'Luke Cage,' Television And Supporting Character Syndrome

'Luke Cage' is offering this experience. It shouldn’t be the only one.

I would like to begin the following article with a statement that may be considered blasphemous by some, or alternatively, far closer to the truth than others would care to admit. But, without too much theatrics, I’m not a particular fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Superhero fatigue is very real and has set in like a case of mono.

That’s not to say what the studio and comic book company have created and its implications aren’t incredibly impressive. My dislike of their product stems more from their formulaic approach to creating films than it has anything to do with a Marvel versus DC preference (But since we’re being honest, BATMAN ALL DAY). And whether you like these films or not since Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, (a director who still gets far less credit than Joss Whedon for establishing the MCU ) unexpectedly launched this comic book world, every subsequent film beginning with Iron Man 2 saw the establishment and refinement of the Marvel cinematic formula.

And they’ve repeated it. Again and again to frankly staggering box office success.

But, television is a different medium. It requires a bit more nuance these days and viewers are quicker to pick up or abandon a series. While Marvel has attempted some television shows like Agents of Shield on ABC, the Marvel series on Netflix have taken a darker route more representative of what DC is building at the moment. Beginning with Daredevil and thenJessica Jones, Marvel and Netflix have made it clear that the comic book characters that come to life on their service would be unlike what we’ve been used to.

When it comes to Luke Cage, that’s an understatement.

Luke Cage, which premiered on the streaming service last Friday and follows the journey of its title character, Luke Cage, a superhuman with extraordinary strength and bulletproof skin as armor as he overcomes his fear of himself and eventually begins to help clean up the streets of Harlem. It wouldn’t be a reach to say that Netflix knew almost immediately it had a smash hit on its hands when Luke Cage was released last Friday, as the streaming service went down twice on Saturday as its servers tried to keep up with the global Luke Cage binge. Though it’s only been a week, the much-hyped thirteen-episode series has received the holy grail of critical acclaim and fan adoration.

But while I’ve fallen in love with the series for its unique hip hop take, there are a few people, hopefully small in number that aren’t thrilled with the show. These people have gone as far as to say the show lacks diversity and, in the words of NYT Art Critic Nathan Hale, offers a protagonist who would be better served as a “supporting character” on Jessica Jones.

Now, I’ve purposefully put supporting character in quotation marks. Because the reaction of some individuals to this show has led me to the creation of a concept that I think befits this new landscape of television.

So is the show lacking diversity? That’s a tricky question to answer, and if I’m being honest, depends on who you happen to question. Ask me? No it doesn’t. What Luke Cage is, is simply for one of the first times in television history seeing a mostly black cast, where their race isn’t an aspect of contention. It’s literally just a default setting. Imagine all the children and teenagers who are going to see this show and see their own reflection as a default setting rather than as a novelty character.

“We kept using the phrase ‘inclusively black, from the showrunner to the cast to everything, there’s no way around the fact that this is a black show. ‘Well, I mean, it’s a story that’s not, um, specific in…’ No, man, it’s a black show! But just because you’re outside the culture doesn’t mean you can’t understand it, learn from it, enjoy it. You can agree with it or disagree it. Just don’t expect a theme-park version of the black experience.” — Cheo Hodari Coker

Luke Cage is not your typical comic book series character, introduced as a secondary character on “Jessica Jones,” Michael Colter’s character was established prior to the series in a seven-episode arc of Marvel’s former series. What this series offers, however, is one of the least culturally white-washed takes on the genre, or television as a whole.

What this series alternatively offer is one of the most unique and complex thematic series that Marvel has yet to offer. From characters, to plot, the true importance of the series is not whether the super-hero is black, or even its quality as a show, but simply that it’s the first major television series in history to subvert the basic predominantly white cast into a predominantly black one. It’s almost a social experiment for many to react to.

The predominantly black and latina cast, with actors Mike Colter, Mahershala Ali, Alfre Woodard, and Rosario Dawson taking on lead roles and characters. Aside from the people who cried “racist,” Luke Cage has been well-received by the masses, and has been considered a ground-breaking series in terms of representation. Luke Cage joins Black Panther as one of the very few shows to feature a black actor as the protagonist. Now, is there a distinct lack of white people in the show? Possibly, depending on who you ask. The series is set in Harlem, so as far as a realistic depiction of the setting goes, it’s perfect. But, I can understand, if not empathize, with whyLuke Cage might throw off some individuals, specifically the white viewers who aren’t used to not being central to the story.

But race isn’t the focus of this show. It’s simply a different voice from what viewers have seen from Marvel before. Of course it has plenty to say about Africa-American identity, politics, history, and literature, but while some may focus on these aspects, it isn’t a bad action series either.

But whether the show did everything or nothing, it holds a far more important significance going forward than as simply another comic book hero or marvel television show. What this does is give the opportunity for an important part of our culture to express its own significance, on its own terms. The point of these stories is that whether it’s a black hero, or villain, or detective, it allows the audience to empathize with people of color in a way that allows them to be viewed as more human than in previous shows. It offers the chance for the medium to explore the full human experience of an individual who’s black.

When people of color have been on television shows and in films in the past is always the supporting character, likely a simple piece of expository dialogue to help push the narrative along rather than a three-dimensional character with whom one can empathize. That’s literally all Hollywood as offered a massively growing demographic since we were children. Now as a community we’ve begun to demand proper representation and we are in the early stages of having Black, or Latin, or Asian, or Indian, or Muslim characters, audiences and individuals can view and understand human.

Luke Cage is offering this experience. It shouldn’t be the only one. Hopefully there are other contributions from more diverse and nuanced voices.

It’s a television show of course. But one that has catalyzed a process that a large underserved audience has been begging for: namely, a reflection of the society we live in its entirety. With all colors of the spectrum receiving the humanity they deserve. Not simply those in “supporting character” roles.