How ‘Luke Cage’ could be the beginning of a beautiful diversity

I waited a year for Netflix’s Luke Cage, and let me tell you this: It was worth it.

Mostly my excitement had to do with the promise of the first black superhero getting a solo project — as stated many times before, I’m an advocate for entertainment created by and featuring diverse artists. Perhaps less noble (but no less honest), as a heterosexual female I also looked forward to watching actor Mike Colter for 13 hours.

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In the exclamatory words of Cage, “Sweet Christmas.”

For those unfamiliar, Cage has superhuman strength and has self-healing sells that deflect everything from bullets to powertools. Eventually, he becomes part of the Defenders, heroes who fight human criminals exploiting working class residents in Hell’s Kitchen and Harlem while the Avengers take a break from battling aliens destroying Starbucks and skyscrapers in Manhattan’s financial district. For now, he’s just trying to save his Harlem community.

Creator Cheo Hodari Coker didn’t shy away from realistically portraying Cage’s environment. Everyone — from the barber shop owner and nightclub waitstaff to the main detective and prominent politician — is black with a few exceptions, like assorted cops, a nurse, a criminal henchman and a partner detective. In the strictest definition of “diverse,” Luke Cage is not diverse at all.

But when context is applied? Luke Cage is the first step Marvel’s film and TV division has really taken toward substantive diversity.

There are far smarter voices talking about why America needs a mainstream series about a bulletproof black hero in a hoodie right now — like Essence Magazine, The Atlantic and lead actor Colter himself — so learn from their analysis. The bottom line: Luke Cage gives black audiences a superhero who looks like them and shares their experiences. It’s not a cure-all, but it’s a start.

As I demonstrated in my Beyoncé post from February, I’m happy to lend my perspective as a white woman aiming to be as woke (aware of her skin-color privilege) as possible.

As I see it, “You can’t be what you don’t see” for minorities translates to “What you don’t see you can’t believe” for majorities. White people need Luke Cage because we need to see a person of color being portrayed in mainstream media as a hero with agency. Black super-humans have always been sidekicks, like Anthony Mackie in Captain AmericaWinter Soldier and Terrence Howard and Don Cheadle in Iron Man. Cage breaks this pattern as a hero who makes decisions for himself and leads the heroic charge in a world where his superpowers, not his skin color, set him apart from the rest of the characters.

Compared to film, TV has led the charge in creating characters of color who call the shots — for non-Shonda Rhimes examples, see Taraji P. Henson in CBS’ Person of Interest and Harry Lennix in NBC’s The Blacklist. But many of these characters  operate in a world dominated by white people because that’s what the creators are comfortable making* or think their audiences would be comfortable watching.

*Personally, I’ve recently struggled in deciding whether to write my next main character as a black woman. While on a run, I envisioned Orange is the New Black actress Samira Wiley dramatically unveiling her identity after chasing someone through the abandoned streets of Chicago. But I’m terrified of either focusing too hard on her racial identity or ignoring it to the point of whitewashing her. More on that in a different post…

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In my  vision, Wiley is a trained assassin with a heart of gold and head of cyber-enhanced combat skills.

I looked at Luke Cage from a creator’s perspective; most people tuning in watch for entertainment, not inspiration. One viewer, April Del Rario, published an admirably honest mini-analysis of her reaction.

“The truth is, I felt uncomfortable watching the show I had been looking forward to because I assumed it would be about one cool black guy set in a world of whiteness or diversity where I was comfortable,” she wrote. “When I watched and heard groups of black men talking to each other with references that were lost on me,* I felt excluded, and for a moment I resented that.”

*At those moments I did a Google search and regarded it as a learning experience. Once a journalist, always a journalist.

I can imagine that discomfort and/or resentment is how a lot of black viewers feel when watching films and TV filled with white characters. That is, if they weren’t used to it by now.

Maybe if more entertainment executives had the same experience as Del Rario they would better understand why non-white audiences want content featuring authentic people who look and live like them. Hopefully they would take action by hiring more non-white creators and actors and marketing their products to viewers of all races.

I look forward to the day when minority-focused shows aren’t considered special. When TV and film phenomena like the Marvel Cinematic Universe embrace and represent communities of all races, genders, faiths, classes and sexual orientations. When critics can’t call Cage a “unique role” based on his skin color, but on his literal and literary strength.

Thanks to Luke Cage, that day might be here soon. And it will be known as “Sweet Christmas.”

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