That having been said, I almost gave up on the show after two episodes, even though I enjoyed all of the aspects of it conceptually. Terrific actors, set in Harlem, strong central character, echoes of Blaxploitation 70s movies, terrific music – but the execution was a little off. It all played a little flat and protracted. After two episodes, I wanted to see a show about that barbershop – and the background Knicks chatter – but not necessarily the gangster stuff. And isn’t Harlem already gentrified by this point?
Also, there’s something a little uncomfortable about some of the racial politics of the show. Luke Cage features an awful lot of black on black violence that – depending on your point of view – could be seen as accurate or awry. There was a reason that the villain in those 70s pictures was generally white. (The Keenan Ivory Wayan film I’m Gonna Git You Sucka satirized this tendency when character actor John Vernon appears at the end, insisting that he’s “not above playing an exploitation villain.”) In Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off (1973), the Big Bad ends up being played by Johnny Carson’s couch sidekick Ed McMahon, which is a little hilarious.
Things start to click during the third episode, but what really caught my attention was a scene with Frank Whalley, who plays an NYPD detective in the series. It’s just a quick scene in the station, and he’s talking about how to get a witness to testify, and his partner (played by Simone Missick) is barely paying attention. This is what he says:
“The trick is, you gotta get inside his head. You gotta make him believe that he needs us. That’s the whole trick. And then you give him the illusion of freedom. (pause) Hey…you didn’t hear a word I just said.”
I stopped the stream and rewound that part. A little on-the-nose? Maybe. On the other hand, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Because if you remove the context of the scene, Whalley’s character is – in that scene – a stand-in for White Supremacy. And he’s explaining how that is maintained.
You make him believe he needs us. And then you give him the illusion of freedom.
And his partner is distracted, missing the message.
Well played. That is some truth that doesn’t normally get on television.
Through five episodes, I am enjoying the show. Wish some things were a little smoother and less telegraphed, but there’s been some good stuff. The little nods to Hero 4 Hire and Power Man’s costume and favorite phrase were nice. Mike Colter is excellent. Considering that I’ve wanted my whole life to write a real update of Shaft (not that Sam Jackson thing they did), this delivers on some of that promise. So far, it’s better than Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off, about even so far with Shaft’s Big Score, not as good as Three the Hard Way. And it doesn’t even approach The Spook Who Sat by the Door. If you haven’t seen that yet, you need to. Really.
But it does have potential. And it is pretty great to see something as unapologetically black as Luke Cage being the most popular show around. In this otherwise horrible 2016 we’re all having, that’s progress.