[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 the vital voice and setting of a character who left the show much too soon.
Luke Cage is full of wonderful performances from talented actors, with Mike Colter in the title role leading the way. (Since I won’t be writing about them nearly as much as they deserve this week, I’ll also single out here Mahershala Ali as Cottonmouth and Simone Missick as Misty Knight.) But I’ll admit to a serious soft spot for Cage’s barbershop boss and elder voice of wisdom Henry “Pop” Hunter, played by the great Frankie Faison with the same combination of humor and gravitas he brings to every role (and far more consistent warmth and humanity than in his crucial Wire role as police commissioner Ervin Burrell). Unfortunately [SPOILERS, as there will be in every post this week—but c’mon, you know you should have watched Luke Cage by now!] Pop was only in two episodes of Luke before he was murdered by Cottonmouth’s men, a killing that helped bring Luke out of the shadows and into his hero role. But in that brief time, Pop’s voice and perspective add a significant element to both the show and the character of Luke.
My instinct is to write that Pop helps Luke realize how much his Harlem community needs hope, and what role Luke—as a man endowed with superheroic gifts, but one initially reluctant to use those gifts or play any public role in his community—can and must play in bringing that hope. But when put that way, Pop’s lesson sounds similar to any number of superhero stories, including the first Netflix Marvel show, Daredevil (where Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock defines his own role, both as a lawyer and as the hero Daredevil, quite explicitly as bringing hope to a Hell’s Kitchen community that seems to have lost it entirely). Moreover, wise elderly mentor-characters like Batman’s Alfred are often explicitly the ones to provide such lessons to the younger and less certain heroes. So in some clear ways, Pop is as much an inheritor of a storytelling tradition as is a reluctant superhero like Luke (or many of the show’s other archetypical characters, such as the superpowered villain with a personal grudge against the hero whom Luke eventually opposes). And there’s nothing wrong with that, not only because storytelling traditions often define the way we experience culture and the world, but also because in linking these superhero tropes to African American characters and communities Luke Cage extends, adds to, and in the process changes even the most familiar such tropes.
But there’s more that differentiates Pop from the Alfreds of the superhero world than just his race, and I would argue that the distinctions are closely connected to his barbershop setting. The barbershop of course likewise has a long tradition in both African American communities and stories, and Cedric the Entertainer’s elderly Barbershop character and relationship to Ice Cube’s protagonist are not unlike Pop’s (if somewhat more of a joke, as befitting a comic film). But by bringing the barbershop into a superhero story, Luke Cage does more than just wed these two distinct traditions—it imagines a different vision of the hero’s relationship to his community than I’ve seen in any other superhero story. That is, Pop isn’t just Luke’s wise elder, he’s his boss, and more exactly he’s the boss of the barbershop, teaching Luke (as the brief clip in this trailer illustrates) about a communal space that is dedicated to shared, collective responsibility and support. And that, in turn, means that when Luke decides to become the Harlem hero Pop has encouraged him to be, he’s not so much becoming a superhero as a super-barber, one performing a more extreme version of the same communal role he has learned from Pop. While many superheroes (like Daredevil and Batman) occupy an outsider’s position, even as they seek to protect their communities, Luke becomes more of a representative of his community writ (literally and figuratively) large—and that’s due directly to the influence and example of Pop.
Next post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other responses to Luke Cage you’d share?
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