Black Liberation Theology in Marvel’s Luke Cage

Originally published at AiPT!

2016-10-03-2

“Then Jesus answering said unto them, ‘Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached.’”

Such are the words of the Gospel of Luke, the seventh chapter, twenty-second verse. It is from this verse, a favorite of his father, that the newly-liberated Carl Lucas takes the alias Luke Cage. Such is also among the foundational verses of Black Liberation Theology in the context preached by the its founder, the Reverend James Hal Cone. Liberation Theology is an appropriation and application of the Biblical narratives to the Black experience. Marvel’s latest Netflix series Luke Cage is rife with Liberation Theology. It’s primarily Black cast do not merely quote scripture, but constantly re-contextualize it to the situations of southern Georgia and uptown Harlem. Every bit as much as Daredevil is a hero is shaped and defined by Irish Catholicism, so too is Luke Cage cut from Black Liberation Theology.

Bulletproof and super-strong, taking on rich business moguls, master criminals, and corrupt politicians with his brawn and a good heart, Luke Cage is in many ways a black Superman. As such, it is altogether appropriate that, like the character of Superman, Cage too is a Christ-figure. He, however, does not adhere to the usual Messianic motifs of divine parentage, sacrificial death, and redemptive resurrection; rather, Cage recapitulates Jesus’ ministry to the poor and oppressed, in keeping with Black Liberation Christology’s focus on social justice. Insofar as other characters compare Cage to Christ, asking if the former has the power to walk on water, this is the Jesus with whom Luke is identified.

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Moreover, just as the holy family’s flight to and return out of the desert was a deliberate recapitulation of Israel’s exile in and Exodus from Egypt, Carl Lucas’ wrongful incarceration and fugitive escape (freeing his body, but not his name) can be seen as a recapitulation of African-Americans’ enslavement and emancipation (sans equality, de jure or de facto). The liberation of Israel out of bondage in Egypt is the dominant Biblical narrative of Black Liberation Theology. Unlike in mainstream Christianity, the significance of such to redemptive history is not so much as a foreshadowing of Christ liberating Mankind out of slavery to sin and Satan, but rather an indication of God’s providential preference for the poor and oppressed, a promise by way of His unchanging character to similarly side with subjugated and segregated Blacks against their White oppressors. While the series specifically deemphasizes Liberation Theology’s Marxist-inspired dichotomy of White oppressors and Black victims, choosing instead to treat the Black community on its own terms without a White framing (per Cage’s Blaxploitation influences), nevertheless the imagery of Cage with his hands shackled but chains broken serves less to evoke the corny costume of the character’s Power Man days and more so to visualize his identification with the Black experience across its history. As Jesus was Israel reduced to one, so too Cage is African-America embodied in one man.

Perhaps the most quoted verse from scripture throughout the series comes from the fourth chapter of Genesis, the ninth verse: “And the Lord said unto Cain, ‘Where is Abel thy brother?’ And he said, ‘I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?’” Such is among the central themes throughout the series, especially in its second half with the introduction of Willis Stryker. That Stryker, a.k.a. Diamondback, proved to be the literal half-brother of Carl Lucas is of less importance than the metaphorical meaning of the word “brethren.” Just as the early Christians referred to one another as brothers, such is still a common means of addressing one another in Black communities. As such, the question of whether Cage is his brother’s keeper is less concerned with his particular relationship to Stryker and more so with defining the role of an individual to the community in which one lives. To acknowledge oneself as one’s brother’s keeper is to affirm not only a place within the community but a duty to serve such as well. Time and again Cage is tempted by the prospect of liberation from the troubles of Harlem, to start anew where no one knows of his past as Carl Lucas, where he faces no false accusations of murder. It is through the exhortations and example of Pop that Cage comes out of hiding, becoming all his brothers’ keeper and submitting his need for individual liberation to the community’s need for liberation of another kind.

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What exactly the contours of a modern Black liberation entail are explored only abortively. In the early episodes, Councilwoman Mariah Dillard espouses somewhat separationist rhetoric with a slogan to “Keep Harlem Black” and an implied agenda against other minorities and Whites alike. This aspect of her character is left undeveloped as she transitions from idealistic politician to criminal kingpin. This is unfortunate; in the age of identity politics (and by extension, an increased emphasis on racial identity), as concepts such as color-blindness are being increasingly challenged, notions of self-segregation such as put forth by Dillard deserve to be addressed in a thoughtful and thorough manner. Even as Luke Cage was being written and filmed, the Black Lives Matter movement was making an ideological transition from the lens of intersectionality to a racial (instead of class-based) Marxism in which color is the primary defining (and dividing) attribute of any individual. Luke Cage represents a missed opportunity to challenge both intersectionality and separatism alike. Such is the other edge of the sword as a Blaxploitation piece, that in navel-gazing at the insular issues of the Black community, it is less able to fully speak to their place in the wider American and global communities.

Another candidate for what constitutes liberation for the Black community is from systemic oppression. Luke Cage is not concerned with painting such as exclusively targeted at ethnic minorities or the lower class; either is illustrated as advances the plot. Numerous characters at various times throughout the series defend Cage’s distrust in the judicial system (to the point of escaping custody and resisting arrest) solely on the grounds that a Black individual cannot possibly expect fair treatment from the police or the courts. At other times, members of a predominantly Black police precinct lament their inability to charge and convict wealthy well-connected criminals of color, suggesting the system to be prejudiced against class more than race. Still other times the show explicitly asks whether any systemic problems truly even exist, or whether the fault might not lay in a lack of faith in the system, as when Misty Knight fails to protect an informant as a result of deviating from protocol. Yet the final word on the matter comes when Cage once again loses what little liberation he’d achieved for himself as the system incarcerates him wrongly once again, demanding, despite possessing the evidence to exonerate himself, that he owes time to the State of Georgia. Cage acquiesces, even as the viewer invariably protests, if anything the state of Georgia owing him for the years of his life it’d already stolen. It is an emotional indictment against the brokenness of the system more powerful than any particular plot point or piece of rhetoric regarding the matter throughout the series.

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Whatever Black Liberation entails, theologically or practically, both the show and the character of Luke Cage are in agreement that it comes at the cost of some individual liberation, and despite the repeated refrain that he’s not a hero, Cage’s heroism is evident is evident in his acceptance of that burden upon himself. He is a Moses who cannot join his people in the Promised Land.

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One thought on “Black Liberation Theology in Marvel’s Luke Cage

  1. Pingback: Powerless’ Pilot is a Campy Cape Opera in All the Worst Ways | The Hub City Review

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