“Sweet Christmas.” If you haven’t yet streamed Luke Cage on Netflix than you are missing out. Marvel’s newest show is a hit, and a refreshing take on a character that was once more two-dimensional than the pulp pages he was printed on. Luke Cage first appeared in 1972’s Heroes for Hire. Originally the character of Cage was a man of unlimited violence and limited vocabulary that punched his way through Harlem encountering every situation and trope that the blaxploitation movement had to offer. Though Cage was a breakthrough for black comic characters, much like blaxploitation itself, the original Power Man comic was fought with missteps and offensive stereotypes.
Sweet Sweetback Badass History
Blaxploitation was a movement in the movie industry that began in the 1970’s. It was a direct reaction to several forces, but to understand the movement’s origins you need to go back to a much earlier time. At the start of the era of motion pictures the only roles available to African Americans were that of the slaves or buffoons. Even positive roles, such as the butler or the “mammy,” still emphasized the inherent idea that blacks were inferior to whites. Movies like Gone with the Wind put forth a world view that the proper place of a black man or woman was at a social position lower than a white man or woman. This idea continued well into the 1950’s and 1960’s, but then things started to change.
The Civil Rights movement ushered in a new racial landscape. All black casts began to put on productions of their own, financed on their own dime. This was how in 1971 Martin Van Peebles was able to put together a movie called Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song. It was the story of a black protagonist fighting against white power and the violent forces of ghetto life. It was all set to a soundtrack by Earth, Wind, and Fire. Van Peebles made the movie on a shoestring budget in two weeks, but it went on to gross 10 million dollars. It was an incredible success and black audiences found a hero who looked more like them and struggled with some of the same things they did. Much like Luke Cage it was a milestone for black protagonists, and it started a movement.
By the late 1960’s the movie industry was struggling. The Golden Era of cinema was over, and the rise of TV as well as several Justice Department lawsuits had broken up the monopolies of the the old major studios. Many places -like MGM- were struggling just break even with each movie they made. Yet, the success of Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song exposed Hollywood to a potentially new revenue stream, black people. So in 1971, MGM released Shaft. If Sweet Sweetback forged the genre of blaxploitation than Shaft sharpened and refined it down to a formula. It grossed 12 million dollars, won Isaac Hayes an Oscar for the soundtrack, and inspired every studio in Hollywood to make its own Shaft. Blaxploitation was born.
The Angry Black Power Man
Marvel -never one to be left behind- launched their own title in the genre of blaxploitation. Heroes for Hire -later re-titled to Power Man- was about Luke Cage, a tough talking, ass-beating, ex-con, with super powers. Like the cinema movement Luke Cage embodied all the elements of blaxploitation: violence, themes of anti-establishment, and negative stereotypes of inner cities and those that lived there. Many criticized the comic’s protagonist as nothing more than a jive-talking angry black man, and that original characterization is pretty spot on. He was nothing more than a caricature. After all, it is hard to forget that he was created by three white men, Archie Goodwin, John Romita, Sr. and George Tuska. However, if we are going to talk about the negatives of Cage’s original depiction and its roots we also need to examine the positives as well.
Luke Cage was the first African American to star in his own comic book. -At the time Black Panther was not American and the Falcon only played second-fiddle to Captain America- Cage, despite his initial flaws, was the first black American superhero to have his own book, and that is incredibly important. It is also worth noting that Cage’s struggles were real. He fought gangs, thugs, corrupt police, and a power structure designed to keep black men in “place.” Those were all themes explored in blaxploitation movies, and there is a reason they resonated with some African American audiences at the time. Cage and his writers often showed that the law is not equally applied to everyone, and though the comic and its depictions were often simplified and relied on stereotypes, they did -at least in part- reflect the struggle of many black Americans. Having someone like Luke Cage -who had the power to fight back and be a hero- was empowering, even if it wasn’t always the most flattering of depictions.
As the blaxplotiation movement faded in the mid to late 1970’s so did the popularity of Luke Cage, but he never went away. Later writers went on to fix a lot of the more questionable elements of his character. His vocabulary was expanded, the jive-talk was dropped, and he found a best friend in Danny Rand, Iron Fist, -who himself was initially an exploitation of the popularity of kung fu movies. Luke Cage eventually married Jessica Jones and they had a child together. He became a member of the Defenders and the Avengers and evolved into a much more nuanced and three-dimensional figure. All of this has culminated in the depiction we receive in the Netflix show, an intelligent and complicated character. Similarly, Harlem and its people are also depicted in various ways, not just criminals or victims, but as neighbors and friends. The world and Luke Cage have come a long way, but it is worth looking back and remembering those beginnings.
Getting the Shaft
Blaxploitation had its fair share of critics and supporters. The NAACP and the aptly named Coalition Against Blaxploitaiton lodged protests against the films, claiming they were centered around negative stereotypes, black men as violent and angry criminals. They also criticized the movies’ use of language and it depiction of life in inner cities populated only by drug dealers, hit men, and pimps. Thus, even while blaxploitation movies were breaking down barriers they were also reinforcing others, casting black men as thugs. It also didn’t help that movies like Shaft were written by white writers, most of which who had no real experience in inner city areas. In fact, Ernest Tidyman a white writer from Cleveland is the man who created Shaft. He also wrote the screenplay with the help of a man who most famously wrote for Star Trek. That’s hardly the “ghetto experience.” Blaxploitation was not exactly a shining moment in cinema history, but like Luke Cage, it wasn’t entirely without merit.
More than anything blaxploitation movies started a conversation in America about race and depictions of African Americans in stories. It also helped give black directors -such as Gordon Parks– a break they may not have ever received, and for the first time it gave audiences a chance to see non-white heroes in starring roles. We would also be remiss not to mention the memorable soundtracks and songs of these films, many of which came to define the 1970’s as a decade. Maybe, these are all things worth remembering, even amidst all the elements of exploitation and the overwhelming number of negative stereotypes. By the mid to late 1970’s Hollywood studios stopped producing blaxploitation movies under pressure from groups like the NAACP and CAB. They claimed that ultimately the movies did more harm than good through eroding positive black role models in favor of vengeful and violent depictions.
The movement ended as quickly as it began, but its legacy continued. It is possible that without these movies and heroes like Luke Cage, the mainstream black actors of the 1980’s would not have been possible, people like Eddie Murphy or Denzel Washington. Thanks to the movies of the 1970’s leading black men no longer seemed so impractical or unmarketable. Luke Cage’s roots will always lie in the era of blaxploitation, but as this most recent Netflix show proves they do not end there. Cage has evolved into a thoughtful and positive role model, much like how the modern movie business evolved from the 1970’s. Nobody is saying that either are perfect, but it is worth reflecting on how far we have come, even as we acknowledge how much is still left to accomplish.