Luke Cage on Netflix: Sweet Christmas in Autumn

[Note: minor spoilers throughout.]

Let me be upfront and get this out of the way, I love Marvel and Netflix’s Luke Cage. I love it for the way it is shot. I love it for the unparalleled beauty of the soundtrack. I love it for its color palette. I love it for its hesitancy and awkwardness. I love it for some of the struggle-performances. But what I love the most about it is how black it is.


I will never call it “unapologetically black” because blackness is not a damn thing to apologize for. I will call it undeniably black. Defiantly black. I recognize it for being a near-perfect example of the complexity of early twenty-first century black life: hard, rough and tumble, nearly schizophrenic, dangerous, but supernaturally beautiful.

Luke Cage shows a blackness that refuses to be translated. Its blackness isn’t in italics, like Spanish dialogue in a novel written by someone who doesn’t speak the language. It is a blackness that refuses to be Iggy’d or Macklemored or Kardashianed. If you don’t get it, it ain’t for you. Shout out to you, Mike Hale at the New York Times.

The urge to compare Cage to Marvel’s other Netflix offerings: Daredevil and Jessica Jones is strong. But I don’t think that it is necessary as after binging the entire series, I see them as mini complete puzzles that are also pieces of a much larger one. The interconnections are much more interesting than trying to compare them or engage in a “which is better” contest. They are so different in execution and intent, that any attempt to compare would be cherry picking portions while ignoring their respective wholes. But the lens through which each show is filtered through, their genre conventions, are very important.

Daredevil is martial arts noir, Jessica Jones is psychological thriller, and (I agree with show runner Cheo Hodari Coker) Luke Cage is a hip-hop western. It is also belongs to the urban crime genre, heir apparent to the Blaxploitation films of the ’70s. But it is also a mixtape.

Cage is a black cultural mixtape that is the perfect companion to Kevin Young’s masterful, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness. This book is a lie, the hardest of truths, a sermon, a graduate lecture, a love letter to blackness and black people, a warning, and a manifesto. Cage almost reaches those same heights and complexities. Taken together, along with Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, Ava DuVernay’s incredible documentary 13th, Mark Anthony Neal’s Looking For Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities, and Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider — you’ve just curated a detailed and passionate overview of the black contemporary moment. I know many folks will turn their noses at my including a superhero TV show in such august company.


To dismiss “low culture” as somehow worthless or some kind of epistemological dead zone is shortsighted and intellectually dishonest. Cage (and other superhero television) is a prime example of Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message.” If McLuhan’s idea that “medium” is any extension of ourselves, then Cage is the extension of collective black popular culture, angst, and ennui codified in the televised form, broadcast, absorbed, and then extended again through conversations, pieces like this, twitter posts — all contributing to further conversation.

In my experience, neither Daredevil nor Jessica Jones has generated this much intellectual conversation and debate. Jones came close as many explored rape, rape survivors, and PTSD. I was kind of hoping for more public conversations around Jones as I think it is one of the most important pieces of television in a decade. But Luke Cage has been out for less than 72 hours and the hot takes, the think pieces, and the criticisms have been out in force. And I’ve thoroughly read every single one I’ve been exposed to. I’ve seen the validity of most of these arguments, even the ones that have excoriated the show. But there is one charge leveled at the show that I cannot abide: that the character Luke Cage is somehow conservative and that Luke Cage promotes “respectability politics” like it is some kind of televised adaptation of Bill Cosby’s “Pound Cake” speech.

Here is where I lose readers, possibly friends:

All these folks screaming about “respectability politics” like they just finished their first undergrad AfrAm or Sociology course and are masturbating with the new concepts they’ve learned. Most of our black asses are alive to complain about this because our ancestors engaged in so-called respectability politics. It may be something we don’t want to subscribe to now, but it served our ancestors enough to get us to this point. Now it is time for something else. Black folks are always talking about respect our ancestors, but never want to honor the totality of their beliefs and experiences. Black culture is one of the few cultures where we want to abolish the past in favor of an ahistorical future.

Classical musicians still study and play Brahms and Verdi and Mendelssohn. Many of these new hip-hop artists refuse to know who Rakim, MC Lyte, and De La are. Hell, many of them eschew the hip-hop designation altogether in favor of being rock stars. Well, black folks invented that too.

The primary reason for these critiques is the usage of “the n-word” as some kind of moral compass. Cage hates the word and hates being called it. This IS an issue in some sections of the black community. Not just in the States, but across the globe. While some folks will argue that the word has been reclaimed and is now a term of endearment, I want to know how you can reclaim something that wasn’t yours from jump? Cage never enforced this belief on others until he had a gun to his head. Otherwise he set personal social and cultural boundaries and enforced them. Isn’t this the height of freedom? To be able to dictate what you’re called and how you want to be seen?

An aside [spoiler]: There is one scene where nurse Claire Temple (played by the great Rosario Dawson, who gets to kick ass in a quick but well choreographed scene) has to grab Cage by the ankles and pull him down from his lofty, stoic, heights. She links his time in jail with the others in the community he’s protecting and their relationships with and to the criminal justice system. She essentially pulls his card and tells him that he is no different than the folks he claims to serve. While some could argue that this was an example of respectability politics, it needs to be looked at beyond the surface. He may be alike in circumstances, but not alike in his ability to do something about them. He is strong and bulletproof. He was able to escape prison and remake his identity. He has one foot in Harlem and one tentative foot in the world of super-heroics.

Luke Cage is a Southern black man and the son of a preacher. How he sees and moves through varying forms of black expression and relation, especially as it relates to Northern expressions of blackness, reflect this. His cultural tempo is different and it works well to illuminate arguments of respectability.


No, the way you dress and speak, the schools you attend, or the books you’ve read will not insulate you from racism, death by the state, or other misfortunes. But if black folks want to define themselves in a way that works for them, without trying to get others to conform, isn’t that what being black is about? Self-determination and self-realization? I’m not pro-respectability politics, but I am pro-ancestor and would never demonize the tactics those who came before me used that allowed them to live, that allowed me to be born.

Luke Cage gives us the highs and lows, the straight and the twisted of black culture. It is a master class of black love and black pathology. It is for the niggas and the sorors, those who went through Jack and Jill, and the folks who remember Big L, and the folks who have multiple editions of Ellison’s Invisible Man on their shelves. Could be all the same person. We contain multitudes. In Cage, all of that laundry is being aired, and it is dirty. It is vital. It is necessary. And it will not be translated. Either you get it, or it ain’t for you.

And it is a damn good superhero show.

32 thoughts on “Luke Cage on Netflix: Sweet Christmas in Autumn

  1. It’s so great it broke Netflix!!! But wow each episode was better than the last although the ending Luke going back to prison and the bad guys getting away. Although it would serve as a set up for the Defenders where Matt struggles to Luke out of prison and perhaps Danny Rand pulls some strings to get him out.

    I have to say super strength is such an underrated super power, I loved how Luke just walked in there and the bullets were bouncing off him like it was nothing. Hallway fighting is a nice trademark of Marvel TV.

    1. I was looking for the stats on how the show did on Netflix. Good! I loved it, btw. I’m gonna re-watch this week.

  2. I just reading an interesting article and it got me thinking is too much racebending a bad thing? These are not real people but wouldn’t a better alternative be create new characters in the roles? Kinda like Sam Wilson as the new Captain America and the female Thor? It would be present better story telling opportunities but that’s just my two cents.

    1. Note however that in both characters’ cases, they had history with their predecessors which has been a plot point in their respective stories, which an OC couldn’t lean on in the same way.

  3. slight disappointment for me. thought it would be better. some pacing issues, boring moments and bad acting from mike colter at times, especially when he is trying to be emotional. outside of that loved just about everything else. the misty cyborg arm tease was not needed or appreciated (i dont do teases, either give it to me or keep it away, no games). misty was the best part of the series for me and so happy they used her as much as they did and how well they portrayed her. such a strong and compelling storyline. was not on that misty knight solo train (give me daughters of the dragon) but after seeing this im down. and that ending? wooo her hair and outfit. that is some straight up comic love. thank you! mariah, cottonmouth, and diamondback were all great villains and unique in their own ways. all the references to african american society (skee-weet! lol) and social issues were done very well and much appreciated. the live performances at harlem paradise? GREAT! im so ready for the defenders!

    1. I gotta check out LUKE CAGE for myself. TODAY. I heard a lot of chatter about Jessica Jones, so I watched it, yet Daredevil never prompted me to tune in, but I will check out The Punisher because I do like Jon Bernthal.

      Back to Luke Cage. One of the biggest stand outs from JJ was Luke Cage although I was not too keen on his ‘relationship’ with Jessica Jones in terms of how it all went down and (so typical of real life crap) especially after it came out about how his wife got killed.

      So, thanks for all the buzz. I was gonna watch anyway, but it just got bumped up to PRIORITY VIEWING.

      Then, I will comment, but that line up above in the peice about: It is a blackness that refuses to be Iggy’d or Macklemored or Kardashianed. If you don’t get it, it ain’t for you. . . ” LMAO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! [These Wannabes and Wiggers make me LOL.)

      It kills me how white artists always try to adopt and duplicate the “cool factor” that just seems innate in most Black people, but the Whites just can’t really carry it off. A few, only a few can really do it. (Note: I stopped using the word ‘co-opt’.” Another example is Whites trying to practice the martial arts. They can get good, but only “so good.”) And, this is why in Hollywood, you always see the Black guy or the Asian guy being relegated to being the sidekick when that’s just not realistic. It also explains why Jim Crow and other discriminatory laws were enacted to keep Black folks and Asian folks down because it was known that if given half a chance, the Asians and the Blacks and the Browns would dominate. As to Blacks, look at professional sports that require real physical power + smarts.) Black people are some of the most resilient people on the planet. They had to be to survive and then to thrive.

      1. White people who do have that ”cool” factor have it without trying to. Oh yeah black people are a very resilient people but looking at it from an evolutionary POV human beings are very resilient for thousands and thousands of years they had to fend off things like the terror bird or the Sabertooth really scary creatures not to mention famine and drought we still do.

    2. Did we watch the same show? I liked how Cheo Hodari Coker worked the slow build into something explosive. Cheo Hodari Coker really knows how to get a viewer interested and invested right from jump. The cast was really good and It was nice to see actors like Alfre Woodard (who always brings depth to anything in which she appears,) and Sonia Braga and Rosario Dawson, Sonia Sohn along with some fresh newer faces. The dialogue was REAL and funny and relateable. “Hip Hop Western”? Ok, I am down with that. Now Mahershala Ali (Remy Danton/House of Cards) as a total criminal villain? Wasn’t sold on that at first but he brought it like Idris Elba did in The Wire.

      I saw no “struggle performances,” and Colter was not nearly as wooden as Chris Hemsworth in any Marvel movie. In fact I don’t view him as “wooden” at all. I guess some people haven’t been around brothers going through changes and challenges enough in real life.

      I thought Colter’s performance was REAL for a character, who had the type of backstory that he experienced and where some saw strains of “blaxploitation” I saw shades of Quentin Tarantino mixed with a bit of Sam Esmail mixed in.

      Mike Colter brought the complexities of a man of color in all his humbleness and low keyness contrasted against his phenomenal, phenomally new found powers. In many ways, Luke Cage reminds me a little bit of my childhood hero, Bruce Lee in how he often played the reluctant hero—a real hero, not these anti-heroes that pollute and populate the stage and screens these days. So, I found it funny and ironic how Carl Lucas made that Bruce Lee v. Jet Li comparison with “Squabbles.” (sp) LOL

      I don’t view LUKE CAGE the series as being any more of a Black show that Empire on FOX. It’s a story that happens to be about Black people set in a “formerly” Black community(Harlem was a Black neighborhood before gentrification hit.) Black people have stories just like white people and white stories should not be the default to the universal experience. I want to see more stories about people of color like on HBO’s The Night Of, for example.

      The soundtrack was badass, too. Just to Get a Rep featuring JIDENNA performing “Long Live the Chief” was off the hook BLAZIN’ and also GREAT to see Faith Evans in another ep (w/that Biggie connection) et al. was intriguing.

      Finally, I find Luke Cage refreshing and I like how we saw his pre-Jessica Jones days when he was involved with women of color including Black and Latina romantic interests. That was great! You got a SUPER FAN here Luke Cage!

      1. Gentrification…a double edged sword. NYC is my hometown and I left because rents are so damn high. I mean 1500 a month for a one bedroom apartment!!!!!!

        I think Luke could be a great leader for the Defenders because he’s more of a team player than the others who all have major issues.

      2. all art is suggestive and no two people will have the same experience. i’ve always struggled with mike’s “soft spokenness”. and i’ve seen the guy in interviews. mike colter the man IS luke cage, if he was as natural and commanding as luke as he is as himself i would have a totally different experience watching the show. he and alfrie did this great interview on sway and with my fist in the air i was like “YES! PREACH!”. luke never made me do that. now my girl misty on the other hand, sister was just IT. she was the best thing about the show for me and i so hope there will be a daughters of the dragon show down the pipeline. could watch a misty knight show all day every day!

    3. Riki101 references a “struggle” with Luke’s “soft spokenness,” but for me Luke’s actions speak louder than his words and I am used to the strong, rugged, silent type except Luke isn’t silent at all if you listen. You just don’t like his delivery. Sorry if Luke Cage isn’t your brand of leader, but I always adhered to the “speak softly and carry a big stick” mantra and when you got a physique like Cage does, your muscles do all the talking, besides, Captain America and Thor aren’t exactly the loudest and most verbose people either–and they are da bomb.

      Luke Cage is really a gentle giant who has been wronged, hurt and has serious trust issues and I’m cool with that. Not everybody is the same. Look at the difference in the speeches delivered by Cornell and Luke at Pops funeral, I much preferred Luke’s speech, which was more effective, rousing and inspiring.

      Also, look at Misty Knight, she’s loudish and mouthy with the one liners and all, but I really don’t find her to be that likable and she’s naive as all hell. I can see her with her own show, but I relate more to Claire Temple because she’s cerebral, intellectual, a woman of action and reason and sensual. I like her perceptive powers and she really cut Misty to the quick in that interrogation room.

      Well, I give LUKE CAGE an A, and a helluva lotta people must agree whether you’re down with Luke Cage the character, or not, because those Netflix servers went KERPOLOOEY just days ago! LMAO

  4. You really hit the nail on the head with this. I think its your best post to date. We’re up to episode 7 right now. If the baby lets us, we’re going to finish it this week.

  5. I love the show as well for many of the same reasons as you.
    My main critique is Mike Colter came across as too wooden at times and the plot line dragged on a bit too long
    Completely disagree with your take that “respectability politics” saved the lives of our ancestors. Completely specious logic there. And while Cages anti-n word stance and his crispus attucks speech rubbed me the wrong way it didn’t ruin the show for me.

    1. I appreciate your comment. There is nothing “specious” or “logical” about my claim as history bears me out. I’ve spent the last 18 months researching black folk political thought/action/ideology for an anthology I’m contributing to. You’ll be able to read all of my findings in the last quarter of 2018, when the anthology is released.

    2. In order to prove his argument as ‘specious’ you would need a time machine. Otherwise how would you definitively prove that it was a ‘plausible but wrong’ argument? There is evidence in the historical record to support the view that respectability politics saved some black people. Therefore his argument is not specious. You may object to the message, but I don’t see how you can object to the logic.

      1. Respectability Politics to me is a Trojan Horse approach to survival and a form of subversive retaliation. It’s a workable tactic if you can work it like that.

  6. And I don’t get the criticism from some fanboys. There are 7 billion of us on this blue rock of a world, countless stories waiting to be told. We should be more accepting of others, this world is the only home we have for the foreseeable future.

    1. Who cares what “fan boys” have to say. They don’t rule the world.

  7. Excellent read. Excellent points. Your description of respectability politics made me LOL!

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