We open up on the streets of NYC. And already we feel a difference to that of Daredevil‘s New York or Jessica Jones‘ city. Kids play. Hustler’s hustle, selling bootleg videos of the Incident (the singular collective strand between Marvel TV and cinematic universes referring to the alien invasion that nearly levelled Manhattan in the Avengers). And, yeah, most of the characters are black. And we are indubitably in Harlem. From Lennox Ave to Malcolm X Boulevard.
Is that striking? By today’s standard, yes. Should it be. No. But sadly, it is.
Enter Luke Cage in his employ, the corner stone of any black community, Pop’s Barber Shop. The cultural collective where everything is discussed between men: from culture to politics, sports to women. And in this humble barber shop there is black men of all ages and walks of life, young and old, arrogant and wise, all full of character and soul. Complete with a no-swearing jar. And when a slightly-heated discussion about sports turns personal between Luke Cage and Shameek, a conversation that could have easily gone south, gets diffused with a casual diversion from Shameek. We see Luke is comfortable hear. A safe haven in community where things can go so wrong. Something tells us it won’t be like that for long.
Let’s face it. A man who makes his living washing up dishes and sweeping hair would not be the ultimate catch for girl’s nowadays. Except for Luke Cage. Man has no problem with getting the digits from a hot lawyer-in-training mom or sweet-talking Misty Knight after clearly calling her an ‘old-head’ (which was obviously critiquing her taste in classic music… but still).
And how intense and raunchy was that scene, I swear Misty’s twins were going to pop out of her bra with that superhuman squeeze.
But for a man with all the gifts, his choice of career seems mind-numbingly below his calibre. Frustratingly so. Pop’s the owner of the barbershop, sees this and says he should behelping people, like the ‘heroes downtown’. And it’s here we get a sense of where things are timeline wise; Cage’s wife is dead and he just did a stint in prison framed for murder. We all now know who was behind all that, isn’t that right Jess-e-caah *Kilgrave voice*.
But Cage’s life of mundanity is a calculated one; he wants no parts of this world, only to be left alone. Definitely could use a Spider-Man pep talk about power and responsibility. Something tells us, however, circumstance is about to thrust Power Man into the deep end, especially when Theo Rossi’s enigmatic character Shades comes into the picture, which Cage seems to, dear we say, fear, or at least, be very mindful of. It is alluded that they both have an ugly, shared history from his days in prison, and it is awesome to see Rossi in a position of power, as opposed to how SOA left things with Juice.
“Everybody’s got a gun and nobody has a father”
Luke’s fateful, true words ring volumes in retrospect when one of Pop’s young barbers Chico bounces into Luke Cage whilst he was finishing up his chores. ‘Bounce’ as much as walk into a brick wall, given Cage’s power of superhuman strength and unbreakable skin. But in his disheveled state, Chico drops his gun. Cage asks him about it, but is told to pretty much mind his own business and that he is not his father.
Obviously up to no good as he leaves with Shameek Smith and Donté Jackson, the latter whom later ends up dead in a double-cross during a hijacked weapons deal. Yep, Shameek killed Donté literally after the trio robbed some gunrunners. No trust in this game. And to make matters worse, the gun deal initially was orchestrated by Mr Stokes aka Cottonmouth, the self-proclaimed godfather of Harlem.
Cottonmouth soon finds out the players involved and quickly finds Shameek who also dies after a brutal ‘manly’ beating from Cottonmouth’s hands. The news of their deaths begins weighing down on the conscience of Cage, ultimately culminating in brawl with some thugs in his landlord’s store.And here is where we get a taste of Luke’s power. Where else have you ever heard someone breaking someones fist with their face or being shot point blank in the hand only to let out a short hiss that sounded like you took a bite of scorching hot food.
Politics is where the power is
Lot’s of quotable line are bound to keep popping up in this series, for sure. And the dichotomy and similarities of the two strands of political power vying for Harlem’s soul is embodied by two cousins. On one side is Cornel “Cottonmouth” Stokes, a guy with a penchant and ear for good, soulful music but also with the gaul and fists to bludgeon a man to death, run guns and overall be a nasty figure in the underworld of crime and degradation. And then there is Mariah, a political councilwoman who hugs kids and shakes hands with the community and just seconds after go for antibacterial gel to purge the filth of the proletariat off her hands. But ciphering donations from her campaign to rebuild Cottonmouth’s club and fund weapon deals isn’t too dirty a transaction for her. Both have a reputation to uphold, and both ultimately have no qualms over paying the toll to be the boss.
The marriage of the two-sided political power structure gives a strong undercurrent to the tribal politics that exist in communities and is likened in a comparison to Jamaican politics; Mariah shows disdain for Cottonmouth’s thugs hanging around her during a PR stunt in a park. Cottonmouth assures her the ‘security’ are needed to drum up support for her during her campaign trail to ultimately build some real estate. She responds, “This is not Jamaica”.
And as a Jamaican, I can tell you how politicians buy gifts and incentives for crime bosses to insight wars for political gain in garrisons during election time; the CIA-funded operation that saw an influx of militia-grade guns into the country to increase violence which ultimately was meant to undermine and overthrow Castro-Communist-friendly Michael Manley in the 70’s to give political power to the right-wing Seaga and the likes. Bit of history for you there.
And as much as Mariah Dillard’s public face appears clean, likening herself to the creatives and revolutionary minds Harlem has produced, her wise, public words of ownership and black lives mattering is nothing but a mask for the same type of politics that governs Cottonmouth’s world and frankly America on the whole; money, power, respect must be obtained and maintained even at the expense of people and life.
From the soulful rhythm and blues creating contrapuntal soundscape for violence and chaos, to the 70’s funk and flair slightly parallel to the blaxploitation flicks (without too much added cornball). Topped with the hip-hop infused with all plateus of black music, it is evident that music plays an integral role in Luke Cage‘s soundscape. Hell, the very title of the episodes are based on the title of Guru / Gang Starr tracks. Moment Of Truth for some context.
One particular scene creates a nice juxtaposition of Cottonmouth in front of a huge Biggie portrait where it looks like Cottonmouth is actually wearing the crown on the rapper’s head. The music inspiration gives a new lease of life to the series as we are able to experience the piece on multiple levels.
• Thug exit in the landlord store brawl. Should have left through the broken window. All that meandering through the doors makes us think he actually wanted to stay a little longer to see Luke Cage’s true power.
• The live music is awesome but potentially a double-edged sword and can dangerously move from being an aesthetic boost to a cameo music video.
There are names to remember. Historical contexts surrounding Harlem and Black History too. Books to check out and read like The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and the atrocities of the one-day bloody history of the Attica Riots. Pan-African social commentary andHarlem’s rich and diverse history that span the Renaissance: poetry, music and activism. And we haven’t even gotten to how cool Luke Cage looked lifting a washing machine, catching a fired bullet point black or even his hoodie with the accented yellow interior lining, an obvious homage to his shirt colour of choice in the comics.
The framing of shots and telling of narrative feels slightly more organic and purposeful without feeling forced as say series 2 of Daredevil, with lighting accentuating a tangible mood and aura about the piece. But to be fair we’ve just started. The moment of truth (see what I did there) will come when we see more choreographed fight sequences and have that coupled with a deeper, powerful narrative.
All in all, this is a superbly solid start to the series, taking social cues from the narrative acuity of Do The Right Thing, rooted in the rich tapestry of Harlem and the people of all races and creed that live their with the IP and continued strength Marvel has shown in recent years.
With that said, bring on Episode 2.