Don’t call Luke Cage a nigga. This personal decree from Cage isn’t just a defining personality trait of the character but a response embedded in the heart of the series, one developed with foresight to combat the unavoidable criticism the show would face amongst the praise. We’ve reached a point where viewers and critics are no longer asking characters to apologize for their blackness but asking them to apologize for not being black enough. And for Luke Cage, not being black enough means not fulfilling the desire for so many of the cultural markers that have come to define modern blackness for, markers that have defined Luke Cage in the comics for the better part of a decade. Luke Cage is not a nigga, but so much of the criticism circling around so-called outdated morals and a supposedly dull conflict stem from the want of a nigga. Coded in statements about Cage’s lack of initiative to become a heroic symbol of modern blackness, and Colter’s decision not to play the character with a bold and loud confidence, is a desire for a man racially recognizable and quantifiable in his solidarity to the things important to black people . . . or at least the things that white run media repeatedly tell us are important to black people.

Luke Cage

Netflix

So much of the misunderstanding circling the show has revolved around Cage’s allegedly unnecessary reluctance to take the path of a hero, and that he comes across as too reserved, and too much of a blank slate. But this is the entire point of Cage’s characterization in this series, one that surrounds the question of what Cage’s ’70s moniker, Power Man, actually means in today’s world. As a blank slate, he exists as the first black man who can be anyone, undefined by past mistakes, social constructions, and the influence of media and pop-culture. The entire show is built on showcasing why Carl Lucas became Luke Cage after prison, and how that separates him from the black community but also makes him a figure worth rallying around. Even with his increasing notoriety as the neighborhood’s protector, Cage doesn’t want to be Harlem’s Captain America. When so many black people are used as symbols for politics, rallies, or diversity quotas, there’s something identifiable in the black man who just wants to stay out of the spotlight and live his life as a regular guy. But for blacks, regular-ness is nearly impossible to obtain, when so much of the media’s coverage of us stems from looking at us as the other, and from us looking at ourselves as the bearers of an artistry turned into stereotype.

Netflix

Netflix

Luke Cage exists in the shadow of Biggie Smalls. A photo of the famed rapper, perhaps the greatest rapper, hangs in the office of club owner Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, would-be musician turned gangster, played with equal parts charm and menace by rising star Mahershala Ali. On surface level, this picture of the crowned B.I.G. serves as a framing image to showcase Stokes’ desire to be the king of Harlem. But dig deeper and you find that Biggie has become one of the most preeminent markers of black identity, the talented thug, the intelligent fool, who could have lived a long life if the system and industry he worked in had not been against him, if he had been born in a different neighborhood. You see, in a legacy of music Biggie has become a man stripped of choice and a folk hero in his own right. Luke Cage stands in direct opposition of this legacy and the mythic golden-hearted thug who can commit crimes, get rich, and still have his face end up in elaborate graffiti portraits on brick walls of crumbling neighborhoods without paying for his actions in some way. Cage is a man who doesn’t fetishize violence, or wealth, or accept pushing and gun-running as the means to escape the neighborhood. Instead, he buys into what has become a far too antiquated notion, that your choices are your own regardless of circumstance. That’s what all the series’ inclusion of talk about dressing for success and swear jars is all about—not a chastisement for sagging pants and language but a showcase that a choice exists and that young black men can define blackness on their own terms, outside of what the media perpetuates. There’s no doubt that Cage has an affinity for Biggie’s music, but he’s able to separate the music from the person and understand the difference between the persona in the tracks and the man who had served his time and took responsibility for the direction of his life. Cottonmouth, on the other hand, is a man whose entire persona could be defined by those three albums of Biggie’s without consideration for what resided under the crown. The first half of Luke Cage isn’t simply a battle of egos between the Harlem fixture and the stranger, but a battle of ideals—those that have defined much of young black identity and those that defined the generation of the ’60s, retrofitted to the modern world.

To paraphrase, Cage says at one point that he’s not guilty of the crime that landed him in prison, but that it doesn’t mean he’s innocent. Luke Cage never attempts to suggest that innocence is inherent in blackness, a bold move considering how much of our news media have focused on the innocence of wrongly executed black men and women. As a show created by black voices, there’s no need to offer reparations to ourselves, which frees Luke Cage up to be honest. Not all black people have the interests of other black people at heart, as evidenced by Alfre Woodard’s false-faced councilwoman, Mariah Dillard. And not all cops are out to get us, though Simone Missick’s Misty Knight does face a crisis of conscience as her role as Detective pushed up against her role as a black woman. This isn’t a show about white evil, black on black crime, or villainizing the police, but a show where cops and blacks can be heroes and villains because racial relations and character motivation extend beyond what the news covers.

Admittedly, Luke Cage does run a bit on CP time, with its story stretched out to 13 episodes and lacking the significant action sequences and enthralling questions of what will happen in the next episode that defined the previous Netflix Marvel shows. But even if its pace lags in points, it’s never anything other than a pleasure to spend time with these characters and watch them move through this world as the soundtrack pumps through the speakers. More than any other Marvel series on Netflix, Luke Cage creates a sense of a larger world. This doesn’t just stem from the fact that it actually shows how events and individuals from the MCU films have directly changed this neighborhood but also in the sense of culture and supporting characters that populate Marvel’s Harlem. This culture of the MCU and blackness extends beyond Harlem, touching a nerve as the series’ other major villain emerges, a villain who more than makes up for the slow pacing of the initial half.

Netflix

Netflix

Willis Stryker, Diamondback, played with devilish menace by Erik LaRay Harvey, is rooted in the black Baptist church and the hypocrisy that can exist within its walls. His plight is that he is born without access to a legacy. The bastard son of a preacher, abandoned and divided from community and family, is a story familiar to many blacks, including my own father. Harvey’s Stryker is fascinating, not because of the reveal that he’s Cage’s half-brother, but because the black man born to an absent father is so common a story that it has become unto folklore itself. As has the story of the preacher’s infidelity, the actions that cut the tether to the birthright of name, as well as God. These sins of the father have had just as great an impact on young blacks as Biggie’s music has. While the first half of the series centered around choice, the second half explores what happens when choice is taken away and our characters become fixed in their mythic positions. Luke Cage, constantly framed against a white neon cross throughout the series is clearly meant to be a Christ figure, the black messiah Harlem can rally around. Stryker, with his desecrated Bible, menacing sermons, and Judas bullets is the fallen son, a mockery of Cage’s notion that identity can be redefined and remade, and of his mantra “Always forward. Forward all ways.” Stryker’s specific, though familiar, black identity is one that is rooted in his past, evidence of history’s power and ability to upset order and plans. The series depicts a world where we may be able to move on from our mass media’s edict of who we are, but not one where we can escape the control of blood and name . . . at least not this season.

Luke Cage doesn’t coast on the topical statements of blackness that concern the general population, instead it delves into the deep blackness that requires more attention, thought, and a willingness to listen than tweets of protest and democratic votes. Luke Cage makes statements, just not the ones we’ve heard time and time again. Luke Cage is not Black Lives Matter the show, because if black lives really matter, then let our lives and our characters actually matter beyond being a political rallying point. Let us be flawed, hesitant, villainous, or heroic. Better yet, let us be blank slates so we can make that choice for ourselves. That’s the ballad of Luke Cage; that’s the freedom that comes with being nobody’s nigga.

Featured Image: Netflix