Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Is Luke Cage the weakest part of Luke Cage?

Theo Rossi and Mahershala Ali (Photo: Myles Aronowitz/Netflix)
Theo Rossi and Mahershala Ali (Photo: Myles Aronowitz/Netflix)
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Allow me to take a bit of a more conversational tone with you, my readers and children. Is it just me or is Luke Cage the weakest part of Luke Cage? You could call him Luke, Plain and Strong. His action sequences this episode fetching back the precious items of his neighbors was less compelling than seeing Claire Temple chase down a petty mugger. He’s not a man of much subtext. He’s a vessel.

If I could be allowed another moment of a more conversational tone, could I be allowed to say that the women are about to run away with this show? Simone Missick’s performance as Misty Knight elevates standard “cop from the neighborhood streets” fare she’s given. The journey of emotions of Missick’s face during Luke’s eulogy for Pop is stunning and subtle. And this episode we get to see Claire Temple again. Ugh, Claire Temple. Claire sitting across from her mother in her mother’s diner and their ruminations on religion and fate were some of the brightest points of this episode.

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Another positively spectacular aspect of the episode is the cinematography; it’s not at that point yet but Luke Cage, if it doesn’t provide a little more interest for its main character, might be a show to watch with the sound off. The shots of a man at the church stuffing the programs with pictures of Pop’s face, Claire spinning a salt shaker toward the camera, lights flashing on and off on Cottonmouth’s guards as they surround Luke during a stand-off at Harlem’s Paradise are quiet, intimate, and seductive. The blaxploitation editing when Cottonmouth’s enforcers are standing over the people of the neighborhood telling them to go ask Luke Cage is a fun touch in a relatively sober episode.

While the women are off being beacons of light and having amazing luminous skin, the fight between Luke and Cottonmouth is escalating. Their sense of family, belonging, and their good names are at stake. This episode, “Just To Get A Rep,” opens with Nigerian-American rapper Jidenna making a name for himself performing his song “Long Live The Chief.” Cottonmouth and Luke clash over who will be the man who represents Harlem. Despite all their protestations, they’re (as the song goes) “Niggas fighting over things / Niggas wanna be the king, but / Long Live the Chief.” I can only imagine Luke’s distaste for being labeled a nigga even if it’s just thematically. Luke gets a new suit for Pop’s memorial, and walks the streets of Harlem in it, righting Cottonmouth’s wrongs. He’s spent most of the series up to this point in a T-shirt and jeans and with his costume change comes a confrontation with Cottonmouth. Cottonmouth prides himself on his appearances and with Luke suddenly looking as good as he is standing in Harlem’s Paradise, Luke’s very existence gets under Cottonmouth’s skin and Luke transforms from irritant to worthy adversary.

Cottonmouth prides himself on being from the neighborhood, born and raised in Harlem with family ties to a few legitimate and illegitimate businesses. Cottonmouth is trying to secure his legacy. He doesn’t care what the legacy after his name is as long as his name is remembered and he won’t be wiped out by someone he sees as an interloper, an outsider. He’s willing to ruin Luke’s name by attaching it to the “Luke Cage Stupidity Tax” and Luke’s name being dragged through the streets is enough to get him to strike back at Cottonmouth stealing back a waitress’ tips and family heirlooms.

Luke similarly has a fascination with names and legacies. Bobby Fish tells him to be the best man he can be and just make sure they spell his name right. He stops Zip in Jackie Robinson Park and describes the land as hallowed ground because it’s named for the famed baseball player. When Luke’s name is on everyone’s lips, the reason he finally does something about it is if his name is going to be on the streets, he’s going to make sure it’s spelled right and it stays out of Cottonmouth’s mouth.

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Luke’s search for a local woman’s father’s baseball championship ring brings up more references to absent fathers—as does Pop’s memorial service. Aisha, the woman who runs her father’s sports memorabilia store, does so to maintain his reputation after falling on hard times. When her father finally meets Luke, he says that there’s no more niggas in baseball because it’s passed from father to son and there’s no fathers anymore. Again, these outdated ideas about the black family and black fatherhood aren’t challenged anywhere in Luke Cage. Studies show that black fathers are actually more engaged in their children’s lives than other ethnic groups. (Studies by the CDC so you can miss me in the comments with speculations about what’s wrong with black families.) Luke’s refusal to give the ring back to Eddie when he’d likely pawn it and the fact that he gives it back to Aisha shows how a father’s legacy can be carried on by a child. Maybe Aisha getting the ring back means baseball and the legacies in Harlem will be carried on by daughters. Eddie also reminds Luke that back in the old days, your name meant something. Luke maybe wants to return to those times.

Pop’s son talks about how he never knew his father and how Pop gave to the community instead of to his own son. His son is going to model his own parenting style on the way Pop nurtured the neighborhood. Pop was a father figure to so many in the neighborhood and held in high esteem but was an absentee father and had a harem of women that have to be kept away from each other. Luke and Cottonmouth are both the products of Pop’s teachings. Once again the dual meaning of “Pop”, the sound of a fist and a kindly father figure, shows us how each man interpreted the man’s influence on themselves and Harlem. Cottonmouth idolizing the men who came from Harlem and went after glory. Turning their stories of pain and anguish into larger than life public personas, fame, and glory; created their own legends out of glamour and violence. Luke saw him as a hardworking man who eschewed vanity and valued the simple work of being there for people. Both saw Pop as a hero of Harlem and see the other as the most dangerous threat to the neighborhood.

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The scene in the church resolves a thread of religion that runs through the episode. Cottonmouth calls Luke “Lazarus” when he shows up at Harlem’s Paradise and jokes that it’s expensive being a savior, “Just ask Jesus.” Cottonmouth could be referring to the beggar Lazarus but there’s also the man Jesus brought back to life after four days. Luke was brought back from the edge of death and brought back stronger. The gun with technology recovered from The Incident is called “Judas” because if you’ve got to kill Jesus…

Claire and her mother discuss Claire’s realization that she’s been the only person to help people with abilities. Claire calls her mother’s beliefs “superstition” but her mother tells her that Claire’s grandmother was a cuarandera, a healer in various Latin American spiritual and cultural traditions. Her mother reminds her that the world is different now—aliens, The Hulk, Thor—and that Claire finds herself at the hands of others with abilities and a rare ability to heal them. It’s not luck, it’s heritage, maybe even legacy.

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Stray observations

  • Was this or was this not the longest day in the history of days? I felt like the sun was never gonna set and everyone was getting so much done!
  • How convenient that everyone shot Luke in spots his blazer covered.
  • Eddie, Aisha’s delinquent father, is played by comedian Mike Britt who “sings” the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt theme.
  • The Judas gun might be the embodiment of the Chris Rock bit about how bullets should cost $5,000.
  • Big L, mentioned by Cottonmouth during his eulogy, was one of the creators of horrorcore. The references to New York City, particularly Harlem’s innovators, is providing an education in the contributions of so many notable black creators.
  • Scarfe is about to be found out, I guess. He has Cottonmouth’s people calling him on his desk phone so it was only a matter of time.
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