Harlem super hero Luke Cage (Mike Colter) has cleared his name, but is broke and wondering whether to accept a sponsorship deal from Nike as the show’s second season opens.
The first season came out before the film Black Panther with its largely black cast and concerns. In fact it links much more into the radical traditions of black nationalism, Malcolm X and the Panthers. Unlike Black Panther, Luke Cage is not rich. Another character says “just because you’re woke, you don’t have to be broke!”, advising him to become a “hero for hire”.
The series draws together a number of strands. One is the nature of being a hero and a vigilante. This is pushed more in this series than before. When he almost batters to death a man for being a wife and child beater is he helping society or just exposing the anger he felt at his own father?
More interesting is the discussion of black identity and what it means. Racial and class oppression intersect. But how should black people develop? Head gangster Mariah (Alfre Woodard) says “Black wealth is black power.” She shows off her wealth and tries to go legit by building a Shirley Chisholm Complex for local women. Chisholm was a real figure — the first black woman senator who attempted to become the Democrat presidential candidate in 1972. This is one of many small references that bring back the lost US experience.
Finally there is superhero action, and this is the dullest aspect. Luke is superstrong and bulletproof, which makes it hard to find a regular peril for him.
In this series the black gangsters that Luke fights are threatened by a new Jamaican gang trying to take over under the charismatic and possibly invulnerable Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir).
The Jamaicans are poorer than the “native” US blacks and when local politicians say “Keep Harlem black” in part they mean keep it American black and keep out the immigrants. One Jamaican echoes generations of immigrants when he says, “We came here with nothing and we built this country up.”
The look and sound of the show have always been key and here the Harlem gangsters are getting jazzier — in the gangsters’ club last season’s Biggie Smalls poster is replaced by a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting.
The show is very much aware of cultural specifics so the Jamaican Bushmaster fights using the slave martial art of capoeira full of tumbling kicks. The music mixes jazzier, bluesier tracks with roots reggae.
The sexual politics are more interesting too, questioning the macho image of heroes. Luke’s relationship with his partner Claire (Rosario Dawson) is on the rocks because of his constant violence and anger.
This season consolidates on the first series, building a convincing world that is more politically if less visually exciting than the liberal utopianism of Black Panther. If there is a weakness it is in the unequal use of the large cast of characters, such as former police officer Misty Knight (Simone Missick), though that could be because she is being set up to get a series.