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Friday, January 20, 2017

January 20, 2017: Luke Cage Studying: #BlackLivesMatter on TV



[Like a record number of fellow viewers, I spent a good bit of last September enjoying Netflix’s newest Marvel superhero show, Luke Cage. While Cage is unquestionably entertaining, however, I would also call it the first #BlackLivesMatter TV show—and as such, I wanted to spend this MLK Day week studying a few of the show’s connections and contexts. I’d love your thoughts and reviews in comments!]
On where Luke differs from two other TV engagements with the movement, and why that matters.
There’s a ton of television I haven’t had the chance to watch in the last few years (I haven’t gotten to see any of the much-acclaimed Atlanta yet, for example), so as always I would love corrections or additions to this post in comments, please! But my sense is that there have been two particular episodes in which prominent TV shows have engaged directly and at length with the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the social and political issues to which it’s responding: an episode of Shonda Rhimes’ mega-hit drama Scandal entitled “The Lawn Chair” that focused on the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager and its aftermath; and an episode of the sitcom Blackish entitled “Hope” in which the family gathered to watch the announcement of the possible indictment of a police officer in such a shooting (and then decided to attend together the protests after the officer was not indicted). These two episodes are as distinct as the shows and genres of which they’re part, and each deserves its own viewing and analysis to be sure; but I would argue that in both cases it’s important that the #BlackLivesMatter thread comprised one focal episode, rather than an overarching focus and theme of the show as a whole.
That singular focus doesn’t mean that the episodes couldn’t do justice in their own hour or half hour space to this important topic—but it does mean that the shows were of necessity treating the topic as one part of the larger world in which their characters and plots operate, in much the same way that (as I have argued in this space) Margaret Mitchell treats the Civil War and Reconstruction as principally challenges facing Scarlett O’Hara (more than as significant historical events in their own right) in Gone with the Wind. Perhaps it would have been impossible (or at least impractical) to write storylines in which police shootings happened to (or involved) main characters on the shows, but in the absence of such impacts it’s fair to say that these #BlackLivesMatter plots did not continue to resonate on the shows in specific or extended ways beyond their focal episodes. (Again, if I’m wrong about that, please feel free to correct me or add your thoughts below!) Which means that, while it would be entirely fair to call these #BlackLivesMatter episodes, I would reiterate my definition of Luke Cage, in the intro paragraph above, as the first #BlackLivesMatter TV show.
Of course, Luke doesn’t focus on a main character who’s a #BlackLivesMatter activist (although I would certainly watch such a show); neither does it tell the story of a police shooting victim as did the wonderful film Fruitvale Station. Luke’s titular protagonist is a former convict gifted (or cursed) with superhuman abilities while in prison who decides (after much pushing and prodding) to use his powers to fight criminal masterminds in his Harlem neighborhood. Not exactly a realistic slice of 21st century American life, I’ll admit. Yet as I’ve argued all week, Luke’s characters, settings, and stories consistently and thoroughly do parallel many of the issues—debates over black lives and histories, the relationship between police and young black men in hoodies, questions of communal responsibility and violence and what role each of us has in responding to them—that are central to #BlackLivesMatter and the figures and texts that have come to represent it. Which is to say, the world of Luke Cage is the world of #BlackLivesMatter, not incidentally or partially but as the core worldbuilding on which the show’s superheroic character and stories are built. Whatever brings a viewer to the show, he or she will come away with a deeper and more meaningful understanding of that world, and of its central presence in and connections to our own.
Special inauguration post this weekend,
Ben
PS. One more time: what do you think? Other responses to Luke Cage you’d share?

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