Captain America does not say, damn that pussy must be good. But characters in Luke Cage Season 2, do say that. And they say bitch and shit and they can’t go more than one episode without making a reference to some other piece of pop culture – from The Graduate to Martha Stewart.
The issue this raises is clearly and obviously, exploitation. Why is it acceptable and encouraged and regarded with a label of authenticity if Black Americans swear and use “crude” language but the ultimate White boy (to cite one obvious example), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans/Captain America) cannot?
The answer obviously, is systemic racism.
Luke Cage is a perfect example of the Dialectic of Contradictions. In this form of the dialectic the object (Being Black in America) Is trapped in a mobius loop of meta awareness. It presents itself as a response to systemic racism by focusing on a Black hero who is self aware and understands his status as both avatar and victim. In a pivotal and brilliant scene with Claire (Rosario Dawson) Luke (Mike Colter) and his love (who follows a traditional racist trope and is – must be – Hispanic because a White woman is off limits or in the case of the very White Jessica Jones – Krysten Ritter – too damaged for anything more than sex) argue and touch on a lifetime’s worth of cultural issues in the space of a few minutes.
His assertion that she does not understand is met with the facts of the brutality experienced by a Latina and her assertions of his need to be responsible is met with the fact of his being a Black man in America – a large Black man who is by the definitions imposed by the oppressing class always defined as dangerous.
This nearly answers the shows central dilemma but doesn’t quite succeed.
The fact is that the Dialectic of Contradictions is a closed system. It asserts a thesis, responds with antithesis, and resolves itself into a paradox of synthesis and repetition. Its first premise is the use of self awareness as a marketing trope. Luke Cage is aware of who he is – thus at one point, he speaks into the faux camera of a character in the show who is constantly filming Luke in order to make and sell videos. He is a street hustler who both means well but is adopting the methods of capitalism to achieve success. Thus he is compromised and is one part helper one part parasite. But in a crucial but brief moment a (White) Hipster runs into the barber shop and tries to film (score) in anticipation of Luke’s arrival but is pushed outside because he’s stealing business. This is a sly comment on “gentrification” and “Hipsters” as a form of colonization and exploitation but it is also inadvertently an example of the Dialectic of Contradictions. The goal is not liberation but claiming a piece of the pie while turning competition and monopoly into virtues.
Take note of peripheral but important characters Cockroach and Piranha. Both criminals, exploiters and by their names associated with either voracious carnivores or invasive pests. But also consider that when Luke and Foggy (Elden Henson) are forced to make a deal to extract Luke from a bogus lawsuit, and they must (more or less) accept Piranha’s terms, we see photos on the wall of his office – Piranha with Bill Clinton and Obama. In other words, everyone is either in on the con or trying to get in on the con. No one is unscathed; not Luke, not Foggy, not Claire, not Danny Rand, or Matt Murdoch or Karen Page or Jessica Jones, etc.
But then there is the meta awareness of Luke and of the show Luke Cage which has the character speak into the faux camera while being filmed by the real camera and declare he is both avatar and fiction.
This gimmick, the art, is repeated throughout the show. It reinforces the faux reality of making references to actual people and events along with references to fake events like “the incident” – a reference to the first Avengers film (and a trope that ignores almost all other references to the wider MCU and has run its course).
All of which then repeats as an issue in the central dilemma – if a television show about a Black hero is rife with “offensive” language as a bid to claim authenticity it also declares that the rest of the MCU is by definition inauthentic and not just because of course superheros as a genre are by definition false but because they are not Black.
This is addressed when Danny Rand (Iron Fist/Finn Jones) arrives towards the end of the season. During a pivotal moment Luke points out that Danny’s wealth is, in Harlem, a true form of power. Danny objects, claiming he is detached from his inherited wealth and that the source and manifestation of his power is his spirituality. Luke counters that compared to the relative wealth of most people in Harlem, a glowing fist means far less than a billion dollars and Danny seemingly concedes the point.
This then is the third stage of the Dialectic of Contradictions. As an attempt at subversion within the borders of a systemic racism Luke Cage the show and Luke Cage the character are compromised. The attempt at escape is a failure. The show cannot transgress or transcend the boundaries of the corporate prison. Inside this, the meta references are both commentary and exploitation. Thus D.W, the helper/parasite, sells tee-shirts and hoodies with Luke Cage swag/marketing tropes emblazoned on them. Piranha collects Luke Cage memorabilia. Sweet Xmas (worn in one scene by Danny), is transformed into both product and collaboration.
This echos an unremarked upon moment from the first season. During a confrontation with the punk elements of Harlem – drug dealers and assorted fools – Luke announces his commitment to clearing out the negative elements – the exploiters and parasites, the collaborators who by selling drugs and engaging in drug and gang related violence betray the community he is sworn to protect. All well and good except that if he were White and a bigot the same words could have come from Trump or one of his neo-fascist goons. It is the rhetoric of nativist populism. It displays and highlights the thin line between commitment to progressive action and reactionary violence.
But for all of this Luke Cage is not only not a failure and not therefore only a success, it flirts with brilliance. This is another aspect of the Dialectic of Contradiction. It exists because the communication technology culture has created an echo chamber that serves primarily to exploit and enslave while pretending (and selling as just another product) the idea of an electronic and completely democratic commons. This is the myth of the technology revolution of Steve Jobs, as if Walt Whitman had been alive to do an add for Apple -iCelebrate Myself as the mantra of the post-industrial free citizen of the world. And a product from which the stock market, utilizing slave labor, derives a profit while cloaking itself in the uniform of global liberator.
This aspect of the corporate gulag aims to commodify exploit and sell “freedom” the same way it commodifies, exploits and sells everything else from elections to wars to cars.
But along the way the technology escaped and went viral. William Burroughs, commenting on all of this and associated issues once said, language is a virus. And he was correct. The system sells itself and everything else but in every act of exploitation it increases the risk of failure for the entire system. Thus Luke is constantly being tracked by the “superhero app” which also serves as an unintended critique of mass surveillance and the virtual gulag of the ghetto.
While Luke’s agent, Bobby Fish (Ron Cephas Jones), negotiates with Nike, it serves as a meta commentary on both itself (again, Luke in self awareness mode) and a form of staking a claim on being able to fully participate in the capitalist system. If a White man can sign a lucrative endorsement deal than so can Luke – a kind of Steph Curry-LeBron James-Jay-Z – but with the ability to be bulletproof. Take note that Luke is shown reading both Ta Nehisi Coates and Walter Mosley. He is aware and (appears) to live in the world with the rest of us. Contrast this with a riff in Jessica Jones Season 2, where a child with whom Jones interacts has as a prize possession, a Captain America action figure. This is again both a sly meta commentary, a form that Marvel/Netflix are adept at using, as well as a meta-meta reference to the commodification of Marvel and its characters. This is ultimately a level of Postmodernism that marks Marvel/Netflix as the inheritors of literary Postmodernism but in a manner that has more in common with sales than subversion.*
And a word here about the central conceit of the character as envisioned by Marvel. Luke Cage the Man With Unbreakable Skin was at inception and now again in the moment of Trump and the resurgence of the terrorism of the Klan culture a statement that being Black was not a crime, and as a result, Luke Cage was in fact invulnerable. A Black citizen can not be broken.
Which brings us to the meta commentary of his name. Luke attaches him to a biblical authority while his last name serves to attach him to the unresolved facts of systemic bigotry from the actual cage of slavery to the less obvious but just as pernicious cage of apartheid and Jim Crow.
As originally drawn, the character still wore chains and a kind of permanent crown of thorns. Those were used and disposed of in the first part of the first season but they linger symbolically in the name.
But again, because of these issues the show resonates.
With the exceptions of Rosario Dawson and Alfre Woodard (Claire Temple and Mariah Stokes, respectively) the acting remains somewhat to very stiff with moments (especially with Colter) where the acting is first rate. But it is also effective enough with each character being given moments if not entire arcs of depth and development.
Among the more provocative and subversive moments involves the blatant suggestion of the homosexual love affair between Shades (Theo Rossi) and Comanche (Thomas Jones) while both were in Seagate Prison.
This is an example of the attempts at depth which approach the level of an ersatz Greek Tragedy or a low-rent Russian or Faulkner novel. The incestuous relationship between Mariah and her uncle, as in a classic tragedy, returns to inflict its generational trauma. Every character has a complex and contradictory set of motivations. Those motivations echo each other and exist inside each other as a set of Russian nesting dolls. The villains are not simply a reason for the hero to kick ass but exist within and because of their own complex desires.
However, there is something problematic in the issue of Mariah’s relationship with her uncle and not in the sense of the incest but in the same sense that Luke Cage is “R” rated by Marvel standards and in comparison to the rest of the Marvel/Netflix shows and certainly compared to the films. The argument that the films are designed to appeal to a wider audience is nothing more or less than scoring on your own goal – it means, by definition, that Luke Cage is a ghetto product not meant for a wider audience. After all, contrast the blatant language and sexuality of Cage with a pivotal scene in the first Avengers film where Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson – who is sexualized and fetishzed through consistent low angle camera shots that focus on her curves) interrogates Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and provokes his rage which manifests as his calling her a whiny cunt – except of course he says: mewling quim. In other words Joss Whedon had both a thesaurus and an order from production to not cross the PG 13 threshold. It’s alright to highlight Johansson’s curves and her skin-tight costume but it’s not alright to have a character scream cunt! But in “the hood” there’s sex and swearing and sexual depravity. The double standard is blatant but also notice that Marvel’s financial success and domination have made it immune to this sort of criticism among the establishment and collaborationist media.
For example, consider that Mariah refuses to part with her Basquiat painting. While Basquiat was clearly a tool of the exploiting White ruling class* and the Black collaborationist class, he is here repurposed as a symbol of Black achievement in spite of the racial exploitation that created him as Basquiat Inc.*
Mariah’s refusal to sell it is not based on greed – as the painting would easily sell for millions – but on an attachment to an identity in the face of a system that demands the right to control and exercises the blunt instruments of state power to define her as property. This issue is reinforced with her attempt to open a community center named for and to honor famous Black women.
This then returns us to the contradictions. Mariah is a psychopath and dangerous. Victim and predator. But without naming names she makes the point to her estranged daughter (Gabrielle Dennis/Nightshade) that while the family fortune was built on dice and whores so was jazz but you don’t hear anyone outside of Lincoln Center protesting about it.
She could have just as easily mentioned that the FDR and Kennedy family fortunes were built on crime – as was the entire country — but while that would have been even more effective the comment about jazz makes the point. The show here steps into Godfather territory. The Corleone’s are America Inc. America Inc. is Luke Cage. But Marvel/Netflix remain both trapped inside the corruption and profits from it.
This in turn speaks to the numerous ways in which the show addresses unstable hierarchies within the Black community. Skin tone as well as schisms and competition between different corners of the wider Black community are addressed. The rivalry between New York gangsters and Jamaicans is examined from multiple points of view including ones of who can make a more believable claim of rebellion. More provocatively though are the various uses of “nigger” as a weapon of class distinction by different Black characters against each other. Mariah versus Luke and Misty (Simone Missick) versus other NYPD detectives. Taken altogether this is an example of the system (socio-economic-political) forcing people into a type of elevated gladiatorial combat of all against all.
The final aspect of the Dialectic of Contradictions is its volatility. It is a live wire fraught with the potential to shoot of sparks and to combust. The show is both positive and negative; it is both avatar of resistance and collaboration.
Marvel has always been subversive. Unlike the more consistently broad brush of DC (at least up until Frank Miller ushered in the existential Batman) Marvel has been full of characters who confronted issues of bigotry and corruption and lived in worlds of existential vaguery. To act was to participate in and collaborate with the system. To not act was to participate and collaborate with the system.
While Jessica Jones may make fun of one of Marvel’s oldest and trite slogans the fact remains that with great power comes great responsibility is a (comic book) rendering of the existential ethos. It is in turn a commentary on America’s rise to global hegemon. The true Golden Age of American comic books is from the 1960s onward. In other words from JFK through Vietnam and second phase Civil Rights and on until the present moment of confrontation.
The current era of comic book culture made possible by advances in technology all essentially refer back to the era of the late 60s. Notwithstanding the birth of The Avengers et al prior to annus mirabilis ’68 the ethos is of the era of confrontation and rebellion and counter revolution.
Luke Cage is problematic. It is a fascinating failure and a brilliant if compromised success. It dips periodically into the shallow end of the pool with cardboard characters in cardboard situations but at its best it deserves recognition because it is making an effort to challenge and subvert. It remains a product and a thus a tool of the system. It is not and cannot be Faulkner or Dostoevsky nor is it even Springsteen or Kendrick Lamar, but it cannot be faulted for failing to achieve what it is not aiming for. It is pop culture – at (nearly) its best.
And a word here about the final few episodes. At this point, as Alfre Woodard’s Mariah essentially steals the show (if she doesn’t receive an emmy it’s a crime) the story-line enters the realm of Sophocles and Tennessee Williams with an add-on of Blacksploitation prison violence. It works but at a cost. No other Marvel character is going to go “gangstah” and slit a bitch’s throat. And not that it would make sense for Peter Parker to do so but that’s just it, again. While, for example, there have been moments of extraordinary violence in The Amazing Spider Man (comic books – not the films), there is no possibility that Parker will ever deal with or be shown to be dealing with this level of mayhem.
It takes as its central theme this season, family, fathers and sons, with echoes within echoes of children burdened with and betrayed by family responsibility – shame, guilt, rage and resentment. It offers no easy answers or tidy resolutions – in the ethos of Seinfeld it says, almost but not quite, no hugging – but does instead offer contradictions and compromise.
Midway through the season, Cage finds himself forced to act with both great power and great responsibility and rescue Mariah. And being rescued she says she will hire Luke (Luke Cage Hero for Hire). The look on Colter’s face captures the essential dilemma. Acting to do good may very well create or abet evil
Thus, the powerful Black Man is forced yet again into the role of tool. This is the existential dilemma and the Dialectic of Contradiction in essence. Unlike the traditional Dialectic with its antecedents in Hegelian formalism, here what is manifest is a circle. There is resolution but the resolution is a contradiction. The end of the dilemma is also the beginning of the same problem in a new form that echoes the old problem. Even the chief “villain” (Mustafa Shakir) Bushmaster, has his motivations. Both gangster and avenging hero of his own myth he is a another side to the myth of Luke Cage. He is not the hero but he is not exactly the villain.
He is, like Cage, a prisoner of a system that pits all against all.
Luke inside the cage cannot escape. To escape is to surrender. To participate is to collaborate.
As a result Luke inheret’s Mariah’s club, Harlem’s Paradise. He exchanges the painting of the corrupt dead king, Biggie Smalls, for the dead defiant hero, Muhammad Ali, but he sends Claire home, shuts out Misty, and enters into a world fraught with moral dilemmas. Waiting for him in season 3 are multiple plot lines involving dangerous compromised and women – because of course the hyper sexualized Balck male remains a recurring trope of the system and because Colter is a sexualized (Black) male figure used to sell a product.
Luke Cage is the symbol of the unresolved catastrophes of systemic racism which are themselves contextualized by the unresolved catastrophes of end-phase capitalism.The current system wide nervous breakdown which pits resurgent fascism in the form of Trump against the incoherent and inchoate #Resistance is not an accident.
Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, is a Black Theseus, a Black Ulysses, (an echo of every other compromised American hero from Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op and Sam Spade to Ray Chandler’s Marlowe to Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider) – the master thief and Trickster. A victim, but still, the hero.
Compromised, conflicted, but determined. Product and live wire of a system tearing itself apart.
*This is not to say Postmodern writers were allergic to money but the chasm between a successful novel and a successful television show is, in terms of cash flow, the difference between a nice house and a skyscraper.
*For a look at Basquiat see the following: