Harlem Knights: Reviving Blaxploitation in Luke Cage




Luke Cage opens with an opening credits camera-spanning sequence drenched in sepia-toned imagery to the history and pain of the black body embodied by Luke Cage: an opening image suggests a slave’s whiplashed back before it morphs into an NYC bridge. As the sequence continues with shots of the Apollo Theatre, Harlem row homes, and neighborhoods, there’s a ham-fisted image of Lenox Ave and Malcolm X Blvd tattooed on Luke’s muscular arm as his fist slowly bursts a wall open. It’s fitting for a series full of heavy-handed, albeit at times powerful, images and messages. Luke Cage suffers from some earnest attempts to make a lot of statements about contemporary Black America in much the same way the opening credits ends: with blunt force.

The series opens with establishing that Luke Cage (Mike Colter) has returned to his Harlem stomping grounds after some undisclosed amount of time from his first Hell’s Kitchen appearance in the previous Marvel-Netflix superhero drama Jessica Jones, as a chivalrous, urban Superman: he works thankless but honest, jobs at Pop’s Barbershop as a janitor, and as a utility-player at “Harlem’s Paradise”, the popular nightclub owned by the series villain, Cottonmouth, played by Mahershala Ali. The first episode’s opening scenes walks us in mid-conversation with Pop, Luke and the male patrons and regulars deeply engrossed in a debate about old-school vs. new-school NBA—but it also does something else; it establishes Cage as an “A Good Man”; when local hotshot Shameek mocks Cage’s role (“negro you don’t cuss, you don’t cut hair—what do you do?”), Luke replies “I work”. That statement serves as the embodiment of Luke in season 1; dutiful, honor-bound, honest.

Moments later, when Counselor Wilson walks in to pick up her son from the shop, she makes a polite pass at Luke to get coffee sometime. It’s a gesture that we’re to take as a routine, unsuccessful attempt by Patricia Wilson, but Luke, dutiful and loyal to the end, demurs, accepting her phone number but moments later crumbling in his powerful fist, proof that in addition to his super strength and invulnerable, bulletproof skin, he can also leap over female advances in a single bound. These leaps keep him morally aloft of the rest of the cast, even when the series contradicts it. keep reading


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