Most conversations about blackness somehow end up being centered on black-on-black crime. However, the conversation about black-on-black crime is not always about black-on-black crime. It’s about a standard of behavior. It’s about setting the bar for compassion and sympathy for black lives. It inevitably ends up a discussion that’s steeped in respectability politics. So when the first details about the plot of Luke Cage were trickling out and it was revealed the show was going to deal with the issue of black-on-black crime, I rolled my eyes hard.
Many viewers are reacting to the show as if it’s a meditation on respectability politics. Watching this episode, however, I couldn’t help but wonder when does wanting respect turn into respectability politics? I don’t think the lessons in this episode are meant to shame black folk into obedience. This episode teaches what it means for these men and women when you call them out their names.
Luke and Pops are in the barbershop for their book club. Luke dismisses the work of Donald Goines and Pops stops him and brings up Kenyatta. According to Pops, man of many opinions, Kenyatta is the “best black hero this side of Shaft.”
The first novel, Crime Partners, when described at its very loosest, is about two petty criminals killing the wrong people during a robbery gone awry. Kenyatta convinces them to fight the power while the police and the drug dealer they robbed hunt the two petty criminals down. Ring any bells? Luke favors Easy Rawlins, played by Denzel Washington in Devil In A Blue Dress, to Kenyatta. Easy Rawlins was a former WWII solider who became a day laborer in his civilian life. When he loses his factory job, he becomes an unlicensed private eye. This is getting spooky. Pops implores Luke to be more likes these heroes in the books they read. It can feel like Pops is pressuring Luke to put on a cape and be a hero, but Pops knows that neither he nor Luke can just turn their backs on Harlem.
The conversations between Pops and Luke take on more meaning and avoid the cliché of the “Wise Old Black Man Inspires The Hero.” They’re not having a conversation about respectability politics—they became two people. Not mouthpieces for a movement but two convicted felons trying to define their lives and give them meaning. Proving society wrong: A record can condemn the victims of violence as much as it does the perpetrators. Pops and Luke are two black men trying not to do something worthy of respect. For Pops, it’s providing a safe haven for young men and for Luke, it’s finding himself.
The dedication to self-introspection of black men and how their emotions aren’t sources of weakness is amazing to watch and elevates this show. When I first saw Straight Outta Compton¸ the scenes that brought me to tears were the ones where the members of NWA were also brought to tears. The sight of black men being emotional and vulnerable and sad on screen is rare. Pops’ tears and then Luke’s (and also Cottonmouth’s) aren’t indicative of how they’re soft or how their personal tragedy has consumed them, but indicative that they are humans who have emotions and express them. It might sound like a simple thing but after decades of terrible representation, it’s wonderful and important.
Our sequin dress-wearing detective gets a little more fleshed out in this episode, too. She’s preternaturally good at her job, e.g., seeing the junkyard shootout in her mind. She doesn’t fall apart or waver when she meets Luke again for the first time after their tryst. She doesn’t let herself be underestimated. Her game of Horse is a wonderful moment of character discovery. This is not a woman you fuck with. She’s not an interloper in the community. She’s a vibrant part of it. Pairing her with a white partner only highlights how seamlessly she fits into the neighborhood. Most importantly, she gets a name: Misty Knight. Misty also corrects Pops when he calls her Mercedes. That’s not her name. There’s a reason one of the criteria in the Bechdel Test is that the women characters are named. It’s the same reason Kunta Kinte refused to be called Toby.
She also has one of my favorite lines of the episode: “Your rap sheet has so many hits, your record could put out a record.”
The climax of the episode is not shocking: Shades and Tone head to Pops’ to bring in Chico. Any savvy viewer or reader of comic books could know that someone important was going to die to motivate Luke to spring into action. Luke isn’t motivated out of vengeance for Pops but out of a duty to not be the person who doesn’t do anything when his mentor and father figure dies. Also, it’s notable that Luke doesn’t immediately put his fist through Tone’s face. He starts to observe Mariah and her movements. He’s going to do this right.
The fallout from Pop’s death is the more shocking development. Tone and Shades clash with Cottonmouth on the roof of Harlem’s Paradise. Mariah tells her cousin that she can’t be around his nefarious activities because her reputation and respect is too important to her, but she’s continually drawn to Harlem’s Paradise, doesn’t flee when things get hairy, and takes the money out of a (near-) dead man’s hands. Cottonmouth insists that he doesn’t care about respect and he only cares about money; despite this, he throws Tone off the roof not just for breaking “the rules” of criminals but for literally calling him out his name. He doesn’t revel in being known as Cottonmouth and doesn’t indulge in the reputation the name comes with. He likes to still believe that he’s a more honorable criminal.
This episode opens and closes with Luke standing overlooking the Crispus Attucks center when a young man asks him “What are you doing here, nigga?” and Luke answers “I’m not tired enough to ever let nobody call me that word. You see a nigga standing in front of you across the street from a building named after one of our greatest heroes?” Is Luke’s problem with the word “nigga?”
I don’t think there’s been a word more debated than “nigga.” I’m not here to defend or describe the virtues of the word “nigga” and my discussing it here is certainly not permission for those of you who will never be called a “nigga” or its more hostile counterpart to use it.
I don’t think his problem is with the word “nigga,” but rather what it means to be called a nigga, and to be treated as one. We can imagine the names a black convict has been called, names that deny him his humanity, self-respect, and dignity. To Luke, a nigga is someone who has given up, who gives in to his basest impulses and to the basest impulses of his environment. A nigga is someone not worthy of respect. In that moment, inspired by the first man to die for this country and the last man to die for Luke, Luke rejects being someone not worthy of respect. He takes the object that he’s meant to fear, that’s meant to kill him and pulls the trigger himself, stripping the gun of all its power and terror. A black man who fears neither the names society gives him nor the guns they use to kill him is a dangerous thing.
- I’ve talked a lot about how the camera loves Mike Colter’s body but man, oh man does it worship Mahershala Ali’s face.
- The name Kenyatta is inspired by the first President of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, who negotiated for Kenya’s independence. Big shoes and all that.
- A lot has been said in the comments about the “world-building” of the non-essential dialogue. I haven’t thought of this as “world-building” because there isn’t a world to be built here. Harlem is a real place full of real black people having real black-ass conversations like the ones on screen.
- I appreciated Pops telling Cottonmouth he’s going to bump up if he uses a straight razor. Watching my brothers experiment with different shaving methods, I sympathize with black men trying to stay bump-free.
- I know Pop’s death was telegraphed by virtue of being someone named “Pop” but when he caught that bullet to the neck, I gasped out loud alone in my apartment.
- The “musical guest” this episode was Faith Evans, which makes Cottonmouth’s Biggie fixation all the more thought-provoking.