving and revitalizing Harlem through legal means yet knee-deep in her cousin’s blood money and unrepentant in her abuse of power, calculatingly taking advantage of the people she represents. The real advantage lies in politics, she insists, as she attempts to avoid her criminal bloodline, until she discovers endless possibilities inside herself when pushed and set against conflict. Fisk had already accepted his violent actions by the time we met him; this time we watch as Mariah finds and accepts hers. What other show has a black woman assume a man’s throne and not imitate him, not follow in his footsteps, but make it her own?
And oh my god, Misty Knight. Detective Fucking Misty Knight (her actual middle name). Simone Missick shines. Easily the best thing about the show, she’s pure magic. Astute and assured yet vulnerable and sensitive, whip-smart and rock-solid, Cosmo-drinking and basketball-playing and ass-kicking, sexually autonomous, intimately acquainted with her city, utterly unafraid of crime lords or corrupt officials in her push for justice. Her arc from confident to conflicted about her role as one of the few good cops in a law enforcement system with limited means and thriving corruption is astonishing. She wants to serve and protect as much as Luke, but their methods clash in a familiar (yet moving) vigilante vs law debate. She survives violence, a male-dominated system, a sadistic murderer, and her own fears. The story at the heart of Cage is as much Misty’s as it is Luke’s, because she’s just as much a hero.
And that’s because it’s the most feminist show on television. Lots of shows spout that; Cage proves it. Multiple women of color share scenes together where they support, challenge, or manipulate each other, and all of those interactions are filled to the overflowing brim with nuance, complexity, and fallibility. These women are recognized and respected for their power— never belittled, undercut, or questioned. It’s revolutionary to see women of color in such a wide spectrum of roles, each one a pivotal pillar to the story, each with her own independent arc running parallel to Luke’s yet not dependent upon it. Black women rule Harlem, whether it’s the shadow of Mama Mabel’s criminal enterprise or Betty Audrey (and then Priscilla Ridley) leading the police department. None are ever just the foil or just the love interest for Luke.
Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson, making her Netflix appearances three-for-three) does ultimately fulfill that love interest role, but although she’s sometimes too tightly wrapped up in plot mechanics to exist as independently as Misty or Mariah, she also finally, fully comes into her own as an actual character. She has a mother, who’s named and seen, and they converse in both Spanish and English. She’s compassionate, loyal, hopeful, and honest, with clear goals and genius-level skills. (And who can blame her for falling for Luke, like. Come the hell on.)
The show also provides a delicate, beautiful narrative redemption for Luke’s wife Reva Connors (Parisa Fitz-Henley), who beforehand only appeared via flashback in Jessica Jones as the murdered victim of a superpowered white woman. Her treatment in Jones as a fridged throwaway for Jessica’s angst was a deplorable failure for a show that purports itself as feminist. Here, she’s alive, vibrant, and morally complicated, with her own goals, neither a silent corpse nor Luke’s idealized memory of her.
So, the inevitable critiques. The pacing stretches too thin across the back half of the mandatory 13 episodes (a familiar Netflix issue), and sometimes the plotting gets muddled. The appearance of Diamondback is a misfire, too over-the-top in comparison to the richness established by Cottonmouth and Mariah (despite the fact I loved Erik LaRay Harvey’s performance). But those are quibbles. I don’t care.
Luke Cage and the stories it tells for black men and black women are so vital, so necessary, and too long-overlooked. The white status quo media landscape has to change, and so does the world, and I hope this mesmerizing, stunning, revolutionary show helps usher in an era of inclusivity that’s desperately needed.