I’m listening to another one of pops low baritone stories, hearing him relive the days of old as he regales the entire shop with a tale they’ve all heard many times before. I’m by the window, losing another game of chess, as the sun pours in on another hot day in the city, content to waste my hours away in what should be one of the safest places, and the most enlightening—we’re Switzerland. I’m hanging out in Harlem Paradise, a club with a reputation, where business happens on more levels than the average eye can see and every conversation is worth paying close attention to. Walking from the NYPD station, down past Crispus Attucks, I listen to the talk of the streets, hear Harlem breathe. It’s important what the people say, to hear what is really going on in this neighborhood.
Marvel and Netflix did an amazing job of taking me to Harlem. I’ve been before, briefly, but knew I hadn’t scratched the surface of one of New York’s greatest boroughs. The show has an interesting take on it, making me enjoy the politics of the hood, reminding me of movies like New Jack City, Juice, and Bullet as I delve into how things move and evolve as everyone scratches and claws to get closer to the top, “cause everybody wants to be the king.”
Luke Cage (played by Mike Colter) is cool. He’s tough, moral, sexy, and his humor is corny but fun. The show is smart, with conversations about chess, kung-fu movies, and some witty quotes, ranging from rap music, The Warriors, to the bible. This brilliance comes across through the characters, especially Cage, like with his Donald Goines bit near the beginning. He starts out playing the hard working street philosopher, hiding in the shadows from his past and the responsibility his powers bring on, but a very Spider-Man / Uncle Ben moment with Pops pulls him out of that.
Misty Knight and Claire Temple make for good foils in the banter with Cage, nice sexual tension, and some meaningful arguments and bad lines. He’s the hero that Harlem needs, a good character, but people were worried Luke Cage might suffer from Superman syndrome—writing stories for someone who can barely be hurt—but I am glad to say that is not the case. The battle for Harlem is real, and the town isn’t big enough for everyone to have a piece, especially with Luke Cage as the new sheriff. The one problem I do see is, that with as good as the hero for hire is in the lead role, his supporting cast still shines brighter.
“Now you got change that can make change.”
Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (played by Mahershala Ali) is an imposing figure who knows the importance of his reputation and the need for power. He is artistic and full of emotion, often stricken with bouts of anger and even crying over Pops death. He can be compromised with, but should never be tested, as he is more than willing to get his hands dirty—family first over all though.
Don’t Mess With Mariah
Mariah Stokes (Alfre Woodard) is his cousin and the other side of a deadly equation. A woman who knows how powerful the political spheres are and can play them expertly, manipulating and spinning anything to her advantage. Mariah has things she won’t admit to herself though and her true feelings and a dark mean streak is kept down deep. Misty Knight is a determined detective, doing her best, but this is a different world and the system is flawed. Watching her downfall and breaking after one particular encounter that stripped her down and left the fighter broken was a pleasure to see.
There are other great characters to go through like Bobby Fish, Turk, Scarfe, and the big bad, Diamondback, who is legitimately frightening in a couple of scenes—though I am not sure about that costume.
Shades is my favorite though, just a guy who exudes cool, always looks calm, and deserves being called a snake more than the other two, the way he is whispering into certain ears. There are many more though, where even the great flashbacks have characters that only get a little bit of time—Mama Mabel is legit—but still all feel developed and important to the progression of the story as a whole. The other important character, the one that helps boost the scene, is the music.
“Aw made you look / You a slave to a page in my rhyme book”
The sounds of Luke Cage are incredible. It appears in so many scenes, never overpowering but helping to set the tone. There are performances in many episodes that run parallel to important events, emphasizing how the soundtrack plays to the atmosphere, having many of the characters mention rappers and the music industry as part of their lives. The episode titles are all named after Gang Starr songs, expressing what the episodes are about and bringing the tone in stronger with a specific set of lyrics. Even the preview trailers got me in the mood with some classic tracks I used to love, and now I need this soundtrack. I may already be listening to it while writing this review.
The music for the intro is catchy and has some energy to it, but the visuals are soft browns and golds, showing Harlem lain across Cage’s skin, weaving the man in the elements of where he comes from. The imagery and colors are excellent, with no episode of this show lacking in presentation. The narrative flows well with its own chemistry, properly interlaced with the selection of characters that are all carefully placed. Dialogue is a little blunt and heavy handed at times, nothing casual, but it doesn’t take away from the relationships.
A Tale of Two Halves
I prefer the first half of the series, even though all of it is good, there is a slow burn at the beginning and then a series of pops, like gunshots ringing out in the night, events starting a chain reaction. Some predictable turns, deaths everyone will see coming, and more hallways fights. The villains are swapped out, Cottonmouth for Mariah and Diamondback, but we end on the weakest character. There were certain parts of the ending I didn’t like—the last fight being one example—but I was so happy the conclusion wasn’t a happy one, seeing up for a second season without stopping on a cheap pop or status quo.
I dig the show and will certainly watch it again, holding me over to the next Marvel joint. There are plenty of great references to connect it to the expanded universe, everything from Justin Hammer and Fisk to footage of The Incident and Trish Talk. My big take away though is that the showrunners succeeded in bringing a specific area that is its own character, in a field of amazing characters, to hyper-life.
Power Man’s debut presented a lot, parts of an amazing cop drama, deeper dark themes, and a life I’m not familiar with, all wanting to be heard. Some of the language is blatant and concerns ideas that don’t sit well, considering what is going on in the media and racially charged tensions, but all of this reflects in the art, and is handled well. The elements all blended beautifully, and now, I’m in to see what else happens.