I admit it, I gravitated to the launch of the new Netflix series Luke Cage because of the hilariously clumsy way comics artist John Romita Sr. and company put into practice what is, sadly, an enduringly arresting concept: a black man with bulletproof skin. Skin – so often a pretext to rush to judgment, and across American history to this damn day, extrajudicial execution – suddenly also a superpower. Luke Cage’s advent being in the 1970s, though, that skin was clad in a metal tiara, gold shirt open to the navel, manacle-style bracelets, and jeans with a chain for a belt, the garish attire of a Blaxploitation superhero. An archetypal Angry Black Man who spoke in rhyme. In keeping with the mood of the time, he occasionally used the hero name Power Man. The “Black” didn’t need to be said. So much for DC’s Bruce Wayne brooding in his manor about what sort of animal and costume would strike fear into the hearts of his antagonists. The only instrument of fear Luke Cage needed was the skin he was born with.
(Some of us middle-class kids didn’t need kitsch to cotton on to Cage, not least a young Nicolas Coppola who took Luke’s surname in order to step out of his relative Francis Ford’s shadow, becoming a movie star who combines the craziness of Gary Busey with the financial acumen of Wesley Snipes. Nicolas Cage is a major comics fan who named one of his children Kal-El, after Superman’s birth name.)
Today’s interpretation, acted by Mike Colter with Cheo Coker’s writing, redefines power dressing. Colter’s Cage eschews not only the Disco Avenger outfit of his 1970s incarnation but also tailored clothing. It appears intentional that the first time we see him in a sportcoat he’s almost literally bursting out of it: lent by his employer in order for him to tend bar, a badge of servitude rather than the attire of luxury, privilege, elitism or any other trapping of power. When narrative later requires him to put on a suit custom tailored for him (in what appears to be the space of an hour, perhaps a trope borrowed from Top Secret!), he almost immediately takes that finely tailored suit coat off in order to kick ass in his shirt sleeves, without taking names. The jacket only goes back on to hide the bullet holes.
This Luke Cage might be closer to the archetype of the Proud Black Man, dignity and loyalty personified. Today, that man and that archetype take on extra poignancy: always doing their best to avoid conflict, just to get on with living a peaceful life, violence and confrontation inexorably find them, again due to the simple fact of existing as a man, in this world, with the skin he is blessed and cursed with. His preferred garment, riddled with bullets over and over, is a hoodie with the hood pulled over his head, down to Earth and almost incognito. Neither a costume nor a uniform, that piece of clothing accompanies him through almost all of his exploits. Power dressing that does not itself confer special powers (unlike, say, Iron Man’s suit or Batman’s bulletproof costume), the hoodie’s power is resonance – its reminder of the deaths of unarmed real-life youths. It is, in its own way, soft power, the power to force us to think of the uncomfortable truths of our world that are not solved at the point of a gun, or by throwing someone through a wall. It is both anonymous and ubiquitous. The midcentury Man in the Grey Flannel Suit – that face in the crowd – may well today wear a hoodie instead. Thank the democratization of workwear across all social classes. As the appearance of Mahershala Ali as the dapper, villainous and short-lived Cottonmouth suggests, the tailored look does not a gentleman make, nor does it protect your power. Power is best wielded discreetly and possessed by those who can dress to fit the occasion. In too many cases today, in fiction and in real life, that occasion is simply surviving the burdens of harsh and unwarranted judgment.
Heavy-handed for social commentary? But these are comics, or adaptations of comics, whose social commentary might be at its best when painted with a broad brush, vivid colors, and intense action. Their reflections of society are gesture drawings in rough strokes. Luke Cage, for his, and his series’, shortcomings, is a telling, troubling manifestation of our troubled times. Clothes don’t make the man.