Back in March I said all signs pointed to ‘Luke Cage’ being another win in the already rich Marvel/Netflix partnership, and Sweet Christmas was I right.
‘Luke Cage’ debuted on Friday September 30th and then Netflix went down on Saturday, October 1st. Overload from ‘Cage’ bingewatchers? Could be, comrades. Could be. The Twittersphere was certainly humming with people singing it’s praises, so I’m betting a sizable number of viewers logged on to watch as many of the 13 episodes as they could before their eyes gave out.
As for me? I made it to episode 6 before I had to quit. Not from tired eyes but from the simple fact that my Netflix account froze up on me. Coincidence? Could be, comrades. Could be. I’m going back in for round 2 tonight, but I feel confident in saying that ‘Luke Cage’ isn’t going to fumble the end run.
For starters, it’s cast is tighter than a drum. We first saw Mike Colter as Luke Cage in ‘Jessica Jones‘. It was clear then that the guy had charisma and star power to burn, so it’s no surprise to say that Colter is just as superb in a leading role as he was in a supporting one. The man simply never puts a foot wrong.
But the great news is that the supporting cast is a true embarrassment of riches.
Simone Messick as Detective Mercedes “Misty” Knight practically demands her own spin-off from the very first minute she’s on screen, bantering across a swanky bar with Colter’s Cage. Messick manages to invest Knight with just the right amounts of cynicism and idealism. You believe her as an ace New York detective, and as a mean basketball hustler. Also? She gets to do that cool, “mental castle” thing that Bernard Cumberbatch does in ‘Sherlock’, which is awesome.
Alfre Woodard, one of the most criminally underused actresses of her generation, shines as Mariah Dillard; a local politician with Corleone-style ambitions to make something legitimate out of her cousin’s criminal enterprises. Woodard nails the uneasy currents of a woman who may have started out with the best of intentions, only to see herself and them slip deeper into the muck.
As Mariah’s cousin, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, Mahershala Ali practically steals the whole damn show. Stokes is involved in gun-running, extortion and has ambitions that may be just beyond his grasp. He styles himself as a classic gang boss; dressed to the nines and abiding by an ambiguous code. But when things go wrong for him, (which they do almost from the start of the series) the veneer falls fast and he lashes out with deadly consequences. Ali’s performance is brilliant. He’s never afraid to show the moments when Stokes is, well, afraid. Or to reveal that this murderous gangster genuinely loves the music performed live in his club. Those moments of humanity make him all the more frightening.
Then there’s Frankie Faison as Pops, the beloved barber and neighborhood peacemaker. Frank Whaley turns in a great, sly performance as Misty Knight’s partner, Rafael Scarfe. Ron Cephas Jones as a chess playing fixture at Pops’ barbershop. Theo Rossi as an enigmatic mob overseer. And, yes, Rosario Dawson appears as Claire Temple, the linking thread of the Marvel/Netflix series. This show is simply drowning in great character actors. And great characters. There’s a very cool cameo by Harlem’s legendary “hip hop tailor” Dapper Dan in Episode 5, playing, er, himself.
The biggest supporting player in ‘Luke Cage’ however, is the setting: Harlem itself. Show runner Cheo Hodari Coker was determined to film the show as much as possible in the real place. It absolutely pays off. Cinematographer Manuel Billeter (fresh off a triumphant run on ‘Jessica Jones’) captures the beauty and the ghosts of this storied neighborhood without sacrificing the grit. Running under the whole show is the river of Harlem’s history; a history that coincides with many of the best and worst moments in the long, strange growth process of the American Dream. It’s one of the best uses of location I’ve seen in TV since the backdrop of desert beauty and suburban ugliness in ‘Breaking Bad’.
Of course, this being a Marvel production there’s also plenty of action. If I had one complaint with ‘Jessica Jones’ it would be that some of that show’s fight choreography felt half-baked. No such worries here. ‘Luke Cage’ definitely brings the pain. From Cage’s brief and brutal beatdown of some thugs in Episode 1 to a massive brawl in Episode 3 that’s choreographed to Wu-Tang Clan’s “Bring Da Ruckus”. Yeah. That scene is every bit as awesome as it sounds on paper, and just one example of how well this show uses music.
At this point I can’t not mention the brilliant score by Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, which strikes a perfect note between Morricone-style themes and 90’s hip-hop. In addition, there are live performances (from Faith Evans, Charles Bradley and Jidenna among others) that serve as a greek chorus; commenting on and enhancing the onscreen action. I’ll say this: between ‘Luke Cage’ and ‘The Get Down’, Netflix has a frigging lock on the best soundtracks of 2016.
Ultimately, the best thing for me about ‘Luke Cage’ is how clearly the show’s creators love the source material, but aren’t on a nostalgia bender. Unlike Daredevil or Jessica Jones, Luke Cage comes from more (and I hate to use this word, but if the shoe fits, well…) “problematic” material. Luke Cage the comic book debuted in 1972 and was a clear attempt to cash in on the “Blaxploitation” movies of the era. Which is fine, sorta, I guess… but I shudder to think what, say, Quentin Tarentino would have done with this show. There’s a nice moment when we see Cage in a full-on approximation of his original comic book outfit – yellow shirt, tiara and all – that is respectful but also admits how silly it would look in real life. In little moments like this, ‘Luke Cage’ the TV show gets to have it’s cake and eat it too.
Coker and his team use Luke Cage, a character that could have been a walking cliche, to tell a story that is firmly about the here and now, but seems timeless. It’s no coincidence that Cage’s new “outfit” is primarily a hoodie. There’s a grim irony that his super-power is essentially his skin. ‘Luke Cage’ knows it’s history – the comic’s and the country’s. It understands and even respects that history, but it is not restrained by it. Instead, ‘Luke Cage’ the show is best summed up in the simple truth of Pops the barber’s mantra: Always Forward, Forward Always.
Now, if you’ll pardon me, I have to go see if Netflix is back up. I got a show to finish.