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Thursday, 6 October 2016

Power Man

Here's how it would go:

I'd come out of my grandma's house, turn left, go to the end of the street, past the corner shop run by the Indian family, where the aroma of food on the stove out back melted into the smells of the sweets sitting out front to create a gorgeous heady mix that still, when I smell anything like it today, sends me right back to my childhood. I'd cross the street onto the main road and go to the newsagent that I didn't usually go to. My parents didn't ever send me there. It was small, fairly crappy, and staffed by a couple I was a little scared of, who sometimes shouted at each other. But. On a little plastic-covered wire rack on the dirty lino floor, they had American comics. Marvel comics. Remember – this was the mid 70's, way before the characters and stories contained in those rough, cheap pages had become mainstream pop-culture icons and cash-generating brand ambassadors – especially in the UK. Back then they were still seen as crass, cheap, sensational, primary coloured bad influences. I loved them. I love them.

I didn't love them equally though. Never had much interest in the Fantastic Four, the Hulk didn't hook me, neither did Thor. As I got older, I developed serious fandoms for Daredevil, Spidey, Green Arrow and others, but back then, when I was..what..7 years old? It was all about Luke Cage. Power Man. The hero for hire. He was my guy.

The black guy with the impenetrable skin, whose comics wove Marvels trademark outrageous characters and action, into stories of the inner city African American experience. Superhero blaxploitation. A leading character fresh out of jail for a crime he didn't do, who commits to his new powers by going into business as hired muscle, simply because, just like everyone else in his neighborhood, money was tight. Six or seven years before I discovered hip-hop, the Luke Cage comics taught me about an America that TV didn't often show, and alongside that, it showed me a New York that I dreamed of seeing for myself one day. I wonder if the people making these comics realised the bang-up job they were doing as an unofficial tourist board, because I can't have been the only kid entranced by visions of the USA thrown at me in low-quality ink. And it wasn't just the stories, the rest of the comic too – I poured over the adverts for mysterious things – Slim Jims! SeaMonkeys! I only know who Dr.J is because of his adverts for Spalding basketballs on the back page (Imagine my glee when his name cropped up in Run DMC's “You Be Illin” a few years later, and I KNEW WHO HE WAS).

These comic books were little culture bombs of exciting, edgy, loud, vivid, modern, counter-culture Americana. I was their target market. They hit me with deadshot accuracy, and I never fully recovered.

Flash forward to me as a grown-up, and Netflix announce that they're going to make four TV series, of four Marvel characters, and that those characters were Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and Luke Cage. What's the word for a combination of excitement, nervousness and dread? That. But then they release Daredevil, and it was good. As was Jessica Jones. And they just dropped Luke Cage. And it's kinda great.

Thematically it feels like a pretty good update of the source material. A reluctant hero driven into action when local gangland violence and political corruption start to take away his safe places, and hurt those he cares for. It's clearly on a modest budget, but its shot beautifully, with warm colours and a bold visual style giving the excellent cast the frame they need to do really nice work. And essentially, there's plenty of room for discussions of race, power, and, in one key early scene, the N-word. It's not perfect by any means, but sweet Christmas, Mike Colter is Luke Cage.

And good god is it timely. The deafeningly loud symbolism of having a hero who's central power is that his black skin is bulletproof is painfully ironic in a country where an increasingly militarized and unaccountable police force seems to be killing unarmed black men with shocking regularity. That a comic character who was created during the black power movement of the 70's, now has a resurgence in the black lives matter era is perfect, and powerful. Colter himself has said that the show is consciously taking that movement into consideration, and that “It's a nod to Trayvon, no question”.

The other thing that's been said about it is that it's the hip-hop Marvel show, which isn't quite true. The whole thing is immaculately soundtracked, to be sure, but not just with hip-hop, but also old school R&B and jazz, alongside some featured live performances, which all contribute to an underlining of the importance of music in the world in which our heroes and villains live.

As a sidenote, I also watched the BBC4 documentary “The Hip Hop World News”, which, at the time of writing, you can catch up with on iPlayer. A bold idea, to look at politics and society through the lens of hip-hop creators, and one that, for my money, didn't quite work. There were some important mis-steps – discussion about the use of the N-word was clearly biased in favour of the presenters viewpoint, while ignoring the key reasons for its re-appropriation, and including obvious fallacies presented as facts. The deeply problematic representation of women was touched on, and this slim and shallow segment was the only time in the whole show that a woman was allowed to talk, and only then because she was an old friend of the presenter. That stank. These are big subjects that, when given the serious insight they deserve, explode and expand some of the cultural underpinnings of the artform, and can only help its understanding. They happened for reasons, and that's where the discussion is, but there was no discussion, instead, only dismissals and opinions in place of explanations.

Having said all that, the presenter in question, veteran British MC Rodney P, was passionate and genuine, and when he shed tears before meeting the great Chuck D, I was right there with him. Although flawed, this was, in general, a very enjoyable show, and one that I hope serves as a starting point for Rodney to bring his beloved world to the screen, rather than a one-off.

And after that show we changed the channel, and there was Jeremy bloody Paxman talking about fucking Victorians. An Oxbridge educated rich white guy basically doing cosplay of one of his old teachers, in a sea of similar looking faces doing similar looking things, and it became apparent how rare and valuable on screen talent - either fictional like Luke Cage, or real, like Rodney P, are.

Excelsior, true believers! 'Nuff said.

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