“Luke Cage” is complex, gritty, and riveting. It begins after the events in Jessica Jones. Luke (Mike Colter) is working two jobs in Harlem, one in a barbershop run by a former criminal Pop (Frankie Faison) who has spent his life since prison making his shop a safe haven in the neighborhood. The other job is as a dishwasher in an upscale Harlem club run by Cornell Stokes (Mahershala Ali) Aka Cottonmouth. Stokes is running guns in the city and we soon learn that a theft of his money leaves him in a difficult position.
There is crime and politics with references to Fisk and other events in the city. The villains are complex with varying reasons for their actions. One, Stokes’ cousin, Mariah Stokes (Alfre Woodard) wants to make a difference in Harlem and build it up to be a better place but she uses her cousin’s money to do so. Cornell firmly believes money is the only thing useful in the world. Excuse the phrasing but none of the characters are black and white. They all believe in what they are doing and trying to live in a society where poverty and crime walk hand in hand with hardworking, caring people
Even the music aids the storyline, each episode beginning with music tied right to the heart and soul of Harlem, its history and its people. The show is clearly filmed in Harlem, with stores and places familiar to those living in the area. Music and people are the presence that ties this show together and the city is a living heart accompanying the story of Luke Cage.
Luke wants to lie low but with his friends in trouble, with people he cares about on the line or dead because of the political machinations of Cottonmouth and Mariah, Luke has no choice but to stand, to stand up and stand his ground, to stand for the people of Harlem and not allow its people to be dragged down, to help them live their lives in decency and to keep alive what Harlem really means, the people.
Each of the characters, good or bad is strong and vital, their motivations clear and their personalities real. Luke is just a man who wants to be left alone but keeps finding himself in the middle, keeps helping people because he’s a good person. Misty is a strong female cop in a mostly male force and holds her own against corruption and dishonesty, upholding the truth. She might want to look away but she forces herself to face the ugly truths and help the people of her city. Even the villains are strong, Mariah, unflinching in the face of Diamondback killing three people. She stands her own ground and she survives even if we as the viewer dislike her thirst for power and her machinations, the scenes we have of her as a young, powerless girl give us the insight to understand her motivations.
Luke Cage manages to combine contemporary social commentary with the issues that black people face today in Harlem and communities around the country. The line, “Why is he running?” with the answer, “He’s a black man being accused of a crime he didn’t commit.” That statement speaks a lot to the issues in the country and the slogan Black Lives Matter was brought up during the show. One of the interesting points it seemed to play on was that everyone in Harlem deserved justice, the cops whose fellow officer was killed and Luke Cage when everyone is ready to shoot him on sight. There are those who speak out for him and it is as though they speak out for every person of color who was ever accused of a crime they didn’t commit. And at the end, even though Luke is cleared of any wrongdoing in Harlem, he goes back to face up to the crimes he’d originally been accused of in Georgia, ready to fight for justice for himself so that he can continue to fight for others.
One of the parts I like the best about Luke Cage is how much the history of Harlem is woven into the story, everything good and the bad, the historical figures who fought for their people to be free, the music of Harlem, the art and the people, not just African-Americans but all the ethnicities that live in the area, Puerto Rican, Korean, everyone was included. There was a richness of diversity that is found in so few network shows that this was a delight.
Between the complexity of the characters, the nod to the comic books, and the richness of diversity and culture, I enjoyed this show immensely and think it is one of the best Netflix Marvel series yet. If you haven’t watched any of the others, you don’t need to do so to enjoy Luke Cage and I think you should definitely check it out.