Culture | February 2, 2017 at 9:00 am

Luke Cage, Defender of Harlem

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Photo credit_ Courtesy of Netflix

“For black lives to matter,” proclaims the character Mariah Dillard in the premiere episode of Marvel’s Luke Cage, “black history and black ownership must also matter.”

Mariah’s choice of words in this scene serves two purposes. It demonstrates how Mariah, a corrupt Harlem politician and one of the main antagonists, is willing and able to deal in the vocabulary of social activism in order to appear well intentioned while, behind the scenes, focusing primarily on her family’s social and economic status. Simultaneously, this scene provides insight into the politics of Luke Cage, establishing the values that will determine the series’ depiction of Harlem as a location, a community, and an ideal.

Much of what has been written about the 13-part superhero saga since it was released on September 30 has been focused on how the show engages with issues currently at the center of public debates regarding race: mass incarceration, black artists’ role in pop culture, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Not nearly enough has been said, however, about Luke Cage’s brilliantly executed portrayal of Harlem.

On one level, Luke Cage relies on its setting in Harlem as a means of addressing topics related to race in America. Mike Hale of the New York Times has pointed out that the show’s Harlem setting is a major factor that allows it to put race “at the center of the story.” The famous neighborhood is inseparable from its legacy as the capital of African-American culture, so there could hardly be a more appropriate setting for a television series of this nature.

However, to assess that Harlem’s only purpose in Luke Cage is to facilitate these discussions of race would be reductive. Over the course of the series, Luke Cage proves itself to be well-versed in Harlem’s role in the history of black politics and culture. Its sentimental depiction of the neighborhood serves as both a response to today’s political moment and a tribute to the Harlem literary tradition.

A Changing Harlem

Marvel’s Luke Cage comes at a moment when the real-life Harlem is undergoing enormous transformations. Changes in New York City’s zoning laws, offerings of city tax abatements, and a host of other factors have led to an influx of new, white, middle-class residents, attracted to high-end housing and hip new businesses. This wave of gentrification, combined with New York’s ongoing affordable housing crisis, has displaced many long-time residents and led to a demographic shift in the district.

As Harlem’s economy becomes increasingly corporate, small businesses are finding it difficult to compete, and the neighborhood is losing its status as a haven for minority-owned local enterprises. This phenomenon is already having a major impact on Harlem’s cultural landscape. Discussing the threat of gentrification in a New York Times piece earlier this year, historian Michael Henry Adams warned, “In fact, it’s already happening. Rents are rising; historic buildings are coming down. The Renaissance, where Duke Ellington performed, and the Childs Memorial Temple Church of God in Christ, where Malcolm X’s funeral was held, have all been demolished. Night life fixtures like Smalls’ Paradise and Lenox Lounge are gone.” Many of the key institutions that, a few decades ago, were thought of as sacred are now either in jeopardy of being priced out of Harlem or are already gone.

Harlem’s political landscape is changing as well. This year, state senator Adriano Espaillat scored a historic victory in the Democratic primary to replace Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), an icon in his own right, in the U.S. House of Representatives. After clinching his all-but-certain general election victory in November, he will become the first Dominican American elected to Congress.

While Espaillat’s win will be a great symbolic victory for Latinos in New York and across the country, to many black Harlemites it signals the end of an important chapter in their neighborhood’s history. It brings to a close decades of African-American political control that have helped to make the neighborhood into the intellectual home base for thought leaders like Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X. “The rise of Latino political power,” writes local news anchor Errol Louis, “comes at the same time an influx of white residents is transforming a place once considered the capital of black America. That makes the new changes all the more jarring to many black residents.”

Put together, all of these factors have put Harlem’s black community into a position where its residents fear for the future of the neighborhood. Between these remarkable changes in Harlem’s demographic, political, and economic character, more and more people are warning of the “end of Black Harlem.”

Harlem, Cage-Style

It is in this political context that Marvel released Luke Cage, which writes a love letter to Harlem’s culture and history in content as well as in visual style.

The eponymous hero is written as a thoughtful and well-read figure who is initially uneasy about the prospect of stepping into the role of superhero. His literary prowess comes across in his dialogue, as he often namedrops authors from the Harlem Renaissance, like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. As the show progresses, Luke’s literary repertoire proves to be quite expansive. It includes Chester Himes, a novelist who broke new ground in the pulp genre by setting his hard-boiled detective stories—notably including the Harlem Detective series—in communities of color.

As is par the course for a superhero origin story, Luke is inspired to realize his full potential in part by the memory of a deceased loved one—in this case, his wife Reva. The keepsake that he holds onto to remind himself of her is a copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which explores the many complicated nuances of race in America as its protagonist migrates from the South to Harlem. These numerous literary allusions, peppered throughout the 13 episodes, demonstrate that the show’s writers know Harlem’s cultural tradition well. They serve as a celebration of that tradition, and thus as a reminder of why Harlem, as a cultural site, is worth preserving.

The show’s very portrayal of the streets of Harlem is yet another means of paying homage to the neighborhood’s cultural legacy, primarily through its many tips of the hat to Blaxploitation films of the 1970s. A scene in Luke Cage’s second episode, for example, shows Luke trying to track down a young man that his mentor, Pop, has taken under his wing. Luke checks out neighborhood haunts and asks passersby if they can identify an image of his friend. The editing and funky score in this scene are reminiscent of similar montages of detective work in Shaft, the definitive Harlem Blaxploitation flick.

Luke Cage looks to the Blaxploitation genre for its musical cues as well. As Jack Hamilton argued in a recent review of the show for Slate, “One of Luke Cage’s greatest triumphs is its use of music, which resonates more prominently and energetically than in any previous Marvel screen property. The show’s score is crafted by Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and evokes the greatest scores of classic Blaxploitation while still managing to sound current and fresh.” The parallels between the Harlem of Luke Cage and that of classics like Shaft and Super Fly firmly establish the show within Harlem’s cinematic tradition.

Allusions to the literature of the Harlem Renaissance and films of the Blaxploitation era are far from the only ways that Luke Cage pays homage to the neighborhood’s history. Many of the locales featured on the show, ranging from neighborhood barbershops to sports memorabilia stores, evoke the ideal of Harlem as a haven for black-owned businesses that double as social gathering spots. Because institutions like these are becoming scarcer in today’s Harlem, this portrait is primarily a nostalgic one.

This reverence for Harlem’s culture is equally visible in Luke Cage’s treatment of local institutions that date back to the district’s heyday. A scene early in the series features a black gospel church overflowing with people attending a funeral. The camera captures this location bathed in golden light and from a low angle, endowing it with a certain benevolent monumentalism. This framing allows the viewer to truly appreciate the importance of this place to its community. The same care is taken in a later episode when Luke walks into the legendary United Palace Theater and takes a moment to soak in its glory. Luke Cage employs such awe and respect for Harlem’s hallowed spaces that it becomes impossible for viewers to overlook the neighborhood’s role as a cultural capital.

Fitting Harlem into the Superhero World

In spite of the fact that the Marvel Cinematic Universe—the multi-franchise superhero continuity in which Luke Cage takes place—is now comprised of 13 feature-length films and four television shows, Luke Cage is the first Marvel property with a non-white lead, and only the third whose protagonist is not a white male. While superhero comics have been becoming more inclusive in recent years—in terms of both the array of talent who writes and illustrates them and the characters themselves—their onscreen counterparts have been very slow to catch up. Hollywood’s issue with diversity is far from limited to superhero films, but the MCU’s unprecedented scope and popularity as a franchise has made its homogeneous casting choices, not to mention its overwhelmingly white roster of directors and writers, all the more glaring and subject to criticism.

Producing a show like Luke Cage does not atone for all of Marvel’s sins, but it is a progressive step nonetheless. The series’ cast is predominantly black, as is its showrunner, Cheo Hodari Coker. In an interview with The Daily Beast in September, Coker explained in depth how he understands his role as an African-American creator bringing a new perspective to the mostly white genre. “All black art is always judged to illuminate our experience and prove that our stories and our history and our lives matter,” he stated. “It was important to me that we have a hero that was black—and he didn’t just happen to be black: his identity is a part of him.”

Coker’s vision of the series as “a deep dive into black culture” shines through in every episode. Not only does this mission help to diversify the cultural experiences portrayed onscreen in the Marvel world, but it also enables Coker to focus on the major social and political issues facing Harlem today. “When Marvel suggested Harlem, I knew right then I could tell a story with deep cultural resonance,” he told The Guardian. “By setting the story there you can include music, history, gentrification, and do it in a way that makes the show feel like it’s taking place in the real world.”

Through his affectionate rendering of Harlem, a historic neighborhood with an uncertain future, Coker has created a show that truly stands out in the field of modern superhero properties. Luke Cage draws upon rich literary and cinematic traditions to present a compelling reminder of why Harlem is so important to the history and culture of America.

Additionally, it provides a response to Mariah’s claim: Not only do black lives matter to the creators of Luke Cage, but black history and black cultural agency matter, too. The show uses its portrait of Harlem and its residents as a jumping-off point to honor a century of black art and literature.

Through its reverent depictions of the cultural sites that still make up the neighborhood’s social fabric—like gospel churches and the Apollo—the series also emphasizes the centrality of Harlem to Manhattan’s black community. Essentially, Luke Cage makes the case for fighting to preserve Black Harlem. It reminds us of the ongoing threat of gentrification and it demonstrates what is at stake. For black lives to matter, black history and black ownership must also matter.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

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