Netflix’s Luke Cage Is the Reply to #BlackLivesMatter 'Anarchtivism'

In numerous public statements and interviews, Luke Cage producer Cheo Hodari Coker has explicitly connected his show with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, claiming “that hashtag... is an extension of something we’ve always tried to do.” However, his understanding of #BlackLivesMatter is only nominal: he considers any person who believes “black lives have value” to be a proud member. Fortunately, his rose-tinted viewpoint on that movement’s calls for violence and race-war is somehow utterly contradicted by the show that he created. In the world of black literature and film, Luke Cage is the most conservative work produced in decades. Not since Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or DuBois’ Black Flame trilogy has any story made such a forceful case to black Americans for personal identity and virtue, racial healing, and cultural pride against the cult of victimization and race-war anarchy.

Like all superhero tales, Luke Cage is a story about role models. Just as Clark Kent learned to love humanity through his adopted parents, and Peter Parker lived out Uncle Ben’s heroic values as Spiderman, Luke Cage’s journey would not have been possible without his guardian angel “Pop,” who holds a position of honor in Luke’s Harlem neighborhood as the owner of the local barber shop. Pop regularly takes in troubled teens, letting them cut hair and play video games in his store to keep them off the streets. His “yes you can” tough-love approach sends some young thugs back to doing things their own way in the world of back-alley crime, but to the ones who stay, Pop is fanatically loyal. It is this example of loyalty that drives Luke to stay in Harlem and work to improve it, rather than blaming “inequality” or running from the overwhelming forces that seek to enslave Harlem in a cycle of crime and victimization. Luke faces his share of discrimination, including an inability to get a job after spending a few years unjustly incarcerated.  It is that same loyalty which makes Luke Cage one of the few superheroes who refuse to wear a mask. He does not want to become another “invisible man;” he wants his people to know his face, to know that somebody is there to protect them. He refuses to let others call him the “N” word, even and especially fellow blacks. He never surrenders to the temptation of throwing his hands up at the world’s injustices or compromising his own morals to combat them. Rather, he puts in the effort to oppose evil with good, beginning within himself.

The inner-city crime drama that makes up the majority of the plot in Luke Cage sends the anarchistic “#BlackLivesMatter” mentality an even more specific message. To create a multidimensional narrative, the show epitomizes how complex police officers’ relationships with the black community can be. Featuring a handful of characters who work at the Harlem precinct, Luke Cage reminds viewers that the world of law enforcement does not divide easily into “black” and “blue.” The Harlem police deeply care about the families they protect, even to the extent of bending their own protocols to help them: they stretch their powers of interrogation, fiercely hunt cop-killers, and build rapport with the community by putting their lives on the line. Their intensity, of course, has a flip side as well: some innocent detainees are beaten by overzealous or abusive interrogators; the man they think is a cop-killer turns out to be the show’s eponymous protagonist; police “community rapport” drifts into corruption and bribery. Yet although no attempt is made to hide the ugly side, at no point does the narrative wholly depict the police as the problem. In fact, the people of Harlem themselves never respond by “blaming the blue”... within the world of the story, it wouldn’t make any sense. Some people fear the police, other wish to keep them honest, yes; but hate them or depict them as the whole problem? It’s just not reasonable. Could there be a better rebuttal to #BlackLivesMatter’s chants of “Oink Oink Bang Bang” and “What do we want? Dead cops”?

Even these more subtle elements would have been a welcome surprise from a series creator who claims to have embraced the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Yet the most blatant beatdown that Luke Cage delivers to black anarchism appears in the form of Harlem’s city councilwoman, Mariah Dillard (Alfe Woodard), whose stated goal is to “keep Harlem black” and, incidentally, keep herself in power. She disdains her political rival, a fellow black man (albeit with lighter skin), and draws her strength from disingenuous hands-on community politics. Underlying these machinations is the “black mafia” money from her brother that drives her campaign -- and the series’ plot. When Luke cleans up Harlem, their criminal hypocrisy and racial division must go with it. But Mariah fights back and fights dirty, and it is in these moments that Luke Cage makes its most impressive statements about the turmoil of modern race identity politics. A local high school boy, gentle and intelligent, is unjustly beaten while being interrogated by the police in their search for a cop killer. Councilwoman Dillard immediately latches on to this event in order to win reelection in a close race. The irony, of course, is that she is intimately, even corruptly, connected to the Harlem precinct, and her own actions indirectly led to the police brutality. But Dillard holds rallies with signs protesting the police and calling for “justice” while shamelessly promoting her own political campaign. The spectacle should be all too familiar for audiences in Chicago, in Dallas, in Ferguson, and in New York.

These elements of Luke Cage have drawn considerable ire from critics, who panned Coker’s impressive series once they discovered its lack of “anarchtivist” rhetoric. It is the character of Luke himself, though, that is most conservative and most memorable. A soft-spoken and self-deprecating man with a troubled past, his commitment to personal enrichment and bettering his community exemplifies the conservative values of subsidiarity and liberal arts education. His refusal to let the ends justify the means, and his implacable conviction that all human lives are valuable sets him apart from other heroes in Netflix’s Marvel universe in that he avoids unnecessary violence and is unwilling to give up on those who have turned to evil. It is easy to see why a hero like Luke Cage is unsatisfying to the #BlackLivesMatter program of unleashing black anger on the destruction of institutions that protect black lives. In an age where Hollywood rarely produces anything that deviates even slightly from left-wing orthodoxy, I hope against hope that more works as powerful as Luke Cage emerge from the woodworks and begin telling these stories honestly once more.

Nathan Turner is Adjunct Professor of Literature at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

In numerous public statements and interviews, Luke Cage producer Cheo Hodari Coker has explicitly connected his show with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, claiming “that hashtag... is an extension of something we’ve always tried to do.” However, his understanding of #BlackLivesMatter is only nominal: he considers any person who believes “black lives have value” to be a proud member. Fortunately, his rose-tinted viewpoint on that movement’s calls for violence and race-war is somehow utterly contradicted by the show that he created. In the world of black literature and film, Luke Cage is the most conservative work produced in decades. Not since Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or DuBois’ Black Flame trilogy has any story made such a forceful case to black Americans for personal identity and virtue, racial healing, and cultural pride against the cult of victimization and race-war anarchy.

Like all superhero tales, Luke Cage is a story about role models. Just as Clark Kent learned to love humanity through his adopted parents, and Peter Parker lived out Uncle Ben’s heroic values as Spiderman, Luke Cage’s journey would not have been possible without his guardian angel “Pop,” who holds a position of honor in Luke’s Harlem neighborhood as the owner of the local barber shop. Pop regularly takes in troubled teens, letting them cut hair and play video games in his store to keep them off the streets. His “yes you can” tough-love approach sends some young thugs back to doing things their own way in the world of back-alley crime, but to the ones who stay, Pop is fanatically loyal. It is this example of loyalty that drives Luke to stay in Harlem and work to improve it, rather than blaming “inequality” or running from the overwhelming forces that seek to enslave Harlem in a cycle of crime and victimization. Luke faces his share of discrimination, including an inability to get a job after spending a few years unjustly incarcerated.  It is that same loyalty which makes Luke Cage one of the few superheroes who refuse to wear a mask. He does not want to become another “invisible man;” he wants his people to know his face, to know that somebody is there to protect them. He refuses to let others call him the “N” word, even and especially fellow blacks. He never surrenders to the temptation of throwing his hands up at the world’s injustices or compromising his own morals to combat them. Rather, he puts in the effort to oppose evil with good, beginning within himself.

The inner-city crime drama that makes up the majority of the plot in Luke Cage sends the anarchistic “#BlackLivesMatter” mentality an even more specific message. To create a multidimensional narrative, the show epitomizes how complex police officers’ relationships with the black community can be. Featuring a handful of characters who work at the Harlem precinct, Luke Cage reminds viewers that the world of law enforcement does not divide easily into “black” and “blue.” The Harlem police deeply care about the families they protect, even to the extent of bending their own protocols to help them: they stretch their powers of interrogation, fiercely hunt cop-killers, and build rapport with the community by putting their lives on the line. Their intensity, of course, has a flip side as well: some innocent detainees are beaten by overzealous or abusive interrogators; the man they think is a cop-killer turns out to be the show’s eponymous protagonist; police “community rapport” drifts into corruption and bribery. Yet although no attempt is made to hide the ugly side, at no point does the narrative wholly depict the police as the problem. In fact, the people of Harlem themselves never respond by “blaming the blue”... within the world of the story, it wouldn’t make any sense. Some people fear the police, other wish to keep them honest, yes; but hate them or depict them as the whole problem? It’s just not reasonable. Could there be a better rebuttal to #BlackLivesMatter’s chants of “Oink Oink Bang Bang” and “What do we want? Dead cops”?

Even these more subtle elements would have been a welcome surprise from a series creator who claims to have embraced the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Yet the most blatant beatdown that Luke Cage delivers to black anarchism appears in the form of Harlem’s city councilwoman, Mariah Dillard (Alfe Woodard), whose stated goal is to “keep Harlem black” and, incidentally, keep herself in power. She disdains her political rival, a fellow black man (albeit with lighter skin), and draws her strength from disingenuous hands-on community politics. Underlying these machinations is the “black mafia” money from her brother that drives her campaign -- and the series’ plot. When Luke cleans up Harlem, their criminal hypocrisy and racial division must go with it. But Mariah fights back and fights dirty, and it is in these moments that Luke Cage makes its most impressive statements about the turmoil of modern race identity politics. A local high school boy, gentle and intelligent, is unjustly beaten while being interrogated by the police in their search for a cop killer. Councilwoman Dillard immediately latches on to this event in order to win reelection in a close race. The irony, of course, is that she is intimately, even corruptly, connected to the Harlem precinct, and her own actions indirectly led to the police brutality. But Dillard holds rallies with signs protesting the police and calling for “justice” while shamelessly promoting her own political campaign. The spectacle should be all too familiar for audiences in Chicago, in Dallas, in Ferguson, and in New York.

These elements of Luke Cage have drawn considerable ire from critics, who panned Coker’s impressive series once they discovered its lack of “anarchtivist” rhetoric. It is the character of Luke himself, though, that is most conservative and most memorable. A soft-spoken and self-deprecating man with a troubled past, his commitment to personal enrichment and bettering his community exemplifies the conservative values of subsidiarity and liberal arts education. His refusal to let the ends justify the means, and his implacable conviction that all human lives are valuable sets him apart from other heroes in Netflix’s Marvel universe in that he avoids unnecessary violence and is unwilling to give up on those who have turned to evil. It is easy to see why a hero like Luke Cage is unsatisfying to the #BlackLivesMatter program of unleashing black anger on the destruction of institutions that protect black lives. In an age where Hollywood rarely produces anything that deviates even slightly from left-wing orthodoxy, I hope against hope that more works as powerful as Luke Cage emerge from the woodworks and begin telling these stories honestly once more.

Nathan Turner is Adjunct Professor of Literature at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.