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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

January 18, 2017: Luke Cage Studying: Mariah and History

[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 historical insights and limits of the show’s complex female villain.
If Frankie Faison’s Pop is one of my two favorite characters on Luke Cage, the other would have to be Alfre Woodard’s Mariah Dillard. I’ve been a huge fan of Woodard’s since her brilliant turn in John Sayles’s criminally underrated Passion Fish (1992), and she was great in a small but complex and compelling role in 12 Years a Slave (2013), among many other parts over the years. In the first few episodes of Luke Cage, Mariah might seem to be only a supporting character, occupying a background role to her villainous adopted brother Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali); but [AGAIN, SERIOUS SPOILER ALERT] after she kills Cottonmouth in a post-traumatic rage (he has accused her of asking for and even “wanting” repeated childhood rapes by a family member) in the show’s seventh episode, she takes center stage as a main villain for the season’s second half. In so doing, she not only influences the show’s plot arcs and conclusions, but also gets the chance to dominate a number of important moments and scenes, with Luke as well as with police detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick) and Mariah’s assassin love interest Shades (Theo Rossi).
I find Mariah compelling for all those reasons (and for the sheer, indisputable fact of Woodard’s towering talent), but am most intrigued by her purposeful connection to and use of Harlem and African American history. For much of the show, Mariah (a Harlem politician and businesswoman long before she adds supervillain to the list) is working to open the Crispus Attucks Complex, a Harlem community center named after the iconic Revolutionary War figure (and, historians believe, mixed-race son of a Massachusetts slave and a Wampanoag Native American). Speaking to reporters in the first episode of the need for such facilities, Mariah references prior Harlem icons such as Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Malcolm X, and then argues, “For black lives to matter, black history and ownership must matter.” While the line might be a bit on the nose, it helps establish from the show’s opening episode on that this superhero story will be set in our 21st century American society and culture, and will consider both the historic legacies and present realities of the African American experience in that world—and, just as much, this line and moment establish Mariah Dillard as a spokesperson for those legacies and realities, an advocate for remembering that experience.
At the same time, however, Mariah also intends and constructs the Crispus Attucks Complex to be a literally impenetrable fortress in which to hide the ill-gotten monies she, Cottonmouth, and their criminal enterprises are accumulating (Luke proves the impenetrable part to be a fallacy, natch). This is a superhero show, after all, and she is a villain (and, again, eventually a supervillain), so such details are perhaps an inevitable part of her character. But while (as I argued yesterday about Pop and the barbershop) certain aspects of the wedding of African American culture and superhero stories work pitch-perfectly, I’m somewhat less sure of how to make sense of these two sides of Mariah Dillard’s character and role in the show. That is, she is again in many ways the most consistent spokesperson for African American history and #BlackLivesMatter—or is she just a hypocrite, using those topics and questions as a front for her selfish criminal agenda? I don’t think that latter argument is sufficient to capture either Mariah’s complexity or the fact that she’s not wrong in her statements about black history and community—but on the other hand, we know at every moment that those statements are at best half the story of Mariah and her identity and vision, and come to see that even more clearly as her villainy deepens. I don’t have any definite answers to these questions—and would love to hear your thougths in comments—but their presence alone suggests the interesting depths of Luke Cage.
Next post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other responses to Luke Cage you’d share?

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