Luke Cage’s Moment of Truth: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Luke Cage’s Moment of Truth: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

I watched the pilot for Luke Cage Friday morning. The more I thought about it, the more I hated it. And when it comes down to it, it’s a single question: guys, what are you trying to say? Some of it was strictly mechanics. It was an hour long but I felt every painful minute. Less

I watched the pilot for Luke Cage Friday morning.

The more I thought about it, the more I hated it.

And when it comes down to it, it’s a single question: guys, what are you trying to say?

Some of it was strictly mechanics. It was an hour long but I felt every painful minute. Less than five minutes in, I was already checking how long I’d been watching. That’s partially on me. The whole opening scene largely revolves around basketball talk and because I don’t watch basketball or know who they were talking about, it dragged. That’s fine, though. Good, even. It’s good to be alienated when a conversation is not meant for you. But the rest was just as slow. I checked the time again 26 minutes in. And again ten minutes later. And again after that.

Occasionally the dialogue is good–Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth has the best line in the episode, which I will get to–but a lot of it is cheesy and not well-put together. A character quotes Benjamin Franklin for no reason other than to name check Franklin and say that he’s on the face of a $100 bill. Everyone knows the quote (“Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead”) but somehow, she’s got to mention that it was old Ben who said it. There’s a scene where Luke has a bunch of books about black stuff–most prominently Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man–in case you forgot he was black.

Some of the dialogue is straight bullshit. I’ll get to that too.

Luke’s premiere fight scene is bad. There’s no other way to describe it and not much to say about it. Nothing physically or thematically compelling. It happens and then it’s over, which leads to a scene where he says that he’s “not for hire” but that he promises that he’ll “have [his landlady’s] back” as he zips up his hoodie. I think this was meant to be inspiring, maybe empowering, but it just felt like a series of empty signifiers, generic blackness.

[pullquote]And the music was the same. It too was generically “black”–bluesy and clearly rooted in a obviously Black-originated style–but did not suit the feel of the show… It failed to do the world, character, and mood building work that music can do. Instead it was just a vague cultural and political signifier to tell you: look, see, this is black music for a black show.[/pullquote]And the music was the same. It too was generically “black”–bluesy and clearly rooted in a obviously Black-originated style–but did not suit the feel of the show. Guys, what are you trying to say? It felt like it was there to be there. It failed to do the world, character, and mood building work that music can do. Instead it was just a vague cultural and political signifier to tell you: look, see, this is black music for a black show. Rarely did the sounds in scenes seem like things the characters in them would listen to, with one exception: Cottonmouth. The music played in his club–a live performance by Rafael Saadiq, a little old school but also not–seems like exactly the kind of thing he would turn on at home, and then there’s an otherwise silent scene where Cottonmouth, plays piano. The character is in many ways, an old school gangster, despite how relatively young he is. It’s a shame they overused that single musical style throughout the episode, because hearing it only in the context of Cottonmouth would’ve been a nice contrast. It’s a wasted opportunity–and a wasted use of a narrative tool–that makes me feel as though the show doesn’t know what it wants to be. There’s no sense of control or subtlety.

But let’s look again at Cottonmouth, as he’s the character where I give the showrunners the most benefit of the doubt. Music is important to him. It’s evident in his business practice as well as his personal life. Music is a huge part of his club and how he expresses himself. My favorite detail was a riff off “word is bond,” a phrase frequently used in ’90s New York hip hop. And, of course, he’s got an enormous portrait of Biggie wearing a crown in his office– but the problem is, they make sure you see it. Over and over again. To the point that I was actually surprised Cottonmouth comments on it overtly and significantly in a later scene.

So, guys–what are you trying to say?  Is it that you wanted this huge portrait to speak for itself in the previous scenes or that you wanted Cottonmouth to say something about its meaning? It seems like you couldn’t decide and just ultimately threw both in. Where’s the control? Where’s the nuance?

It could be that it’s just in Cottonmouth. I’ve mentioned him several times up to now because he’s probably the character who contains the most subtleties–though even he falls apart by becoming just another guy who beats up yet another guy. Maybe this is the point. Maybe I’m supposed to understand that for all of his subtleties, in the end he–the character who expresses a very powerful and nuanced view of the word “nigga” is just another nigga himself. I dunno, guys. What are you trying to say?

bzwjtja0

The most nuanced part of the plot

Let’s talk about nigga, actually. Because some publications are super hype that characters are “allowed” to say nigga in the show and also because Cottonmouth’s line is the best line in the episode. It occurs after his cousin Mariah, a Harlem councilwoman, obliquely chastises him for using the word ‘nigga’.

Cottonmouth responds:  “It’s easy to underestimate a nigga. They never see you coming.”

Now, here’s what I was looking for in a show like this. The complicated politics of the word ‘nigga.’ How its use shouldn’t be assumed to signify ignorance–and how one can use that assumption as a weapon against whiteness. This was where my interest was finally piqued–or would have been if that’s the kind of show Luke Cage was. Or if that was the kind of thing I thought that the show might even be building to. But I’m looking at what these guys seem to want to say and I’m not optimistic.

I’ll start at the beginning: We open in a barber shop, where there’s no swearing (because that’s what Respectable Black People don’t do) and Al Pacino gets “an eternal ghetto pass” for being in Scarface and Carlito’s Way.

At this point, two minutes and 45 seconds have expired and already–what the fuck? Guys, what are you trying to say?

theswearjar

Look, I want to be on board with the No Swearing thing. I do. I understand the intentions. The guy who runs the shop is trying to create a good space for young black youth, but we are less than three minutes in and already the respectability politics wheel is turning. And let’s also keep in mind that Jessica Jones–who in the comics alone is notorious for swearing–is permitted the same kind of language within a similar timeframe of her pilot. Except for her, this is a marker of how much of a “badass” she is.

[pullquote]Yeah, it’s because gender roles have made it such that women swearing has political significance–but it’s also because of white supremacy that black men expressly being discouraged from doing so has its own meaning.[/pullquote]I’m talking symbolically and structurally here. In this sanctuary of Black America, the barber is making sure that he creates a Good environment and stopping young black men from using inappropriate language. Meanwhile, Jessica Jones’ language is a signifier of how cool she is. Yeah, it’s because gender roles have made it such that women swearing has political significance–but it’s also because of white supremacy that black men expressly being discouraged from doing so has its own meaning. Especially when our hero, Luke Cage, tells another customer (and us) that he “doesn’t swear.”

I haven’t mentioned Mike Colter’s Luke much because he, like the show, is boring. He is without nuance. He is Old-Fashioned and Respectable, which is inevitably tied with his being the heroic protagonist. So guys, what are you trying to say? I really want to know about this one, honestly. He’s the hero and supposed to be a good guy, but is he also supposed to be wrong about stuff? How am I supposed to take it when he says, about his neighborhood, “everybody’s got a gun, but nobody’s got a father?” What does it mean when Colter himself insists that he was “adamant that Luke was not a person that used that language [because]  he needs to be someone we can aspire to be”?

And then….an eternal….ghetto….pass? ?? ????

Fine. Okay. Whatever.

lukeneggingmisty

Less than halfway in: Luke decides to hit on Misty Knight by casually negging her about her age, only to turn around and say that “dumb men like little girls, I ponder a woman.” Look, Luke. So far, all the narrative indicators are suggesting that you’re A Good Guy, but those are PUA tactics, friend. I don’t know how I’m supposed to be on your team, when you took every opportunity to highlight this woman’s age and how other people wouldn’t want her only to follow up with a “but I’m different.” Are you sure, man? Are you sure? Because it sounds like you’re taking advantage of insecurities shored up by structural sexism that you yourself benefit from. So guys, again–what are you trying to say?

I don’t have much to say about Misty herself. There’s some nuance there in terms of her hiding that she is a police officer and I think it’s obvious enough why she hides it for me to leave it alone.

And then there’s Alfre Woodard’s Mariah, the black councilwoman who, in one scene, goes out of her way to touch several children’s hair without permission. This same councilwoman is also explicitly shown to be completely fake in front of cameras, mostly through storytelling signifiers. She has a conversation with Cottonmouth (her cousin) that implies her “Keep Harlem Black” movement is just for votes; she is depicted making a big show of being friendly and physically affectionate to Harlem children, only to turn away from the cameras/public, looking annoyed while a staff member provides hand sanitizer–which directly precedes her return to her politician face where she says, “for black lives to matter, black history and black ownership must also matter.” So, it would seem that Mariah is just espousing pro-black politics that she doesn’t believe in for her own personal gain.

cottonmouthandmariah

Cottonmouth and Mariah in his club.

Meanwhile, Mariah’s enforcers (not directly hired by her, but instead by Cottonmouth) try to get a Chinese couple to pay them and one of them asks: “You’ve been living in this country for this long and you don’t speak English?” And so I ask again: what are you trying to say? Is the point to remind audiences that black people can also be racist? Who are you reminding? Who needs the reminder? What is the purpose of this?

What the hell are you trying to say?

[pullquote]Is the point to remind audiences that black people can also be racist? Who are you reminding? Who needs the reminder? What is the purpose of this?[/pullquote]I’m looking at the No Swearing. I’m looking at the neighborhood full of armed and fatherless black men. I’m looking at the eternal ghetto pass. I’m looking at the negging. I’m looking at a black woman touching others’ hair without thought. I’m looking at the superficial espousal of pro-blackness. I’m looking at the unnecessary racism by a black person towards an Asian person.

Maybe it gets better. The most obvious argument is that they’re setting all of these things up to later address, complicate or undermine them, that I’m being impatient, that it will come. And maybe it will. But with the exception of that one line from Cottonmouth–when he speaks of being an underestimated nigga, you know who is doing the underestimating–no one else seems to have acknowledged the elephant in the room: white supremacy.

And maybe my initial question was wrong. Maybe it’s not about what these guys are trying to say but why they’re trying to say it. So tell me. Tell me why. I want to know–

why is it important that black men keep their language under control,

why are the only people shown to use the word “nigga” also people who commit murders or participate in violence,

why does Al Pacino get a ghetto pass for being a gangster in the same environment where they are allegedly trying to keep black youth from being involved in gang activity,

why show a black woman totally fine with touching strangers’ hair,

why show a black politician presumably using Black Lives Matter to win votes,

why was there no sense of nuance or compassion for black men in poor neighborhoods who might feel the need to carry guns or join gangs in absence of either security or family,

why was it necessary to underline that black people can also be racist,

why is the heroic protagonist an advocate for respectability,

and, ultimately–why should I trust that there is a nuanced enough understanding to answer all of these questions in the show when no one seems to be reckoning with the spectre of whiteness to begin with?

So the first thing is this: the pilot is, just as a matter of mechanics, not strong. It’s boring and arduous.

That’s not usually enough to make me hate something–although by now, I don’t really hate it. I’m just tired. I’m tired because this thing that has been presented to me has all the trappings of a black empowerment text but none of the actual substance. It’s too compromised by its insistence on respectability and its refusal to engage with the structural issues to empower anybody.

I guess it’s like they say: the revolution will not be televised.

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J. A. Micheline
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3 Comments

  • Ben
    October 5, 2016, 11:25 am

    It’s doesn’t get better. It gets worse. And it never has a “why” at any point. There is no purpose.

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  • thumb
    October 5, 2016, 11:18 am

    It doesn’t really address a lot of that, so much as lampshade it on occasion. It’s frustrating, but by the time you reach the halfway point, you make your peace with it. If you’ve watched it this far, you know you’re watching it for other reasons.

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  • WolfenM
    October 4, 2016, 12:41 pm

    Seemed to me that the point of the Biggie painting was the crown — how it was used to crown Cottonmouth — and then later, when it was swapped out with an Outsider painting with a king and a queen, to show that Mariah and Shades together had taken his place. And I don’t see Jessica’s swearing as evidence of her coolness, but of her *damage* — she’s playing tough, masculine even (she sits like a guy, legs open; she drinks like a stereotypical guy, straight out of the bottle), because she was raped. No one comes out of her story thinking they want to be like that side of Jessica, but rather hoping that they never DO have reason to be like her.

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