Harlem, NY; a city that lives and breathes to its own rhythm. Its residents sway to the beat of their own swagger; blasting Biggie, Tupac, Nas and Wu Tang from their windows. From its opening scene, Luke Cage doesn’t feel like any of the Marvel characters we’ve seen before.
With bursts of James Brown, and residents living by the “stay black” motto, there’s a smoothness to this reluctant superhero, scarred by the events covered in Jessica Jones, haunted by memories of Reva Connor and far removed from Daredevil’s Hell’s Kitchen; Cage is living a secluded life. Working and laying low in a Harlem barbershop that feels like the heartbeat of social dialogue run by a friend of the family Pop (Frankie Faison). Cage partakes in conversations about basketball and African-American authors, wears hoodies and is mainly a creature of night.
Despite the laid back nature of Cage, he still has the ability to flex his impenetrable super-strong muscles with just a single pose. While it may look easy, this is not a feat every actor can successfully pull off. There’s a quietness to actor Mike Colter, despite the brooding and the muscled body. He’s intimidating without saying a word yet he’s lost any ambition in life; preferring to sweep hair and wash dishes. He is a shell of a man, and no longer the Cage we’ve seen in Jessica Jones. Reading a copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the book embodies Cage’s lifestyle and surroundings where Black Lives Matter and injustices are committed from all sides of the law.
Yet despite this cloaked lifestyle and the depression that bleeds from Cage, the series serenades the audience with sweet poetic dialogue that jolts the audience with succulent words that makes this series a modern-day Harlem Renaissance/Hip-hop drama.
However, Luke Cage is far from perfect. At its core, the series is boring and after watching the first seven episodes made available for critics, I longed for the shenanigans of Killgrave. This should not happen in a superhero show, especially with so many powerful actors. But yet, there I stood befuddled watching repetitiveness. The main problem is that once the heavy-handed Shaft dialogue and gorgeous cinematography is stripped away, Cage himself lacks cleverness and is really undeniably bland.
Cage is a one-note character surrounded by an array of charisma, at times he sucks the fun out of those he shares scenes with. While Colter plays it depressingly cool during the series, when he does flex his muscles it lacks personality and vulnerability.
I admire Cage as a man with a purpose. Every action is not for wasted reasons; however the series relies too heavily on conversations about race and gender in the African-American community. Urging audiences to “stay woke” without telling us why we should remain awake. As a result, these topics feel forced and makes the assumption that because the series is set in Harlem this is how Harlemites should talk. Yes, America should be talking about inequalities but instead of providing sincere dialogue, it comes across as blurbs. For a TV show about an African-American superhero, featuring a mainly all-African-American cast, the African-American community deserves more than flashy catchphrases and soundbites.
While Luke Cage touches on issues about black manhood and heroes rather than the downfall of black communities (topics covered in today’s political debates), it comes across sounding like a blaxploitation film. Chants of “black power” raised fists is not the answer to “staying woke.”
However, all is not lost with this series. Harlem’s Paradise, a night club which features some of the most talented singers and musicians, is where we meet Cornell Cottonmouth Stokes (Mahershala Ali), cousin of councilwoman Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard).
It is here where we’re introduced to Harlem’s underworld, where politics and power rest alongside injustices and drug smuggling. This stark contrast is a natural brewing ground between the two sides of Harlem and from the first episode we’re given a glimpse which side Cage wants to stand for.
Like Wilson Fisk in Daredevil, Cottonmouth is a violent, cold-hearted killer, but like Omar Little from The Wire, he has a set of morals. He wants to see Harlem become powerful, he’s dedicated to his family and to the family name. He’s fighting for something and sometimes that requires a bit of sociopathatic tendencies. Ali’s ability to balance pure rage with sound judgement, makes for a better villain than Cage makes for a better hero.
Woodard as Mariah is the yen to Cottonmouth’s yang. She is pleasant, reserved and respectful. But deep down she seems untrustworthy and ready to explode at the right moment. Simone Missick’s Misty Knight and Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple provide for a wonderful “shero” balance; serving as take-charge insiders and possible love interests for Luke (if only he could get over his dead ex).