Black Metropolis: The Embodied City in Luke Cage

Still from Luke Cage opening credits
[Ed. note: this post is part of a roundtable discussion on “Marvel Entertainment and the Urban Spaces of Superhero Authenticity.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

Not long after the September 2016 debut of the Netflix series Luke Cage (based on the Marvel Comics superhero originally known as Power Man), film director Quentin Tarantino voiced this complaint about the show’s revisions of the original 1970s comic books:  “I love the way the character was presented so much in the ’70s … it was really Marvel’s attempt to try to do a blacksploitation [sic] movie vibe as one of their superhero comics … I’m not really that open to a rethinking on who he was.”  Tarantino’s resistance to “rethinking” who Luke Cage is betrays a problematic desire on the part of much of white America to maintain culturally inscribed boundaries around the very notion of “blackness.”  For Tarantino, this means keeping one of the earliest and most prominent African American superheroes in a historical gutter, a regressive “jive” talking, chain-wearing artifact of the 1970s.  However, as Adilifu Nama observes, from another perspective, Power Man transcends this cultural ghettoization:

“Power Man is in many ways the most inherently political and socially profound black superhero to ever emerge, regardless of his connection to the blaxploitation film fad.  Given Cage’s origin narrative as a black man wrongly convicted of a crime he did not commit he clearly symbolizes the triumphant transformation of a black underclass convict to a politicized black antihero on an epic scale.”1Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011), 53-55

In this light, the Netflix series actualizes the political potential of this character by unfixing him from his historical origin as a white-created riff on Blaxploitation films and recentering him as the primary agent in a contemporary America, in which racial politics are largely defined by the disparity of a two-term African American president presiding over a country debating to what degree black lives matter.  In the 2016 milieu of Luke Cage, Barack Obama and Trayvon Martin are equally charged politicized bodies that represent how far African Americans (and, by extension, all Americans) have progressed and how far they still have to go. Luke Cage places its titular character directly at the center of this debate and, most significantly, does so by locating him in Harlem, an Afro-centric urban space long identified, as the historian Benjamin Quarles characterized it in 1964, as “the cultural capital of colored America.”2The Negro in the Making of America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), 236 The value of Harlem as such a site is made all the more important by the fact that, as Quarles observes, historically African Americans have “engaged in the dual, simultaneous processes of assimilating and transforming the culture of their country.”3Ibid, 19 In Luke Cage, Harlem, then, is both a material and rhetorical site in which African Americans can safely and productively negotiate these complex processes of identify-formation and self-actualization, key tropes of the superhero genre.

The historical separation of “blackness” and the superhero informed some of the earliest (albeit rare) appropriations and deconstructions of superhero conventions by black creators. See, for example, Teddy Vann’s 1966 album The Adventures of Coloredman, in which the Superman myth is racially revised so that the titular character both transcends and is contained by his cultural designation as “colored.”  Similarly, Luke Cage is a text in which the inherent historical tensions between the superhero (traditionally a paradigm of “whiteness,” as embodied by Superman, Batman, et al.) and an African American identity are engaged by a black creator, in this case showrunner Cheo H. Coker. Of his first meeting with Marvel executives to discuss the proposed series, Coker shared a photograph of his grandfather, a Tuskegee Airman who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.  Says Coker, “I talked about him being from Harlem.  Walking up boulevards, you’d see Duke Ellington and Chick Webb and Lionel Hampton, just walking around.  You saw superheroes every day.” From this perspective, Harlem has not simply been a literal and figurative location in which African Americans could escape the burden of what W. E. B. Du Bois famously termed “double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others,”4The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Bantam, 1989), 3 but, further, a site at which a new, empowered kind of double consciousness could be actualized.  It is in Harlem, according to Coker, where, by looking at others, one could see his or her own inherent potential for greatness.  In Coker’s hands, Luke Cage ultimately resists the double-bind of being “colored” and, equally importantly, being a “black” superhero (per the terms of white creators and a white audience, so that the possible liberation from an externally imposed racial identity is always circumvented by that very racial designation).

The series expands on and complicates Du Bois’s consideration of how African Americans have historically contended with how white America has regarded them as homogenously and negatively “black.”  While in the original comic books Luke Cage is born and raised in poverty and crime on the streets of Harlem, in the series he is originally from the south, the middle-class son of a minister, and Harlem is the place in which he seeks refuge after escaping from prison (where, per the comic book, he acquires super-strength and virtually impenetrable skin as the result of a secret experiment5The allusion to the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments adds another aspect to the character’s inherently subversive potential ).  Importantly, then, Cage is an outsider in Harlem and must, through his interactions with its various citizens, actualize his own identity, for them and himself.  The historical tensions of double consciousness are remediated via the relationship between Cage and Harlem but they are also embodied by Cage himself.   Born Carl Lucas and wrongfully imprisoned, Cage’s flight to Harlem in order to hide from his past actually catalyzes his necessary confrontation with that past (which is realized in superhero genre terms in the figure of a villainous half-brother who wants to kill Cage).  The urban spaces of the show are the necessary backdrop for Cage’s reconciliation with his past and in this way the series confirms Scott Bukatman’s argument that the city in the superhero genre “is founded on the relationship between grids and grace.”6 Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Superman in the 20th Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 187 Per Bukatman, the superhero city is a place of grace because it allows multiple fantasies that resist the rigid logic of its grids – that is, the city is a place where one can re-invent oneself.7Ibid, 188 But equally importantly, it is through Cage that Harlem can collectively reimagine and reinvent itself.  Harlem’s backstory in the series is one of moral decline, urban decay tantamount to racial diminishment.  Cage’s vexed position within Harlem reflects the neighborhood’s own contentious relationship with the rest of New York (for example, characters “discuss the impact that urban planner Robert Moses, the Cross Bronx Expressway, and US senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s policy of ‘benign neglect’ had on New York’s black community”8Tanz).  In this way, place and subjectivity are utterly conflated, a rhetorical maneuver reinforced by the show’s opening credit sequence, in which we see images of Harlem streets flowing across Cage’s naked torso.  While the grace that Bukatman identifies in the superhero genre is prototypically evoked by the figure of Superman floating god-like above Metropolis, for Luke Cage, a resolutely street-bound superhero, grace is absorbed from his environment and emanated back into it.  Hero and neighborhood become mutually reinforcing signifiers of transcendence from the chains of history.

In this regard, mutual self-recognition in the act of exchanging gazes becomes an essential thematic trope in the series to signify the cohesion of individual and collective identity within the African American community. Thus, the essentialized differences between superheroes and supervillains in the genre are ultimately deconstructed in these processes of recognition embedded in the city.  Luke and his half-brother Lewis must necessarily come to terms with their shared history of trauma within the confines of Harlem, a space characterized by the articulation of a group identity defined by a historical trauma that is overcome through a willful relocation within a space self-defined as black.  Harlem confirms what St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton regarded as the “Dream of Black Metropolis,” the city as the realization of “the ideology of self-help and racial solidarity.”9From Plantation to Ghetto: An Interpretive History of American Negroes, August Meier and Elliott M. Rudwick (New York: Hill and Wang, 1966), 205, 204 In this space, Cage becomes his authentic self, realizing the utopian aspirations inherent to the city and the superhero (both bodily and morally), what was regarded at the height of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s as the “New Negro,” a figure who, “militant and proud of his race, desired to perpetuate the group identity and yet participate fully in American society.”10Ibid, 206

The covalent authenticity of Luke Cage and Harlem is most completely actualized in the show’s twelfth episode, “Soliloquy of Chaos,” in a scene in which Cage thwarts the armed robbery of a convenience store by two men in ski masks.

When one of the robbers recognizes one of his intended victims as the rapper Method Man, he removes his ski mask in an attempt (rebuffed by Method Man) to confirm a sympathetic allegiance (he says, “My bad, Meth.  I grew up on that Wu-Tang shit.  But you know how it is.”).  He is chastised by his accomplice for removing his mask in an exchange that speaks directly to the history of double consciousness (“What’d I say about using my government name, Michael?”).  After Cage enters the store and dispenses with both robbers, Method Man recognizes the black man in a bullet-riddled hoodie as Luke Cage, saying, “It’s you.  Yeah, it’s you.”  Cage returns the rapper’s gaze and replies, “No, man, it’s you.  Yo, man, ‘P.L.O. Style’ was my joint back in the day.  Sweet Christmas.”  They embrace and exchange hoodies, gestures that speak to a communal recognition of self-preservation as African Americans in a larger world apathetic, and even hostile, to their very existence.  Later in the episode Method Man appears on a radio show to talk about his encounter with Cage, affirming, “There’s something powerful about seeing a black man that’s bulletproof and unafraid.”  He then performs a song inspired by Harlem’s hero, “Bulletproof Love.”  As he raps, we see a montage sequence of black men wearing their own hoodies tattered with mock bullet holes in a sign of solidarity with Cage that evokes the Black Lives Matter movement – a confirmation that just below the surface in black America is a potential victim of  violence, a political maneuver that simultaneously recognizes and resists institutional racism.  Bukatman tells us that the grace of the superhero manifests “irrational” forces and impulses that are regarded as “excessive” within the grid of the city.11186 The “irrationality” of Luke Cage is that he is bulletproof and, thus, unafraid.  He is simultaneously both victim and hero, Trayvon Martin and Barack Obama.  And in Cage’s self-actualization in the spaces of Harlem, so too is everyone else who recognizes in him their own latent greatness.

 

Notes   [ + ]

1. Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011), 53-55
2. The Negro in the Making of America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), 236
3. Ibid, 19
4. The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Bantam, 1989), 3
5. The allusion to the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments adds another aspect to the character’s inherently subversive potential
6. Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Superman in the 20th Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 187
7. Ibid, 188
8. Tanz
9. From Plantation to Ghetto: An Interpretive History of American Negroes, August Meier and Elliott M. Rudwick (New York: Hill and Wang, 1966), 205, 204
10. Ibid, 206
11. 186

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