Episode 1 of Netflix’s Luke Cage, “Moment of Truth,” is everything a Black nerd who loves being Black has been waiting for. By that I mean, if you were tired of not seeing yourself seen enough in Marvel’s existing tv show offerings, Luke Cage is there to change that. Luke Cage’s Harlem looks like the Harlem that we all know and love, but with superpowers. With brown and Black faces in every scene, it’s almost like every other superhero show we’ve already been given, but with White characters in supporting roles rather than leading.
The score and cinematography are incredibly on-point. They not only set the tone for the show, but act as an homage to Black films and television shows of yesteryear. I’m not surprised by this coming from a show whose episodes all share titles with Gang Starr tracks.
If you weren’t expecting to see Raphael Saadiq of Tony!Toni! Toné! in this show, you’re there with me. It had me shook and fangirling when he showed up, just performing in the MCU like it’s no big deal. It’s nice to see a superhero show that can appreciate R&B and soul. Can’t people with superpowers get down, too? And if Saadiq is playing himself in the show, that means he also now exists in the Marvel universe…which puts us ever closer to becoming One with our favorite universes…
But setting aside my nerdish fantasies and conspiracy theories about our world colliding with that of our favorite comics, I was immediately here for the episode from the jump. It opens up in a Harlem barbershop serving more Coming to America teas rather than Ice Cube’s Barbershop.
Working there is Luke, the lovable owner, Pop, and the young apprentice, Chico, who’s cutting some Shameek kid’s hair over a heated conversation about basketball players and street cred. We learn about Shameek’s bountiful self-confidence that agitates Luke almost to the point of violence, but the scene manages to be stay both light-hearted and tense without anyone actually getting beat up which is a feat these days. We also learn that Luke is quite sought after in Harlem by women, but he isn’t exactly thirsty for action. No, it’s not Jessica’s fault.
The series takes place after Jessica Jones so it’s interesting to see Luke be more intimate with people in his own neighborhood and community rather than Jessica’s. It’s important for the show to illustrate Luke’s life and world outside of a white protagonist and this first scene does a great job of making us feel a part of that world immediately.
Pop is every mentor that we’ve ever had to guide a troubled and reluctant hero like Luke. Relaxed, yet wise, he’s everyone’s lovable grandpa. Knowing how Netflix likes to treat the gritty Marvel universe, you can’t help but hope that Pop isn’t secretly a villain, crook, or worse, someone’s punching bag. Although Pop tries hard to push Luke forward and to use his powers for good with “always forward, never backward” and “always forward, forward always,” Luke is always ready to be a Debbie Downer and choose to be left alone. A hermit’s dream really, but guys as tough as Luke literally is aren’t really allowed to live a quiet life.
And, of course, we learn in this episode that Luke is nobody’s wealthy Batman or Tony Stark, working a second job at a nightclub of dapper gang leader, Cottonmouth aka Cornell stokes. His nightclub is gorgeous and warm, but while beautiful Black faces dance and laugh below on the dance floor, crime dealings take place up above.
We see that Cottonmouth is human enough to be able to be a fan of Raphael Saadiq like us, but this is a man that’s dealing in illegal weapons and embezzling tax payer’s money. But Cottonmouth, who is cousins with Mariah, a powerful councilwoman who is aiding him in that embezzlement to push forward with her own political goals, isn’t perfect nor infallible.
We see that Luke who is working hard at being the nightclub’s resident dishwasher is then thrown into bartending since a coworker named Dante from the barbershop is playing hooky from work. Unfortunately for Pop, who seems to believe in the kids that come into his shop more than Cottonmouth believes in money, Shameek, Chico, and this Dante are out interrupting a deal between Cottonmouth and two other major players in Harlem’s crime scene, a mysterious figure name Diamondback, and Domingo. While Domingo seems friendly enough, he’s a force to be reckoned with.
The young trio shows up to the deal to exchange Justin Hammer’s top of the line guns with guns blazing. While you are tempted to start foaming at the mouth to a reference to Tony Stark’s nemesis, the scene sucks you far too much for that as you watch the events of the inside job pop off while Saadiq sings about intrepid love. While the youth manage to pull off the job well enough, Dante begins to have doubts about their safety after doing Cottonmouth’s crew dirty and killing members of his crew as part of the operation, something that they had not planned to do.
In the heat of the moment, Shameek shoots Dante so that Chico and himself can split the earnings two ways and protect themselves from someone who is contemplating turning themselves in to Cottonmouth.
It’s never that easy, though. While Luke is holding down his job as a bartender and flirting with a mysterious, yet charming woman in a sparkling blue dress, a coworker who is intimidated by Cottonmouth and his creepy goons ask him to assist her with bringing them fresh bottles of wine. Luke obliges, but while up in the viewing box, Cottonmouth asks him if he’d like to work for him. Of course, Luke — who ain’t got time for nonsense — declines the offer.
However, as soon as he dips out of the room, we cut over to a shot of Dante pulling out his phone to notify Cottonmouth’s right-hand man that there was an inside job. No one’s really shocked that Dante is still alive. Shameek is not a seasoned assassin or anything and haphazardly fired at his friend. However, while Dante lived long enough to rat out his traitorous friends, he does eventually die. Given the pace of the show, though, we aren’t left to dwell on Dante’s predicament too long.
Eventually Luke and Sparkly Dress take a dip to his apartment after foregoing coffee to have sex. I’m sure Jessica and Luke shippers will have a conniption about this scene, but I thought it was awesome. It’s important to remember that characters have lives — both before and after we first meet them. We all know that Luke isn’t exactly over his wife, Reva. And it seems that while how ever passionate his relationship with Jessica was, at this point in his life, Luke isn’t preoccupying himself with her (while also not just take every opportunity to be with someone that he can).
After she scuttles off abruptly into the early hours of the morning to go do some “auditing”, we learn that she’s actually a detective with the NYPD at the scene of the crime looking over Dante’s body with her partner, Scarfe. It seems that everyone in this show has two jobs or at least lies about having two jobs, “legitimate” or not.
We’re then introduced to Shades played by Theo Rossi. His introduction is not the best. He seemingly appears out of nowhere and is an all-knowing figure representing the elusive Diamondback. Were he not slick-dressed and confident, Shades wouldn’t be very frightening. However, the way he waltzes into Cottonmouth’s office unannounced and ignores threats is pretty damn scary. He promises he’s up to only good, but the menacing score by A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge tells you otherwise before dancing you back to Pop’s barbershop.
It’s evident that watching children grow up only to end up in bad situations like Shameek, Chico, and Dante is taking a toll on Pop. As he sits in his chair talking about the murder of Dante with Luke, he looks significantly older than he did the day before. While Pop is clearly shaken up and wants to help Shameek and Chico, Luke solemnly reminds him that sometimes you can’t save people and that many of us “live and die by [our] choices.”
While a community grieves over the loss of another young life, Mariah is out pretending to enjoy hugging children from local schools and trying to drum up support for her ambitious housing complex named after Crispus Attucks. While Crispus is an inspiring historical figure for Black Americans, Mariah’s not exactly on the path to such a warm memory.
Out in broad daylight, Cottonmouth confronts Mariah with Shades looming in the background about the current state of their “business” relationship (if you want to call it that). Turns out that Shameek and Chico really screwed up Cottonmouth’s ability to pay back his cousin for all the help she gave him in getting his nightclub started.
Everyone’s pissed off at Shameek, but he doesn’t seem to really care. He takes his share of the cash to a local strip club and spends it on lap dances. While this definitely seems like a fun use of one’s newfound riches, an employee of the club lets Cottonmouth’s crew know about his whereabouts so that they can come swoop him up and seemingly take his share of the money back.
In an interesting scene after the strip club, we see Cottonmouth surrounded by several women in his office lying on his desks and sofas while he plays the piano. It’s an interesting contrast to Shameek who is young and newly rich turning up in a club to loud music under red lights. Cottonmouth looks somber, depressed. The women seemed more enamored with him than vice versa. Whether or not their gazes are sincere or motivated by fear of him isn’t clear, but if one thing’s for sure it’s that Cottonmouth has little regard for people who get in his way or don’t do as he says.
This is important to remember, more important than Luke recognizing Shakes from prison in the club’s kitchen as they walk in Shameek to see Cottonmouth. Why? Because we’re quickly shuffled over to watching Cottonmouth slap and punch Shameek to death right after giving him a swift speech on how you shouldn’t trifle with the likes of him while the crown from his painting of Biggie hovers above his head (dat cinematography!!!). It wasn’t necessary for Cottonmouth to do so, but he’s clearly a man with demons who has gotten to where he is by being not only ruthless, but a ruthless killer.
Unlike Luke, Cottonmouth doesn’t just hurt people, he takes their life. It’s Luke’s moral compass that keeps him on a righteous path despite all the odds while Cottonmouth continues to follow a path of blood and death.
Misty keeps showing up to crime scenes, but doesn’t seem to be affected by the deaths like Luke and Pops. She and Scarfe take jabs at each other with chuckles over Shameek’s dead body that’s been discarded onto the street. Her ability to stay so unaffected is written as a result of her having dealt with this for years, but being able to so easily walk away from what’s happening to Shameek, Chico, and Dante is very different from Luke, whose compassion for others he meets, even if briefly, keeps him up at night worrying about them.
This same compassion has him ending up intervening when his landlord Connie’s restaurant is being harassed by Cottonmouth’s goons. Their violent demands for money from Connie and her husband are interrupted by Luke who when attacked starts wrecking shop on all four of the crooks. It’s the “fight” scene we have all been waiting for the whole episode.
But Luke Cage doesn’t really get into fights, he just ends them. Nonetheless, it’s still entertaining and it’s refreshing for me as an action-lover to see a hero who doesn’t waste five minutes getting beat up before mustering up strength to finally own everyone. It’s what I came to see honestly, and I wasn’t left feeling disappointed.
Despite Connie’s attempts to pay Luke (who can’t even pay her his rent) for defending her and her restaurant, Luke refuses any money. This doesn’t mean that Luke is done defending his neighborhood, nor does it mean that he won’t eventually team up with Iron Fist and actually become a paid superhero. For now, it simply means that Luke is pissed. And as we’ve seen already that when Luke is pissed, there is not much standing in his way to stop him from making right what he sees as wrong.
Samantha Marie Haynes is a writer, witch, and social enterprise fanperson based in Austin. They love everything data-related, but also enjoy writing poetry, baking, hiking, attending music festivals, watching tv/films, board/card games, magic, modelling, cosplay video gaming, and creating friendly spaces for femmes and women interested in traditionally “nerdy” things. Their twitter handle is @sammhuisache and their personal site can be found at http://sammhuisache.tumblr.