Fear of the Other: Luke Cage, Racism, and Prejudice

"Luke Cage" | Art by p1xer. Used with permission.
Since finishing the first season of Luke Cage, the latest in a series of Marvel/Netflix co-productions, I’ve been thinking about the various ways fear works within the show. It’s mostly used as a motivating factor for various characters, notably Luke. But it also works as a subtextual social commentary—fear of those who are different; fears of increasing crime and escalating violence in cities; the African American community’s fear of police victimization and violence.

The nearly indestructible protagonist, like Cage, complicates an audience’s responses of sympathy or concern—it’s hard to worry about a bulletproof hero who can punch holes through walls. Although Cage does eventually face a physical threat late in the season, the show builds sympathy through Cage’s emotional fears, fears of stepping into the spotlight and of being known. Though Luke gets drawn into the violence on Harlem streets, and has the abilities to protect people (like his Asian landlords who, despite having lived and worked in Harlem for decades are treated as outsiders), he doesn’t want to get involved.

After the events of Jessica Jones, Cage lives a below-the-radar existence in Harlem, working (for cash under the table) in the kitchen at Cottonmouth’s club and sweeping up hair at Pops’ Barber Shop. When Pops, who knows about his powers, challenges Luke to use his abilities to help his community, Cage admits the source of his reluctance: fear of public recognition, the fear of stepping into the spotlight. He may be able to survive buildings falling on his head, but he doesn’t want people to know about it. It is only after a particularly troubling death that Cage steps into the public spotlight—eulogizing his fallen friend and calling out his friend’s killer in one powerful speech about community.

It’s hard to put yourself in the other person’s shoes when you’re afraid for your life.

In addition to the fears that motivate the hero, Luke Cage uses very real fears about the inner-city, specifically the African-American community as cultural subtext, which moves the show into much more overt socio-political commentary. As is noted several times over the course of the show, a bulletproof black man in a hoodie has obvious parallels to the killings of (often unarmed) African American men by law-enforcement agents in North America this year. Some police monitoring websites report that almost two unarmed black people a week are killed by police. The growing media awareness and the increased visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement has exposed this troubling racial tension in many major urban areas and the prevailing fear of authority and abuses of power that minorities experience in North America.

Luke Cage also addresses a related issue to the fears of police: the escalating arms race in major urban spaces and the increased access to military grade weaponry by both the police and criminals. When a bullet that can pierce Luke’s skin is developed (made from alien metal, perhaps following the events of The Avengers), making him vulnerable, Mariah negotiates with the mayor and police to get those bullets into the hands of law enforcement. In discussing this development with Inspector Priscilla Ridley, a representative of the mayor’s office remarks how disturbing this would be, turning the streets of New York into a militarized zone.

The writers of Luke Cage handle this sensitive issue with surprising maturity. While avoiding reductionist representations of either side of the issue, Luke Cage represents these fears as real and legitimate. With Luke on the run, we see a montage of young African American men in hoodies being stopped at gunpoint, frisked, and harassed.

Fear is powerful. It creates a slope that is dangerous for our country to slide down. It’s hard to put yourself in the other person’s shoes when you’re afraid for your life. Combatting fear of others who are different takes a dedicated effort; it comes from an attitude of acceptance that is learnable, a belief that individual lives matter and no one is “lesser” than another. Acknowledging our prejudices, our ignorance and fears can be scary, but it’s the first step to real change.

Michael Boyce

Michael Boyce

Staff Writer at Area of Effect
Michael W. Boyce teaches English Lit and Film Studies in Winnipeg. He's published on Hitchcock, Alec Guinness and James Bond. He likes coffee. A lot.
Michael Boyce

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