A couple years ago I published an article about a Black Captain America and the mass reaction to the change. Some of you may remember it, some may not. Either way, if you’re curious [here it is]. I didn’t expect that years later I’d be writing about the same general topic. It is however a little different this time around. If you’ve read that article you’ll remember the general “black people should get their own original heroes” argument and my “we have them, no one wants them” retort. It’s an unfortunate statement but it is true and 2016 has proven this. Before you continue reading I need you to understand this isn’t a BLM rant. I’m not writing as an angry Black man despite fitting the bill for such. This is just the facts about our media and entertainment industry.
Luke Cage has been out for a couple weeks now and the responses to it are…unfavorable, to say the least. Within days there were numerous web articles highlighting the negative responses to it based on the shows “black” content. I mean..just look.
I could probably post these all day and not run out of material to share. It’s…saddening. I wanted to write this article weeks ago but I’ve been procrastinating. It worked out though because today I got to have a conversation with a complete stranger on this very topic. I showed her some of these comments online and she insisted this was only a small number of people and the media blows it out of proportion. When she told me she didn’t like Luke Cage because it is too violent, I asked her if she felt the same about Flash and Arrow (she mentioned she enjoyed them) and she said no because they had “normal violence” in them. I don’t even know what “normal violence” is. I mean Arrow in particular has a lot of on-screen death in it. Heck I remember scenes that portrayed legit violence against women, (remember that’s why Laurel decided to take up self-defense to begin with.)
I asked her though, if the news media is truly to blame, isn’t that indicative of what consumers want to see as a whole?? We all know how news and reporting works. Even blogs. We publish content that generate the most buzz and feedback. We produce tv shows and movies that earn high ratings and box office profits. That’s just how mass media functions. And this is exactly why it’s taken so long to get a show like Luke Cage.
The ugly truth is that characters and shows centered on Black culture aren’t largely wanted. They aren’t. It’s the truth. The key word here is “centered,” I wouldn’t dare go so far as to say no one likes Black characters. The problem is, Black characters have been type cast and relegated to support and background even in comics. The witty sidekick. The old wise mentor. The really cool stranger with minimum backstory but awesome action sequences(*cough* BLACK PANTHER *cough*). Those are the roles we’re conditioned to enjoy Black characters in and anything that deviates from that formula feels foreign to us. All of us actually, I was guilty of it myself most of my life, particularly during my childhood and teen years.
I remember my dad once watched me play an old wrestling game, old as in when WWF was not yet WWE. I was creating my character doing my thing just having a good time. My dad asks me “Is that supposed to be you??” I said yea. He asked me why I made myself look the way I did and I said something along the lines of “that’s what good guys are supposed to look like.” I created a white guy, with long hair, huge muscles, and blue eyes. No joke, I can actually picture the exact character in my head. Not sure why I remember this day so vividly because that was the end of the conversation. He just accepted it and went about his day. The point is I was a young 13 or 14 year old colored kid who believed white characters were supposed to be at the forefront. Despite the popularity of shows like Moesha, Sister Sister, and even the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Black culture wasn’t getting a fair representation in entertainment. Sure a lot of those shows had an episode or two here and there that touched home but they were mostly comedies benefiting from Blackspoitation. Fresh Prince and Family Matters (in my opinion) made the most effort to dare delve into the truths of Black culture and they were very successful when they produced stories around such. But, at the end of the day they still were what they were: products of commodity fetish.
We came real close in the 90’s to getting fair representation of Black culture with those shows. Real close. What started with The Cosby Show decades beforehand had almost moved into full blown entertainment revolution. And then it stopped. I’m not sure what happened but we went back to the same old same old and barely noticed. I suppose we were all content with the watered down versions of Tyler Perry productions.
But, the industry noticed. So they made a Black Captain America, a Hispanic Ghost Rider, and a biracial Spiderman. Lawrence Fishburne was cast as Perry White and Idris Elba played Heimdal. Will Smith and Denzel Washington were every black action star ever.. And well, people hated it. Between the cries about tradition and the wondering why no one else could get a leading black role you couldn’t turn anywhere without someone complaining one way or another about Blacks in entertainment media.
Now here we are in 2016 with Luke Cage, arguably the “blackest” production to be put out since New York Undercover and The Boondocks. And people don’t like it because….it’s “too” Black?? I’m not even offended. I’m just sad.
I’m sad because 13 year old me needed a show like Luke Cage, 13 year old me needed a protagonist like Luke Cage. Yes, Luke Cage has been around since the early 70s. But, a big black dude wearing a tiara and a bright yellow disco shirt was not the Luke Cage I needed. I had Prince for that. I needed to see a strong Black superhero whom was more than his muscle and that’s exactly who 2016 Luke Cage is. Luke Cage is the Clark Kent of his story. He’s introspective and willful. He’s loyal. He stands apart from those around him and exudes a higher standard of ethics than any other characters. Mentally, he’s indomitable. He breaks the stereotype of being Black in every way imaginable. He doesn’t drink, do drugs, or keep his pimp hand strong. (That’s a Shaft reference.) He abhors being called a nigga not just by Whites but Blacks as well and will not hesitate to lecture Black men on Black history. In a world dominated by forces of oppression and crime, Cage stands as a beacon of admiration for Black people both young and old.
I could say all sorts of kind things about Cage himself but he’s not the only one. There isn’t a major Black character in this show that doesn’t break the cycle. The villains too, stand apart and above. Despite being criminals they display behaviors rooted in hustle, loyalty, and respect, going so far as to punish their underlings who betray such values. When a truce recognized by all factions in the city is broken by the actions of a rogue grunt, his boss throws him off of a roof after interrogating him about his actions. All around, this series features strong black characters who answer to no one other than themselves. Most importantly they own their actions without making excuses for them be they good or bad.
It’s powerful. It probably scares people. But hey, this is Black culture. Raw, uncut, unabridged, realistic Black culture. It’s something the entertainment industry has been missing for decades with no outcry at all about the abundant White representation in Friends and every day time soap opera ever. Some of the most popular and successful geek shows lacked solid representation of strong-willed characters and no one complained. Smallville. Lois And Clark. Batman. The Incredible Hulk. iZombie. Flash. Arrow….
…..[inaudible listing continues]Constantine…
…[rambling]…Legends of Tomorrow….
….all either completely without Black characters or only with quirky Black sidekicks. (Poor Pete didn’t even make it past the first few seasons of Smallville and Cyborg didn’t come in until what..season 6?? 7?? I don’t even remember.)
Luke Cage is needed for all of us not just 13 year old me. Luke Cage can break barriers for everyone. Luke Cage can push us into a direction where it isn’t unnatural to see any minority culture prominently represented. Take Black Panther for instance, the most popular Black character all year until Luke Cage was released. I’ve heard and seen plenty of wishes (from everyone) for a Black Panther movie.
Um…everyone knows he lives in Africa…right?? I mean… If Luke Cage is “too black” for audiences….
You know, this is a comic book website so Luke Cage is obviously going to be a major talking point here but 2016 is a great year for Black representation in media. Empire is in its third season this year. A new show about baseball, Pitch, not only features a strong Black lead but a strong Black female lead. Underground is a historical fiction about slaves making an escape from a Georgia plantation and its script is top notch. We even got a movie this year about the Obamas’ personal relationship and rise to political forefront. And it’s all real. None of these productions exploit Black culture or people as a commodity and if you ask me, that is where the complaints are stemming from. This is exactly why they need to keep being produced.
(Oh snap I almost forgot to mention the 80s historial fiction, The Get Down. It’s a great production about hip hop and it’s influence on black culture. Shame on me!!)
Normalizing minority representation is going to come at the expense of making a lot of people uncomfortable for a while. That included me until recent years of my life and I’m sure others like me. I think I made my first Black videogame character when I was 17 years old. Even then and for many years after I made crazy concepts like Black guys with blue hair or green eyes. I didn’t make my first realistic Black character until EA Sports UFC, the one with Jon Jones on the cover. That was 2014, I was 26 years old. Don’t get me wrong I’m not in the least bit saying Black people should have to make Black videogame characters just because. I’m not saying that at all. I’m only saying we should be able to feel comfortable with doing so, we should feel comfortable being able to imagine Black heroes and main characters both as kids and adults.
That’s why Luke Cage is important. I’m not angry people dislike the concept. I’m sad because I feel like I’m 13 years old again and it’s not ok to be Black.