There has never been a better time in history to be a Black superhero. The second season of Marvel’s gritty and grounded Netflix series Luke Cage boldly surpasses its freshman offering from 2016. And that’s despite its at times ham-fisted inclinations, such as the show’s wildly exaggerated Jamaican accents, which while not Marked for Death “bad” are pretty over-the-top.
Thank goodness for the highlights: the deliciously evil, hilarious, scene-stealing Alfre Woodard as complicated politician turned mob boss Mariah Dillard. A blood-rushing, pool hall fight sequence featuring the future Daughters of the Dragon duo Misty Knight (Simone Missick) and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), who by the way deserve their own series—complete with Knight’s work-in-progress robotic arm. And of course, props to the powerful, understated grace of the late of Reg E. Cathey, in his final role.
There’s also the return of Iron Fist, who is no longer annoying (!!!); and a cast of lively role players who capture the distinct idiosyncrasies between Harlem and Brooklyn. But there’s another element that Luke Cage show runner Cheo Hodari Coker and his writing team have pretty much nailed down: the polarizing push and pull of Black masculinity.
It’s on this perilous terrain that our hero Cage (played with bubbling ferocity by Mike Colter) finds himself balancing what it means to be a Black man in America. The kicker, of course, is Luke Cage is no ordinary African-American subject to the usual racial tropes and negative stereotypes that have existed for hundreds of years. No, Luke Cage is a bulletproof Black man with super-human strength.
And so when “Power Man” finds himself protecting a mother and her son from the child’s sociopathic, abusive father known in the streets as Cockroach, he finally loses control and crosses the line. Cage, already dealing with the pain of struggling to end a bloody turf war in his beloved Harlem, leaves the despicable thug near death. Claire, his girlfriend and nurse to New York’s street heroes, is visibly shaken by his unchecked brutality.
“You are scaring people, Luke,” she says. “You’re scaring me.”
Cage erupts with the realest statement in the history of Marvel cinema: “Baby, a Black man only has two choices in this world. You can either lean into the fear and be the n--ga that people already think you are or you can be the big, docile house cat with a smile…I’m a man! OK? Full-fledged…my anger is real!”
In Cage’s world being a Black man means never showing vulnerability. Because when you display just a hint of “weakness” you are judged as inevitably soft; a punk who only exist as mere food for predators. Black masculinity doesn’t have any room for nuance. “If I can use that anger for intimidation and fear to do work then so be it!” Cage explodes.
This is a pivotal moment. Since gaining his abilities following a secret prison experiment (while locked up for a crime he didn’t commit), Luke Cage has always held back. Here is a man who can literally tap someone on their head and knock them out. But with Cockroach, Cage unleashed his full rage, and reveled in it for just a moment. Cage’s internal battle is all the more ironic given his abilities would allow him to survive an encounter with a racist, trigger-happy police officer. Imagine unarmed, Black 17-year-old Antwon Rose with those powers.
But what if you are a Black man and even more physically intimidating than the fictional don’t-F-with-me Cage? What if in the real world you are a 6-foot-3, 245-pound African-American male thespian who faces ridicule for testifying before a Senate committee for the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights? Terry Crews, like Luke Cage, is the physical embodiment of Black masculinity. His muscles have muscles. He can project a frightening stare that would make grown men think twice. He is the scary Negro of White America’s nightmares…but with a smile.
Just by being Black, male and of imposing stature, Crews does not exactly fit the stereotype of a sexual assault victim who adds an unlikely voice to the Me Too Movement. But there he was, the Brooklyn Nine-Nine star speaking his truth, recounting headline-making claims against Adam Venit, the influential former head of the motion picture department at the William Morris Agency, who he says grabbed his genitals at an industry event in 2016.
"I was told over and over that this was not abuse,” said Crews, whose lawsuit against the WME agent was rejected both by the Los Angeles County District Attorney and the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office. “This was just a joke. This was just horseplay. But I can say one man's horseplay is another man's humiliation.”
An emotional Crews also detailed the shocking account of a producer from The Expendables movie franchise, who told his manager to “drop my case in order for me to be in the fourth installment of the movie — and, if I didn’t, there’d be trouble.”
The response to the actors’ revelations of an alleged sexual assault at the hands of a powerful male influencer, a cross that many women continue to bear and speak out on with extraordinary bravery and resolve, has generally been received positively. “You a real one my G,” tweeted a man in support of Crews. “Appreciate you modeling mature manhood for the culture.”
But Crews has also faced a rash of criticism and even ridicule, most infamously from Power executive producer Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. The perpetual line-stepping hip-hop mogul was forced to delete a disparaging Instagram post that taunted Crews’ allegations.
“LOL, What the f– is going on out here man?” 50 wrote in the post. “They would have had to take me to jail. Get the strap.” The meme also included the disturbing line, “I got raped, my wife just watched.”
When confronted by the AP at a Starz event over his widely rebuked commentary, 50 said, “You know what? When you put LOL behind any statement, it means you’re laughing out loud. That means it’s a joke. That’s it. Sometimes journalists leave those things out.”
But it was obvious where 50 was going with his “joke.” To him and many others, the idea of the Black, hulking Crews being subjected to any such assault is a laughable premise. Because the real life “Luke Cage” would have whooped that white man’s ass, right?
However, Crews has fought back against any suggestions that he “let” the alleged assault take place. “Why didn’t you say something? I did,” he posted on social media. “Why didn’t you push him off? I did. Why did you just let it happen? I didn’t. Why didn’t you beat him up? (Sigh)” The last question is particularly telling, as was the sigh that followed. In his testimony he confessed that, like Luke Cage, he WANTED to get violent but that comes with consequences for a Black man, with or without super powers. “My first reaction was to be violent and I immediately held back,” Crews told ranking committee member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-San Francisco) through tears. “As a Black man in America, you only have a few shots at success. You only have a few chances to make yourself a viable member of the community.”
But as noted, some of the more negative pushback Crews has faced is something women have experienced for decades. When you hear questions like, Why didn’t you fight back….why didn’t you call the police?, it’s little wonder that, according to a 2016 report by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 70 percent of women (and to a much smaller degree men) who have experienced sexual work place harassment remain silent.
And there are other estimates that claim that 90 percent of sexual assaults are never brought to the attention of authorities.
It’s a staggering figure for sure. But as countless women and the likes of Terry Crews continue to speak out in the face of toxic masculinity, it is important to remember that antiquated ideas of black manhood also needs revamping.
It’s an issue that even steel bending, bulletproof brothers like Luke Cage have to grapple with.
Terry Crews: Photo by Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images) Luke Cage: Photo by Netflix