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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

When Luke Cage adds kung fu to the mix, its world gets richer

Illustration for article titled When Luke Cage adds kung fu to the mix, its world gets richer
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In the 1970s, the only two places to see a non-white action hero was either in a kung fu film or a blaxploitation one. The two genres came together in Enter The Dragon starring Bruce Lee and Jim Kelly, who went on to star in several martial-arts inspired blaxploitation films. One model for a kung fu hero is the outsider challenging the system, upholding the legacy of his mentor and living by his own code. Sound like anyone we know? I’m not going to say that Luke Cage is also a kung fu movie while also being a blaxploitation homage. But there are thematic and stylistic choices that blaxploitation and hip-hop take from kung fu. Like Dead Prez said “They say karate means ‘empty hands’ / So then it’s perfect for the poor man.”

What brings up these references to kung fu movies? The introduction of Wu-Tang Clan, whose debut studio album, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), drew on martial arts and kung fu film dialogue alongside soul samples to create an image of New York City that was gritty, caustic, and on the edge of falling apart. The dialogue sampled in “Bring Da Ruckus”—the song Luke plays during his storming of the Crispus Attucks center—is from Shaolin And Wu-Tang, about a rivalry between two schools of martial arts. The film follows two students from two masters who are turned against each other by a feudal lord who attempts to have the students destroy each other, but the students come together to avenge the ones they’ve lost. (I was a little disappointed there aren’t as many parallels between Luke Cage and Shaolin And Wu-Tang, at least so far.) Most importantly, “Bring Da Ruckus” is about calling out all those who challenge you.

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“Who’s Gonna Take The Weight” is where we see the teachings of Pop become action in Luke’s life. Luke goes from drop house to drop house destroying the guns of Cottonmouth’s men and revealing his money as well as the final “heist” at Crispus Attucks. Luke’s plan is to make sure Cottonmouth’s money ends up where he can’t get it: in the hands of police. Luke’s sense of honor motivates these attacks. He doesn’t start going after Cottonmouth and his money after he talks with Bobby Fish about the money needed to keep the barbershop alive. He just wants to take away the thing that gives Cottonmouth his power: his money. Everything that Cottonmouth has either comes from or is protected by his money.

Cottonmouth and Luke come together when Luke’s empty hands can’t pay for the funeral arrangements Pop deserves. As much as Cottonmouth is defined by money, Luke is defined by his lack of it. He’s the penniless warrior walking the earth like so many kung fu heroes before him. Luke appeals to the mortician’s sense of family and decency to put Pop’s arrangements on lay-away. Cottonmouth uses his cash to pay for the top-of-the-line casket. A hunt for Cottonmouth’s money put Pop in the ground; Cottonmouth’s weak spot for Pop and his influence on Cottonmouth’s life could bring Luke and Cottonmouth together, but instead Cottonmouth uses it to drive a wedge between them. Cottonmouth and Luke knew Pop at different times in his life. Cottonmouth knew him when Pop when his nickname was a reference to the violence he could inflict and Luke knew him as a figurative father-in-law. Luke also is shamed by Chico, another person touched by Pop’s influence. Chico accuses Luke of bringing all trouble to Pop’s shop. He claims that the bullet that killed Pop bounced off his back. Luke is as motivated by guilt as he is by Pop’s code of honor.

Pop was such a positive force for change that his death warrants a piece on the local news, and the vacuum created in his absence provides the opportunity for Cottonmouth and Domingo to battle more openly. Whether it’s at his club during the day watching a Charles Bradley rehearsal or a conference in the park with Mariah, Pop’s death seems to have emboldened the criminal element. The attack on Cottonmouth’s gang trying to move guns happens during the day. The nefarious activities in this episode are brought to the light. The hierarchies and relationships of the crime world are expanded and exposed.

The other part of the crime world that is brought to the light is Cottonmouth’s relationship with Rafael, Misty’s partner. Misty reveals she got into basketball because her father and Pop would argue about the sport while she watched. While Misty and Rafael deal with the wreckage Luke caused at the Crispus Attucks center, Rafael suggests that they let the vigilante do their work for them: Let him do a year’s worth of patrol work. Misty bristles at the suggestion because a vigilante would bring anarchy and a complete breakdown in the system. Another person who absorbed a strict moral code who spent their time watching Pop in his barbershop. Rafael takes Chico out for a burger and strangles him with a tie. Rafael offers Chico’s body as an offering to Cottonmouth and gives up Luke Cage’s home address because he’s tapped Misty’s GPS.

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I’m not going to hide my glee that the sole white character in Luke Cage is a corrupt cop. Cottonmouth calls him “Virginia Slim” because he’s a skinny white bitch. Bless.

When Luke goes to hit up “Fort Knox,” he doesn’t bring anything with him and he goes in the front door. The action sequence is brutal and Luke summoning the security that lies within is with one of the most classic kung-fu movie moves, “The Four Finger Beckon.” All of his moves are as if the security are flies buzzing around him. He uses the fewest moves possible and expends the least energy. It’s the most choreographed fight so far but it still lacks the flourish of a kung fu flick. It’s what this would look like in real life—if the hero was bullet proof.

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He’s not afraid of whatever these men have at their disposal. He even uses the center against them, slamming them through walls, picking up a couch and swinging it with ease. In the end, Luke takes only what he needs and gives it to Bobby Fish to pay for the barbershop and to pay for the damage at Connie’s. Unfortunately, the real damage to Connie’s is coming. Buildings keep being destroyed in Luke’s wake and we’ll see who is left standing when the smoke clears.

Despite all the allusions to kung fu, Luke Cage is a man without style, without guile. Luke doesn’t have the finesse or grace of a martial arts master. He has no powers to master. Luke has no weapons or tools to command; he destroys the weapons right out of Cottonmouth’s goons’ hands. There’s no training montage for the man with impenetrable skin. As the world of Luke Cage grows more complicated with more motivations and allegiances coming to light, what makes Luke Cage special is simple. He’s big. He’s tough. He walks in the front door.

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Stray observations

  • A friend of mine joked that Luke Cage’s fighting style is “annoyed.”
  • Domingo’s candy bar of choice are Milky Ways. Mine too, Domingo.
  • Enter The Wu-Tang is credited as being one of the most influential hip-hop albums in history, one that contributed to the resurgence of New York hip-hop as a major cultural force, brought indie and underground recording techniques and bizarre thematic characters to mainstream hip-hop.
  • Mariah is planning to build a new set of low-income housing all named for famous black heroes. That’s her ultimate goal, apparently.
  • This episode featured a lot of table-setting, thus the slightly lower grade than the first two episodes.
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