An Open Letter to Mike Hale (of the NYT) about #Netflix "Luke Cage"
Mike Hale, Did you really watch #Netflix Luke Cage (Beyond E2)?
I have a bit of a history of frustration with the critics at the NYT (they probably don't know it, but I called them out enough times on their mistakes on HBO's Vinyl that they actually had to make a correction).
Don't get me wrong, I love the NYT (I was born in NYC and have read the Times for my entire life) but I think they have been fairly sloppy of late with their television criticism.
Luke Cage Puts Race At The Center of the Story?
I don't know you from Adam Mr. Hale, but I am pretty sure that you have never read many Luke Cage comic books from back in the day.
Why am I so sure? Well, you say the following about the television version of Luke Cage:
"And like another recent Netflix series, “The Get Down,” some of its camerawork and music evoke the blaxploitation era, though, unlike that show, “Luke Cage” is set in the present."
Mr. Hale, for your information, the comic book Luke Cage was "the" superhero for the Blacksploitation era.
He was, basically, a superhero version of Shaft (written by a bunch of white guys at Marvel in order to cash in on the popularity of that style of films).
The camerawork and music evoke the era as a nod to the source material.
Yes, they are bringing him into the present (as they did Daredevil and Jessica Jones) but they are winking at his true origins with those touches.
Let me get more pointed, the show takes great pains to both give a nod to Luke's blacksploitation past and at the same time refute all of the worst stereotypes from that long-gone style of filmmaking.
Sadly, for most of the rest of your article, you seem to be calling for Luke Cage to forget the history and embrace the blacksploitation.
For instance, you say that you welcome the show's "diversity" but then follow it up by arguing that:
"The selling of Harlem as a literary-artistic wonderland is distracting in what’s basically a straightforward, middling-quality comic-book adaptation about a reluctant hero taking on gangsters and crooked politicians. And it often feels like the cultural lessons are getting in the way of the genre fun."
I have to admit, this quote is very troubling to me.
Why is calling for the "genre fun" any different than saying that you prefer your "diverse" entertainment to steer clear of any serious treatment of place or of character (which as I recall was one of the major criticisms of the films from the blacksploitation era)?
Why is this a call for anything other than a shallow and exploitative diversity? And, to be honest, hasn't that been what most major media projects that promised diversity have been to date?
Personally, I thought one of the strengths of Luke Cage was its commitment to ground its fun in a particular place and to speak the truth about the history of that particular place.
Some Other Problems with Your Criticism of Luke Cage
But your article is troubling to me for other reasons too.
First, is your "Black Superhero" fatigue so great from all that time you spent watching Storm (X-Men), Black Panther (Avengers), and The Falcon (Avengers, and Ant-Man) that creating a historical context for Luke Cage's neighborhood is just too much of a strain on you (especially since only in the case of Black Panther, in the most recent Avengers movie, was any subplot remotely based on race or diversity)?
I don't remember seeing you (or other critics) make this criticism of the full hour and a half of All-American (white) backstory for Captain America in his first solo movie? Were you a critic of the approximately 400 times Batman's "tough on crime" origin story has been told on television or in the movies? Is it that crime is okay to address but not the sociological context or place of crime?
Did you object for any of the three different versions of the exact same "unappreciated, picked on, white nerd" backstory for all three Spider-Men (or has it been four)?
Second, why did you say that "Race is at the Center of the Story" exactly? I am confused by this argument, you say:
"And “Jones” pulled off the trick of being both a compelling narrative and a smart, frightening commentary (in that case, on predatory male behavior). “Cage” tries to do a similar thing with racial politics but gets lost in platitudes. Its messages don’t get under your skin."
Is it possible that they just didn't get under your skin?
I am not just being provocative here, there are only two white characters of note on Luke Cage (Shades and Detective Rafael Scarfe and I am not 100% on Shades being white).
The politics are racial I guess (as in they are talking about politics among a bunch of African Americans and Latinos in a community of color), but how is the show about "racial politics" writ large?
And yes, Pops and Luke talk about how to address inner-city crime, but the politicians are black, most of the police are Black or Latino, and virtually all of the community is of color.
When I first saw Luke Cage, I was thinking, wow, this is pretty cool, this show comes from a perspective virtually NO series ever has before. Almost every character of note is of color.
What was distracting about this again? Again, this seems like a strength of the show to me.
Third, are you sure you saw all 7 episodes of Season One?
I am just asking because, in the context of the entire first season, this statement that you make doesn't make a lot of sense (with due respect):
"There’s more conversation than action, and the talk has a tendency to slide into debate, about vigilantism or competing ideas of Harlem or visions of the solitary black hero. (Cage is a Walter Mosley-Easy Rawlins man, while his mentor, Pops, prefers Donald Goines and his more radical crime-fighter, Kenyatta). It’s as if we’re listening to a series of long-running circular arguments rather than watching a drama with some forward momentum."
Except that the whole point of Episode One is that Cage is a reluctant hero who is struggling to find reasons to use his powers for good.
Yes, in that episode, until the very end, there was not much action (btw that is also true of the first episodes of Daredevil and of Jessica Jones).
The first few episodes of Luke Cage revolve around the debates he is having to decide if he should become a hero (in Harlem, that place nobody should talk about) or not. And, to be fair, this is a debate he continues to have throughout the entire comic book run as well (famously he becomes a hero-for-hire with Iron Fist).
Anyway, I ask you this question because after the first few episodes (spoiler alert) he decides to become a hero and after he makes that decision there is plenty of action. I don't understand how your criticism makes sense in that context.
I have respect for you as a writer Mr. Hale, and I really do not mean to be rude or dismissive, but I am very confused by your article. I doubt you will respond, but I do believe you have a right to your opinion and every right to tell me that I am an idiot (I am, most likely, an idiot).
I will suggest, however, that this stuff matters, I have already seen this line of argument being deployed on Reddit as a criticism in a much more race-baiting manner. I guess I am calling for care, especially since the show so obviously wants people to hear the history of race and not just the bombast.
Thanks for your time.