Luke Cage: A Marvel Take on Black History

By Astrid Countee

“Only Forward,” that is the message of Netflix’s latest superhero show, Luke Cage. A message that seems to have shown up just in time for the turmoil that we find our country in.

2016 was a hell of a year. In America, politics dominated the news cycle, police shootings kept many people on edge, and continued discrimination against women and the LBGTIA community made many of us question if it was 2016 or 1916. The fact that the top 10 highest grossing films of the year are all superhero stories, fantasy or animated points to the fact that many Americans were likely looking for an escape from the harshness of their everyday lives. In short, it feels as though Americans need their own superhero. Netflix’s Luke Cage delivered a hero who was socially relevant and cultural significant in ways that we have not seen before.

But Luke Cage is not new. Luke Cage, a.k.a Carl Lucas a.k.a. Power Man, is an ex-convict turned superhero who first rose to prominence during the blaxploitation era of the 1970’s. During this time, films introduced black heroes often placed in poor urban neighborhoods. These characters were sometimes depicted as exaggerations of black stereotypes and the films focused on issues of anti-establishmentarianism, racism and vengeance. The character of Luke Cage was introduced by Marvel Comics in 1972, a time when black heroes like Shaft and Super Fly were gaining popularity. Cage’s world is set in the center of black cultural achievement, New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, where he is born and raised as Carl Lucas. Carl and his friend Willis Stryker grow up the neighborhood together and end up getting involved in petty crimes. When Carl realizes that he is hurting his family, he seeks to straighten up, but his friend Stryker gets drawn deeper into the criminal world.

It is through the betrayal of Stryker that Carl gets sent off to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. While incarcerated, Carl is subjected to racist correctional officers and, eventually, illegal experimentation that allows him to develop his super power and impenetrable skin. When Carl escapes Seagate, the prison that he is sent to, he renames himself Luke Cage.