The word “Blaxploitation” has become a dirty word when it comes to TV and film—a genre ripe for parody, not worth a second look. When the films first emerged in the ’70s, they were a quick cash grab by white studios but became an outlet of authentic expression for black filmmakers and performers. Blaxploitation films centered on the problems facing black communities and a fascination with the black body: Reluctant anti-heroes, drugs moving in on the inner city, Pam Grier’s curves as she pulls a pistol out her afro, a distrust of authority and the people who seek its mantle.
When Marvel created a character to represent blackness on their pages, Luke Cage’s invincible body and duty to his community were the answer. Unfortunately, when you ask white writers to answer a black question using the tropes of blaxploitation, you end up with a tiara-wearing hero shouting “Sweet Christmas!” Fortunately for viewers, Netflix and Marvel’s Luke Cage is more authentically black; a love letter to the black body and the black community opening with iconic images of Harlem projected on the titular character’s back. The symbolism shouldn’t be lost on anyone. In the first episode of Luke Cage, Raphael Saadiq’s “Good Man” takes the place of Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft.” Instead of being a “black private dick / that’s a sex machine to all the chicks” or a “bad mother (shut your mouth),” Mike Colter’s Luke Cage is “a good man, food’s on the table, working two jobs/ ready, willing, and able, check your name / [he’s] having fun, got no kids and [he loves] the Lord, check your name / …never did time but maybe just once.” He’s no baadasssss.
After the events of Jessica Jones, Luke is scraping by in Harlem and has no interest in saving the world like those other guys downtown. When your jump-off tries to blow your head off with a shotgun and when a purple suit-wearing jive turkey forces you to blow up your bar, sweeping up hair and washing towels in Pop’s barbershop sounds just fine. The barbershop is home to Pop, Luke’s father figure who gives wayward youth a safe haven. The barbershop is a home for black masculinity. The barbershop is such a symbol of black manhood and the closest thing the black community has to an agora, it makes perfect sense that the daytime persona of Luke Cage (and the daytime scenes in Luke Cage) would be watching over his peers getting lined up. Pop fines his customers (and himself) for swearing. It’s our home base of black respectable manhood. Not everyone is comfortable here. Shakeem and Chico, two local young men, mock Luke for being a “brother with a broom” and dog Pop’s list of white boys who can get a free haircut (Pat Riley being the most contested member). While Luke tries to walk the straight and narrow, Shakeem and Chico look for trouble to prove their manhood, and boy do they find it.
Luke spends the other half of his time washing dishes in the kitchen at Harlem’s Paradise, a modern Cotton Club, run by Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes. The club is funded by his cousin and city councilwoman, Mariah Dillard. The masculinity performed there is the slick and cool masculinity made popular by hip-hop artists, lifted from Iceberg Slim’s memoir. The pimp imagery and status comes from exploiting women and violence to reclaim some of the power stolen by white supremacy.
Mariah is revitalizing Harlem by building a Crispus Attucks center for downtrodden brown children, and she turns a blind eye to her cousin’s nefarious activities. Cottonmouth spends his time playing keyboard under a photo of Biggie for a harem of bitches and trafficking Hammer Industries weapons. (I respect a man who diversifies his interests.) Mariah and Cottonmouth both embody blaxploitation tropes: The elected official who has dubious connections to the underworld and the charismatic, calculating criminal who looks just as comfortable reigning over legitimate business interests and beating the shit out of those who cross them. One of Cottonmouth’s bartenders calls off sick to accompany Shakeem and Chico to stick up a gun trafficking deal orchestrated by Cottonmouth in a junkyard. A manhunt for Shakeem and Chico is aided by a man with connections to Luke’s time in prison and intimidating eyes: Shades. Shades is there on behalf of Diamondback, the only person who sends a shiver of terror up Cottonmouth’s spine.
In the midst of all these men trying to reclaim some dignity denied them, either by an absent father or just being black in America, there’s Luke—content to wash dishes and towels as long as he gets paid. His only ambition is to sweep hair. He appears servile, but his skin and stature make him threatening. Luke is traumatized by his time in prison, where he obtained his abilities. The audience can see Luke possesses incredible power but Luke knows more than anyone that with great power comes great responsibility (Apparently, there won’t be a Marvel property that won’t include that quote as a central theme). But he refuses to be hired by anyone. In this first episode, Luke rejects glory or status that comes from being violent the way Cottonmouth is.
Luke briefly tries on swag when he gets behind the bar and flirts with an unnamed (for now) woman with a fabulous natural who has her eye on Cottonmouth. He takes her home at the end of the night when she can’t find Cottonmouth (we find out later that she’s an NYPD detective). This love scene is hot. It’s hotter than any sex that Luke Cage ever had with Jessica Jones. That was two desperate people coming together. Here, the camera worships their bodies and suddenly, black bodies become erotic. Luke Cage finds yet another way to reframe the black body. It’s not an object to fear or to pity, but to love for its strength and its vulnerability.
After Luke’s body is awakened in this way, he goes to the restaurant owned by his landlord and stands up to a gang of Cottonmouth’s enforcers, catches a bullet in his hand, and his face breaks one of the enforcers’ fist. Luke’s landlord offers to pay him for his service and Luke turns him down, mirroring a scene when Cottonmouth offered to give him a gun to stand at his side. Luke puts up his hoodie and walks into the street. A black man in a hoodie is our most potent image of a black man’s menace and his peril, and Luke Cage turns it on its head.
- I’ll reviewing one episode every other day. Please tag spoilers in the comments or add them on the season reviews.
- Adrian Younge’s score helps the show lean into the whole blaxploitation thing. It’s modern, slinky, and downright funky.
- There are several Marvel Easter Eggs but my favorite is the most blatant: a man on the street selling DVDs of “The Incident” featuring “Tony Stark, the big blonde dude with the hammer, the old guy with the shield, and the Green Monster.” A great glimpse of how superheroes are interpreted by Harlem and its economies.
- “I’m not for hire but you have my word, ma’am. I’ve got you.”