“The world is in need of a Bulletproof Black Man: Luke Cage, the Champion of Harlem”
On February 27, 1965, Harlem bid farewell to her champion, el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz also known as Malcolm X.
Ossie Davis somberly opened his eulogy with this statement, “Here – at this final hour, in this quiet place – Harlem has come to bid farewell to one of its brightest hopes -extinguished now, and gone from us forever. For Harlem is where he worked and where he struggled and fought – his home of homes, where his heart was, and where his people are – and it is, therefore, most fitting that we meet once again – in Harlem – to share these last moments with him. For Harlem has ever been gracious to those who have loved her, have fought her, and have defended her honor even to the death.”
When Malcolm X died, Harlem lost a champion and the void he left behind would be vacant for over fifty years. However, on September 30, 2016, Harlem gained herself a new champion in the unlikely fictional figure of Luke Cage (AKA Carl Lucas). Luke Cage emerges at a time when the lives of African Americans seem disposable. In the midst of the state-sponsored violence against Black bodies, Cage presents a powerful visual image of Black Power so desperately needed in the Black community. He shatters the traditional American notion that superheroes with abilities could only be white, male, and accepted as extraordinary. When Cage makes himself known, he doesn’t wear a mask and extraordinary, but on the run from the law. Cage possesses unbreakable almost steel-like skin – an ability that allows bullets to simply bounce off of him. He is virtually indestructible and unlike any other hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Luke Cage made his first appearance in 1972 in issue #1 Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. His creators were John Romita Sr., George Tuska, (artists) and Archie Goodwin (writer). Marvel wanted to capitalize on the popularity of the Blaxploitation genre by creating a hero who perfectly aligned with the stereotypes portrayed in those films. Like Shaft, Luke Cage/Carl Lucas exists in a Harlem filled with blood and violence, distinctly different from the alien-dominated worlds that appeared in the rest of the Marvel universe. As a young man, Cage is a member of a gang called The Bloods and his sole ambition in life is to become a powerful mob racketeer in Harlem. Cage changes after he realizes his criminal activities were hurting his family. His best friend sets him up on drug charges and Cage is sent to Seagate prison. While incarcerated, he volunteers for a cellular regeneration experiment going on in the prison. The experiment “goes wrong,” and he finds himself changed. With his newfound abilities of superhuman strength and unbreakable skin, he returns to the mean streets of Harlem to help people — for a price.
The creation of Luke Cage in the early 1970s was something revolutionary. He was never meant to be a sidekick. He matched the physique of other white superheroes of the time. Standing at 6’6, weighing 425lbs according to the comics, he is a physically imposing figure who possesses a flare and style, unlike the other African American heroes in Marvel comics. Cage needed to be solo.
Yet, he was still a stereotype derived from Blaxploitation era. He wore a bright yellow shirt, a metal tiara, silver bracelets, and a chain link belt. In the comics, he had a limited vocabulary which centered on him repeating his catch phrase, Sweet Christmas! As a comic-book “good guy,” Cage was not very heroic. He is depicted as being driven solely by money and at times even working for villains if they paid well enough. As time progressed, Cage’s character did not.
His popularity waned significantly by the late 1970s; however, he is rescued from obscurity in 1978 by joining up with Iron Fist/Daniel Rand in the Power Man and Iron Fist comics. Despite being a part of a team, Cage still acted and behaved as if it was 1972. The lack of character development or growth limited where and who Cage interacted with in the Marvel Universe. Well into the 1980s and 1990s, Cage still spoke as a jive-talking caricature. It is only until the comic book series Alias [Jessica Jones] that Cage officially sheds the racist and stereotypical persona of his past.
Cheo Hodari Coker and Mike Colter are both fans of the original comics and wanted to ensure that their version of Luke Cage would not be the one from their childhood. The 21st century Luke Cage is completely reimaged as a modern day Black superhero that is not for sale! The Netflix series Luke Cage, created by Cheo Hodari Coker, is the first show ever to feature an African-American as the super-powered hero and not the sidekick to a white protagonist. The series stars Mike Colter as the bulletproof titular character Luke Cage/Carl Lucas. Cage’s character makes his first appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in another Netflix series Jessica Jones. Coker purposefully reimagined Cage’s origin story to demonstrate the various layers, which exist within the Black community. Luke Cage/Carl Lucas is the son of a preacher and was nicknamed the “miracle baby,” because he was conceived after his parents believed it was impossible. He is not originally from Harlem, but he comes there because he knew it was possible for him to become invisible.
Coker in an interview with Jelani Cobb of the New Yorker stated his desire to bring Luke Cage into the 21st century and away from jive-talking walking stereotype of his 1970s origins.
In the comics, Cage volunteers to be experimented on. In the series, he is forced into the experiments. This experience is similar to the Plutonium experiments the federal government did on unsuspecting prisoners during the Cold War. The symbolism of prison experimentation and exploitation within the series highlights the long history of brutality against prisoners who would do anything to escape prison life.
Luke Cage does not wear a metal tiara or a chain link belt to fight crime. Today, he wears a black hoodie, t-shirt, and jeans as a way to pay homage to the young Trayvon Martin and all the Black men and women slain for simply being Black in America.
The presence of Luke Cage fills a void that has been truly lacking throughout the Marvel cinematic universe. He is a Black hero without apology. The two longest running Black characters in the MCU are both sidekicks. They have no real depth or individual identities separate from their white heroes. White critics have criticized the series for being “too Black” and they have even suggested that the character of Cage is better off as Jessica Jones’ sidekick.
Luke Cage is not only the champion Harlem needs, he is the champion the world needs, because he represents a visual image of Black Power and that Black Superheroes Matter!
One of the goals of the series was to shed the all too common trope of violence and criminality associated with a show defined by its blackness. Mercedes “Misty” Knight, Mariah Dillard, and Claire Temple , all characters from the original comic series, yet in the series these women demonstrate that they are not “your typical magical Negroes.” These characters are complex, realistic, and complete with goals and flaws that make them human and real. Mariah Dillard/Black Mariah is portrayed by Alfre Woodard delivers an award-winning performance as a Harlem politician willing to do whatever it takes to save her neighborhood from the “carpet baggers.” The Harlem community represented in the show is rooted in blackness and kinship. The show delves into current social issues in a way the comic did not.
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