Netflix superhero show spotlights issues of race and policing
"A black man in a hoodie with bullet-proof skin”—this is the description given by amazed bystanders of Luke Cage, the latest Marvel superhero to get a show on Netflix. The subject of illicit prison experimentation, Cage (played by Mike Colter) emerges with incredible strength and impenetrable skin. In the show, he has relocated to Harlem, where he’s first seen trying to live unobtrusively, but later gets drawn into a struggle against crime lords and corrupt politicians. Among other things, the show explores the relevance of race in discussions of criminal justice.
Cage was in prison in the first place as a result of being framed, one component in a complicated revenge scheme of an adversary. The prison guards were brutal and corrupt, and collaborated both with the person who framed him and the scientist running the experiments. Since the illicit experiment ended up with him escaping, Cage himself is wary of law enforcement, understandably reluctant to return to prison, and this situation is exacerbated when a corrupt City Councilwoman (Alfre Woodard) frames him for more crimes.
As tensions rise in Harlem, with a cop killed by Cage’s adversary and a young black teen beaten by the police, the councilwoman portrays Cage as a freak who cannot be trusted. The irony is clear: he’s an enemy to the police because of the colour of his skin, but an enemy to Harlem because of the invulnerability of his skin. Eventually, stories of ordinary people’s positive encounters with Cage come to replace the councilwoman’s narrative, and he is regarded as the hero of Harlem. When the police who had brutalized the innocent teenager and had begun a campaign of harassment try to arrest Cage, they can neither subdue nor shoot him, and this resonates with a population of people who have been mistreated and see him as an inspirational figure of self-assured dignity.
This also has some resonance with the real world, outside of the story. In September, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that African-Americans who flee from the police may be acting entirely reasonably, so that this flight alone cannot be used as additional probable cause. “The finding that black males in Boston are disproportionately and repeatedly targeted… suggests a reason for flight totally unrelated to consciousness of guilt," the Court said.
This is not unique to Boston, of course. Many have noted the incidence of overly aggressive policing where young black males (and sometimes females) are concerned, and Luke Cage’s hoodie clearly references the Black Lives Matter movement’s concern with racism in policing.
The show is up-front about race, but not overly didactic. It avoids a facile narrative of “bad whites/good blacks”—the good detective tasked with tracking down Cage is herself black, as is her by-the-book boss, but her corrupt partner, who is on the crime lord’s payroll, is white. The cop who beats the innocent teen is himself black. The corrupt city councilwoman is black. But there’s still a distinct undercurrent of what it’s like to be black in a society where aggressive policing is employed against blacks and where whites are frequently indifferent to this. Like all superheroes, Luke Cage fights crime and corruption independent of the state’s law-enforcement agencies, so there’s an ambivalent relationship there to begin with.
But as a response to the climate of today, a black man in a hoodie with bulletproof skin may just be exactly what we need.
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