The symbolic power of a bulletproof black man in a hoodie: social commentary in ‘Luke Cage’

By Coraline Pettine
March 17, 2017

lukecage poster
Jidenna performs “Long Live the Chief” in episode five, Wu-Tang’s “Bring Da Rukus” plays in episode three and Method Man raps “Bulletproof Love” in episode twelve.

Marvel‘s Netflix original series, “Luke Cage,” is renowned across the nation and on Cabrini’s campus for the way it deals with race through social commentary that no modern, mainstream show has yet addressed.

Comic book character, Luke Cage, first appeared in 1972, in “Luke Cage: Hero for Hire,” as the first ever African-American Marvel comic book character to headline his own series.

For a comic that began amongst the blaxploitation of the Post-Civil Rights Movement Era, it is fitting that the show was introduced during a time of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement when empowerment of African-Americans is so important.

Luke Cage is a complex character with little self-doubt. He came to be essentially indestructible following his wrongful conviction and incarceration. His strength, struggles and persistence have made him an icon for African-American superhero fans everywhere.

The story is set in Harlem and features a predominantly African-American and Hispanic cast. The show incorporates a variety of references to Afrocentric American life, from the rap culture of Wu-Tang and Jidenna to homage for Harlem Renaissance writers Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. Along with its inclusion of black culture, the show deals with significant issues in the black community, including race, gang culture and unjust prosecution.

“But my thing is, though, if he innocent, so what’s he running for?” –Heather B.
“Bulletproof always gonna come second to being black,” –Method Man in “Soliloquy of Chaos.”

A simple piece of clothing used to excuse the shooting of Trayvon Martin became a symbol of the modern racial justice movement embraced in “Luke Cage.” The television series subverted expectations and associations of a dangerous and in danger black man in a hoodie. In the show, Cage ditched his comic counterpart’s costume and, alternatively, wore a bullet-ridden hoodie.

When Cage is on the run from police in the episode “Soliloquy of Chaos,” a community of men supporting Cage sport bullet-holed hoodies in order to cover for him. The item that previously made Cage a target for police— and continues to make African-American men feel powerless and targeted— became a symbol of unity and a protection.

“Luke Cage” subverted expectations and reclaimed the hoodie; a black man in a hoodie was safe.

As Method Man put it in the previously mentioned episode, “There’s something powerful about seeing a black man that’s bulletproof and unafraid.”

“Slavery was always a good offer to a master,” -Luke Cage in “Step in the Arena.

“Luke Cage” marvelously confronts racism and corruption in the American justice system.

Detective Misty Knight, despite her intelligence and dedication, is unable to reap justice in an amoral judicial system.

The issue of institutional, structural and systematic racism against African Americans in the justice system is further exemplified through the relationship between Cage and Officer Albert Rackam, a violently racist and manipulative correctional officer.

Cage and other prisoners are forced to fight for the benefit and entertainment of the prison staff. When the inmates disobey or object, there are dire consequences for themselves and their loved ones.

Cage’s powers are ultimately the result of Rackam intentionally botching an experiment in an attempt to kill Cage. The show uses this experience to metaphorically portray the ability of black men to survive this injustice and come out stronger.

Jaylen Pearson, sophomore English literature major, said the show deals with injustice within both prisons and the police departments, through corrupt Detective Scarfe’s involvement with the gang wars.

“It showed how broken the system is and how the system is somewhat stacked against black men,” Pearson said. “It also goes to show the corruption within not just the prison department, but the police department. Because in prison, you basically have no rights. You could probably be killed in the light of day and they would get away with it. With the police department, with Scarfe, while at the end, he did the right thing, he still killed an innocent and took money from criminals. And “Luke Cage” Showed that this happens in the police department. And note how Misty defended Scarfe. Even afterward, she still defends him. It showed that cop community culture and how cops get the benefit of the doubt.”

“Luke Cake” addresses racism in the judicial system. Photo from Netflix.

The show’s willingness to confront racism and call out injustice, in a time when black men receive harsher sentences for the same crimes as white men and when African American voices are silenced, makes the series remarkably brave and ahead of its time.

“I ain’t guilty. But I ain’t innocent either,” -Luke Cage in “Code of the Streets.”

Though certain aspects of the series displays characteristics of progressive race politics— largely it’s predominantly African-American cast featuring a variety of strong roles, it’s stance on the pursuit of an innocent black man in a hoodie and its embrace of Afrocentric culture— the occurrence of heightened violence and criminality resemble the stereotypes projected on the black community.

Violence and corruption run rampant in Harlem. Police officers are corrupt. Councilwomen and gang leaders team together to control the city through bribery, violence and extortion.

Pearson admires the way the show incorporates the symbol of a black man in a hoodie, but recognizes it plays into stereotypes about black criminals.

Pearson said, “Luke Cage, as a black man in a hoodie with indestructible skin, is basically saying that black people as a community, we are unstoppable. You can try [to stop us] but you won’t succeed. While it’s uplifting to the black community, I’m somewhat against it, too, because it leads to the stereotype of superhumanizing black people and black men in particular, because it says that black men are so strong and so dangerous, which we’re not.”

“You have to fight for what’s right every single day, bulletproof skin or not,” -Luke Cage in “You Know My Steez.”

Luke Cage was released on Netflix on Sept. 30, 2016. Photo from YouTube: Netflix.

Marvel’s Netflix original series “Luke Cage” brilliantly tells an over 40-year-old story with minimal adaption and adjustments, highlighting the issues in American culture to date.

The show addressed a variety of Afrocentric issues in a way that empowered the African-American, but Pearson believes the show can be enjoyed by people of all different communities.

“I think that the show was crafted for African Americans,” Pearson said. “As far as having a majorly African American cast, with an African American director, with African-American culture and music in it. But it can still be enjoyed by non-black people because you don’t have to be black to appreciate the storytelling.”

Coraline Pettine

Writing Managing Editor for Loquitur Media.

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