Black Heroism and “The Man” in Luke Cage

Luke Cage (Netflix 2016)

So now—Luke Cage is a hero.

The arc of his heroism passes from the (messy) pilot into the end of the fourth episode, when he announces to the press that his name is Luke Cage. For some reason, I suppose. On the one hand, the rationale for his involvement with Cottonmouth is quite clear: Cottonmouth was indirectly responsible for Pop’s murder. He is grieving, feeling as though he must do something to make this right, and as such makes it his mission to hit Cottonmouth where it hurts–his cash. Even though I feel Colter’s acting left much to be desired (that mourning scene was…appalling), the decisions moved in a sensible fashion. But then, we arrive at episode four, which gives us the A-story of Luke’s experience in prison and the B-story of Luke and his landlady escaping the rubble of their apartment building.

The A-story is Luke’s backstory. He used to be a cop named Carl Lucas, but something lands him jail–something that he apparently did not do, despite, according to him, still being guilty of other things. It’s in prison where he meets Reva, the prison psychologist and his future wife. It’s also in prison where it’s implied that experiments are being done on prisoners–and in the end, he himself undergoes an experimental treatment. The treatment goes wrong and Carl Lucas becomes Luke Cage. This is a…passable origin story for Carl Lucas. Passable in the sense that it is sequentially coherent, despite being incredibly banal. The dialogue is mostly  stunted and corny (“he may be in prison, but he’s not a prisoner”)–and there’s just no sense of restraint whatsoever (looking at you, unnecessary ’70’s outfit sequence). But still, as an origin story for Luke Cage, it is fine.

Zero chill.
Zero chill.

But this arc is meant to set up Luke Cage as a hero, so if the A-story tells us how Lucas became Luke, perhaps the B-story holds the key to the Luke-to-hero transition given episode three leaves us at the financial undermining of Cottonmouth and the mission supposedly complete. And yet, if anything, the B-story underlines that Luke wants his identity to remain a secret. He reveals his powers to the landlady as he digs them out of the heavy debris, but he makes a point to say that he hopes she will keep his abilities a secret. Not much occurs in this story and it more serves as a parallel to A than really standing on its own. We know Luke will dig himself out and there are minimal obstacles to him doing so. Misty is trying to pin the explosion on Cottonmouth, but the efforts are half-hearted–narratively we know that this will not happen yet.

So why, then, does Luke emerge from the wreckage of his apartment–in true heroic fashion–and, after being approached by the press, announce himself to the public? This is a strange decision and does not line up with either any of the previous narrative threads. What happens in the (presumable) minutes between Luke digging himself out and presenting himself to the public? Where did this come from?

Nowhere, probably.

I’m four episodes–four hours–into this show and I don’t have much confidence in either the showrunner or the writers. But, of course, I didn’t start out with much.

I almost quit the show forty-eight seconds into the episode two, to be honest. As messy as a lot of the implications of the pilot were, the bookend scenes of the second episode were an unmitigated disaster. Let’s paint the picture here.

It’s been said numerous places that Luke’s hoodie is meant to be a nod to Trayvon Martin. This symbolic gesture is not just narratively obvious but has been reported on multiple times. It is not ambiguous. Trayvon Martin was shot and killed–murdered, actually–by a man and a culture that perceives blackness as a threat.

In the opening scene of this episode, Luke is seen wearing the hoodie in the hands-up-don’t-shoot position. This symbolic gesture is narratively obvious too. It’s representative of a black response to a state that perceives blackness as threatening. Anybody who’s paying even a little bit of attention knows the substance behind these images/gestures/symbols–that they represent the struggle of black people against a white supremacist society and state.

They really tried it.
They really tried it.

And what the Luke Cage showrunners decide to do with these images is juxtapose them with a young black man–the victims who are meant to be represented by these symbols–pointing a gun at the eponymous character. Make no mistake, even without the dialogue, this is a structural set-up that wants to know “but what about black-on-black crime?”

So let’s bring in the dialogue. The young black man refers to Luke as “nigga.” Luke then, between the opening and the bookended closing scene, says that he’s had a long day and that he’s tired–but that he will never be so tired that he’d allow someone to call him that word. Did you catch that? The teeny, tiny, quite subtle-but-not-really implication that black people using this word are “tired.” That they’ve given up trying. That they’ve lost. Gone is the nuance in Mariah and Cottomouth’s back and forth in the first episode. Instead, against the background of these terrible structural images, we have an old man trying to shame a young guy for reclaiming a word meant to destroy him. And what’s worse, by the time we transition to the second half of the scene, we see Luke use the word–but there’s a key difference.

Nigga is a complicated word. It’s not one I use myself, but it’s a word whose uses are wide. My general stance is that no one–not even other black people–is in any position to tell a black person how to relate to it.

Nigga is a complicated word. It’s not one I use myself, but it’s a word whose uses are wide. My general stance is that no one–not even other black people–is in any position to tell a black person how to relate to it. Reclamation makes a lot of sense to me, but so does the trauma that the older generation experienced at the word’s hands. I would never require an elder to use it; I would never forbid a young person from throwing it around. In 2016, it’s often used to denote camaraderie, friendship, kinship. You and me–we niggas. In Solange’s F.U.B.U. (or, for us, by us), she sings: ‘all my niggas in the whole wide world / made this song to make it all y’all’s turn / for us / this shit is for us.’ In 2016, it’s also a word met with frustration by white people who want to know, “why can’t we use it?” And still again, in 2016, it’s a word that can sometimes mean what it used to mean–you know what’s being said when you hear someone getting called a “house nigga.” The -er may drop, but you can hear it anyway.

This is how Luke uses the word towards the stick-up boy. The -er isn’t there, but it may as well be–and the subtext may as well be text. If you’re a black person using the word ‘nigga,’ Luke Cage thinks you’re a nigger. No camaraderie. No shared sense of community. No nuance and no room for reclamation. No compassion whatsoever from our leading character, whose textual environment is no better.

Somewhere in this mire is also a lecture from Luke about Crispus Attucks. Do you even know who Crispus Attucks was, he asks. Naturally, this uneducated hoodlum who does not know where he came from has no idea. I say naturally, because this is how the show has chosen to maneuver its pieces. Young black men are ignorant and refuse to get jobs. They don’t have fathers and are only interested in banging. This is how the show has framed them. This is the premise the show is operating from. This is a text that has, once again, zero compassion. Because to have compassion would be to address white supremacy. To ask why young black men perhaps just don’t bother with traditional jobs. Or to ask why Crispus Attucks has been canonized to begin with.

How embarrassing
How embarrassing


Crispus Attucks was a free black man who was the first to die in the American Revolutionary War because, according to Luke, he wasn’t a coward. He could have run away from the guns but he stood and fought. Pay attention, always, to framing, premises, and assumptions–because Mr. Cage just made a big one. There’s a bigger textual reality with Attucks involved. Attucks could easily have run away from the frontlines, may even have been justified in running away rather than standing and fighting. According to Luke, he “stepped up and started something” but–can anyone really argue that it would have been cowardice to abandon white people to their own war? In an era where white people actually owned black people, would it have been unjust for this man to have refused to give his life for a race that refuse to respect the sanctity of his own? Don’t give me this eye for an eye nonsense. This is an excellent historical example of black people being required to, always, “be the better person”–with the unspoken caveat that this betterness will come at the cost of their lives. 

This is an excellent historical example of black people being required to, always, “be the better person”–with the unspoken caveat that this betterness will come at the cost of their lives.

And this meaningless sacrifice for the sake of whiteness–this supposed American hero–this is who Luke Cage dangles before our black young man. A would-be ignorant stick up boy who, getting by on the streets with a gun, probably understands what it’s like to have his life thrown away for the sake of white security better than our lecturing protagonist seems to. So this choice–the choice of Crispus Attucks, a man whose immense compassion was such that he took up arms to defend a country that otherwise sought to destroy him? It makes the otherwise cruel view of the state of blackness particularly disgraceful. In truth: how dare this show invoke the murders of young black men–from 1776 to 2015–only to paint a young black man as the root of the problem?

That’s a choice. It’s always a choice.

This first arc is playing a weird game in which it wants to talk about the sequelae of white supremacy–gang violence, the complicated applications of “nigga,” gentrification–but is point-blank refusing to talk about supremacy itself. These are just intrinsic neighborhood problems that appeared because, per Luke, these black people just refuse to be better and clean it up.

There’s one last moment I want to talk about, a moment that marries the question of white supremacy with Luke as a hero. And it’s a moment where the show reveals what went wrong. In episode 2 (of course,) the show–devoid of subtlety as per usual–presents a scene in which Luke and Pop discuss Donald Goines’ Kenyatta, “the best black hero this side of Shaft.” Kenyatta’s an interesting character and his addition to the larger text shouldn’t be overlooked. To start with, he’s the leader of a militant black group which is meant to be thematically similar to the Black Panthers. Not the prince of Wakanda, but the Black Panthers–you know the guys, right? A (pretty small, all things considered) armed militia that, after studying open carry laws, formed to observe police brutality–but also known for forming community health groups and doing other social work. For these “crimes” and more, they were labeled by the FBI’s Edgar J. Hoover as the #1 threat to America.

He took the fight to the man, but you know, the black man, Luke. Definitely, definitely the black man.
He took the fight to the man, but you know, the black man, Luke. Definitely, definitely the black man.

The scene, structurally, suggests that Kenyatta’s mode–and by extension, the Panthers’–is the one for Luke to follow as a hero. He is Pop’s favorite and, given both the time devoted to a conversation about him and that Pop’s death is meant to inspire Luke to heroism–this isn’t an enormous stretch.

According to Pop, the reason Kenyatta is Pop’s favorite is that he “took the fight to The Man in the streets–by his self. Just like somebody else could if he wasn’t sweeping hair.”

As I said, not subtle.

But did you catch the moment? It’s there. If you missed it, read it again.

Pop loves Kenyatta for taking the fight “to the man”–to oppressors. This isn’t a frequently conflated codeword. Even Undercover Brother knew what it meant to “stick it to The Man.” The significance is obvious. And it’s a meaningful and ultimately symbolic choice for the show to take Pop’s explicit mission statement with regards to oppression and heroism, only to turn it into something else.

J. A. Micheline

J. A. Micheline

JAM's been reading comics since she was 8. As a critic, she focuses on race and gender issues. She also writes prose fiction, comics, and the occasional angry tweet before bedtime. Find her on Twitter at @elevenafter.