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Luke Cage: 5 powerful references it makes to problems in society

Serious spoiler alert – up until (and including) episode eight.

0294_TIARA_105_Unit_05304RC (1) Source: Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

WARNING: This article contains spoilers (up to episode eight) of the Netflix series Luke Cage

IN THE PAST, on-screen superheroes have been a symbol for being different, and for being a good person who makes the right decisions.

Netflix’s Marvel series has shaken that up a bit.

In introducing us to heroes such as Matt Murdock (aka Daredevil) and Jessica Jones, superheroes have been brought back to their comic book origins – and live in the space between what’s good and what’s bad.

Luke Cage is the third part of the Netflix Defenders series, and two of the reasons it stands apart from other supernatural adventures is the complexity of its characters and the seriousness of its storylines.

Not only does it force us to think about what is really the right thing to do, it also puts real-life issues in front of us; unusual for a mode of entertainment that mostly deals in a good dose of escapism.

With this in mind, we’ve taken a look at the key issues that have emerged from the Luke Cage series that are all-too close to real life.

1. Rebuilding a disadvantaged area

0059_TIARA_105_Unit_01282R-1 Source: Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

The Luke Cage series is set in Harlem; an area of poverty, of crime and of little opportunities, and where ‘everyone has someone in prison’. In the first episode, (last spoiler alert!) three youths interrupt a serious gun deal in order to make some money for themselves, which is the catalyst for the entire plot.

The barber ‘Pop’ is motivated by reform of the area’s youth – he sees boys getting caught up in crime and gang activities, and seeks to help them by offering people – like Chico – a job and a refuge from the bullets, the thefts and drug use. He himself is the product of a man who has changed his life around – and his eagerness to help others is what gets him killed.

Councilwoman Mariah Dillard is trying to revive the disadvantaged area on a grander scale – offering opportunities to the area’s youth and building affordable housing for the area. The problem is, she’s using illegal money to get it.

Her and her cousin, the crime boss Cottonmouth, represent what the youth of the community are forced into turning into if left without supports or help. Cottonmouth in particular, represents a man with talents, with opportunities, who was forced down a path through necessity and a history of crime in his family.

Luke Cage, meanwhile, represents the superhuman solution – a bulletproof, ethical beast with incredible strength and a polite but outspoken nature. He is also looking to rebuild Harlem into something more hopeful, through eliminating the crime bosses and cutting off the funding for political corruption.

The timing of this series is integral to its power – released at the tail-end of a presidential election where prejudice and hate have featured heavily, and where mass protests have been taking place all across America because of a lack of justice felt by the black community against their police force.

Amid all of this, Luke Cage is a powerful, inspiring, and untouchable figure, who reminds the audience that ‘standing up to bad people, even when they’re a friend’ is a real sign of courage.

2. A poorly-paid police force

1122_TIARA_102_Unit_00868R Source: Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

One of the most surefire ways to undermine the effectiveness of a police force is for their government to underpay them. In the Luke Cage series (and Daredevil), police are bribed into turning a blind eye, to acquit members accused of crimes, and to smuggle out evidence – and it’s not the first series to do so.

Although it doesn’t seem to be a pressing issue in America, it is a constant problem for Nigeria’s police forces, where low pay and delays in being paid on time result in constant bribes from the terrorist organisation Boko Haram, which have gained enormous ground and control of the area.

Earlier this year there were reports of prison guards blowing up prison walls so that members of Boko Haram serving prison sentences could escape.

3. Gun regulation

0341_TIARA_103_Unit_01711R Scarfe makes a lot of jokes, but he never smiles. Source: Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

In the wake of the Orlando shootings, the issue of gun regulation was revisited in America. People were angry that the laws were so lax for those with a history of violence or mental health issues and wanted improved background checks.

The number of accidental deaths involving guns was also an issue – at least 199 shootings by children have occurred in America so far this year because people had failed to lock up their guns properly, or were in the process of teaching their child to use them.

This is portrayed in the story of Detective Scarfe, the corrupt policeman who lost his son in a gun accident, “who’s always laughing, but never smiles – there’s a difference”.

4. The ‘n’ word

0001_TIARA_101_Unit_00602RC Source: Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

Luke Cage is about the black community: the heroes are black, the villains are black, the ordinary people, the powerful leaders, the music and the language is based on black culture, and makes it clear how unique and separate is from anything else.

One of the more controversial aspects of this that is addressed is the use of the ‘n’ word. It’s history is as a derogatory term, used by white people when the black community were treated as an army of slaves (see Django Unchained for most frequent use of the word). Now some members of the black community use it as you would ‘brother’ – to show camaraderie and solidarity and even an understanding of what happened in the past.

Luke Cage doesn’t see it like that.

In one of the most powerful moments of the series, a young boy puts a gun to his head and calls him the ‘n’ word. Cage turns around and gives him a Martin-Luther King-esque speech on freedom, respect and black history – spine-tingling.

Although the meaning of words are always in flux, the suggestion is that this word and the use of it, will forever represent oppression and disrespect of the black community.

5. Sexual Assault

0499_TIARA_101_Unit_02785R Source: Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

This issue is only mentioned briefly, but it deals with many of the root problems to do with sexual assault. Councilwoman Dillard recalls the moment she was a teenage girl, and when her uncle Pete abused her.

His defence that “it was only a game” and “we laughed about it”, and her cousin’s accusations that “you were always flirting with him” and “you were asking for it”, are all echoes of the kind of accusations that secual assault victims can face.

In an even more grim scene, Dillard’s grandmother realises what’s happening, and sends her to boarding school to ‘keep her away from Pete’ – in a move that mirrors the reaction of the Church to cases of sexual assault.

In the end, what motivates her grandmother to take action is Pete’s betrayal of the business, instead of the sexual assault itself.

The long-term effect of rape when justice isn’t served is apparent in the way that Dillard reacts to the accusations that she was ‘asking for it’ – a murderous, livid reaction which results in her turning on her cousin, and killing the only strong relationship she seemed to have.

Self-sought Justice

The topic of justice and the ethical value of vigilantes, is a theme that runs through and fuels the entire Defenders series.

Jessica Jones doesn’t pursue justice for herself, and it leads to the destruction of another person’s life, which is why she decides to pursue her arch-nemesis.

Matt Murdock and Luke Cage beat the bad guys up, but don’t kill people as they feel it’s unethical – but The Punisher, another vigilante who kills his enemies and anyone else who gets in his way, even questions that, when he says:

“You hit them and they get back up, I hit them and they stay down.”

The Defender series is more powerful than any other superhero group, as the only-slightly superhuman foursome forces us to question: who exactly should we be rooting for?


Read: White police officer who fatally shot unarmed black man charged with first-degree manslaughter

Read: Video shows woman pleading with Charlotte police not to shoot her husband

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