There has never been a better time to be a crime fighter and an African American. Black superheroes like Blade, Steel, and, even Hancock, were interesting, over-the-top crime fighters that showcased we could kick ass as well as Batman, Spiderman, or the countless white superheroes before them. Today’s black superhero cast is much more realistic, believable, and varied. Three of the most prominent faces in current media are Luke Cage, Black Panther, and Black Lightning and, through their different outlooks and beliefs, they represent much of the African American experience that was previously swept under the rug for a faux collective portrayal of blackness.
Marvel’s Luke Cage has become one of Netflix’s most important and well-received shows. Its title character Luke Cage is a black man that has been done wrong by the law (how many times have we heard that story?) on more than one occasion. He obtains impervious skin and super strength and sets out to keep his domain of Harlem safe from anyone that wants to infiltrate, destroy, and rebuild it in their image. His trademark appearance is bald and clean-shaven, his clothes tight and fitting. Unlike the stigma that he’d be a violent attacker who would do anything with his powers, Luke, on the contrary, is one of the nicest, sweetest heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His body count is probably the lowest, too. He fights only defensively, focusing on protecting instead of destroying his enemy. He’s a man of few words and a ladies man, so he’s peaceful, suave, and quiet.
Black Panther magnified the black experience when it was released in February, becoming a cultural phenomenon and one of the highest grossing movies of all time. The world was introduced to current Black Panther T’Challa in Captain America: Civil War when his father, former Black Panther T’Chaka, was killed by an assailant at the Vienna International Centre where the duo was attending the official signing of the Sokovia Accords. The T’Challa introduced here was angry, brash, and quick to attack, but understandably so.
We were introduced again to him in Black Panther where he’s in a much happier place, but his initial belief system is dangerous, yet justified. As King of the advanced African nation of Wakanda, he practices isolationism in regard to worldly affairs. He believes that the best policy for preserving the integrity of Wakanda and its resources is to stay out of any and all conflicts. While this means the world will suffer, T’Challa, and the Wakandan people at large, will be safe.
Black Lightning tells the story of an African American superhero named Jefferson Pierce who comes out of retirement once his children get kidnapped by a local gang. World weary and grizzled, Jefferson is a principal that believes education is the way to step over much of the world’s troubles. If he can’t shock his way to ensure someone’s safety, he’ll make sure that they are in a classroom. His middle-class lifestyle isn’t enough to deter him from the cops’ suspicions with, in the first season, him being a robbery suspect, angering him more than anything else.
Over the course of the first season, Black Lightning becomes more than a superhero show — it’s painted with social commentary about the black experience. Jefferson may be able to electrify anything in sight, but we see the tortured world through his eyes, looking for optimism in a series of local issues that are familiar to anyone of color. The nuanced portrayal of racial justice and systematic racism are as frustrating to us as a frequently flustered Jefferson, realizing that having electric powers does next to nothing against a system set in place by a country as old as its beginnings.
These three heroes, Luke Cage, T’Challa, and Black Lightning, have one thing in common: a willingness to protect. These are black men determined to hold what they have safely, protecting their livelihood to the death. For Luke Cage, Harlem is more than a home — it’s what he is, period. T’Challa’s love and concern for Wakanda dominates his every decision, with him willing to die to ensure that every citizen is safe. Black Lightning’s commitment to ensuring that his familial domain is safe is what drives him out of retirement, enabling him to suit up, and using his powers to combat the threats lurking his city’s streets. As a black man that understands the importance of safe guarding my woman and child, I wholeheartedly identify with their plights and understand the rationale behind their choices.
Their differences also help to identify the variations of the black experience in America. In Africa, T’Challa was royalty. He was wealthy, educated, and confident with his stature and beliefs. America has a way of dismantling this confidence and instilling a sense of regularity with its black inhabitance. Jefferson Pierce, for all that he can do, can’t instill the kind of change that he would like on a large scale. He hung up his costume previously because of marital problems, symbolizing his inability to be effective like he wanted. Luke Cage, similarly, feels frustrated with the trappings of having superpowers in a city rife with social and political turmoil. His celebrity, for all the trouble that it brings him, seemingly magnifies his inability to be effective outside of punching his way into and out of trouble. When he gets beat up by Bushmaster, the fabric of this reality is exposed. Just as soon as he gets in it, he can get out. In Africa, where black is celebrated, we are in control of our narrative. In America, we are subject to the ebb and flow of systematic racism.
There are also differing degrees of blackness on display with each character, some more embarrassing than others. Black Panther’s infamous “What Are Those Sandals” may look hideous, but T’Challa’s pride in his sandals’ traditional African roots showcased euthenics with the African experience. By contrast, Luke Cage’s unnecessary dab at the beginning of Season 2 was cringe-worthy, but its embarrassing nature came from its timing. At one point in time, the dab defined not only black America, but white America as well. Black Lightning‘s use of Kendrick Lamar and other hip-hop cuts showcases its fascination and appreciation with black celebration, rearing its authenticity in an organic manner.
With taking all three characters into account, a comprehensive portrait of the African American experience becomes visible. T’Challa’s proud, confident, and adventurous African roots make it evident that this culture is what we should be focused on, and what truly respects the black body. The American experiences of Luke Cage and Black Lightning are rife with turmoil and reflective of being big fish in small ponds, yet we’re subject to everything going on around us instead of influencing it in magnanimous ways. It’s a sad picture, but complete, indicative of the turbulent times that we currently live in.
Luke Cage‘s second season just wrapped up, with him being made the official protector of Harlem. The second Black Panther movie should be well under way, and Black Lightning‘s second season has officially begun to shoot. The first chapters of these black stories showcased a well nuanced collective story of livelihood in the United States because of what they revealed, but also what they avoided. As we wait for the new extensions of these characters that we’ve grown to become enamored with, it’ll be interesting to see just what new avenues of the experience will be unearthed next. This time it’ll amount to more than memes; it’ll be gospel.
More by Trey Alston: