All of this to say, that as excited as I was for the premiere of Luke Cage, I found this first episode extraordinarily underwhelming. “Moment Of Truth” did a good job of building the world of Harlem with the ambitions for this show on full display, but the execution is clunky and lackluster. Strap yourself in, this is going to be a very in-depth review. Let’s take it from the top.
First off, I really enjoyed the Luke Cage credits. It’s a small thing, but it tells us right off the bat that this show isn’t just about Cage, but about Harlem and, by extension, black life. Themes of black power and masculinity are interwoven throughout the pilot, starting in the first scene, appropriately set in a barbershop. For upstart customer Shameek, black power is about quick money and violence. We later hear this idea echoed by crime lord Cottonmouth who calls himself the n-word and says it’s violent people like him that keep his Councilwoman cousin in office.
On the other side of the fence, we have Cage and his belief in hard work and incremental change. After his temporary promotion to bartender, I love how Mike Colter makes sure to slide the lime all the way around the Cosmo before presenting it to love-interest and detective Misty Knight. This is a man who takes pride in doing a good job even if it’s as a hair sweeper or a dish washer. Pop and the amorous Patricia also support this view with Patricia saying “Nothing wrong with a black man working.”
However, as much as I talked about black pride, black power and black masculinity, these themes are not really fleshed out in the pilot. They tie into the heist plot and Shameek’s violent death, but have no bearing on Cage himself or the ending of the episode. Instead, the pilot indulges in some very half-baked talk of responsibility and change.
This conflict is also set up early on, with Pop telling Cage to get out there and help people with his super powers and Cage responding that he isn’t ready. This material essentially boils down to “With great power, comes great responsibility” and is not all that interesting despite Herculean acting efforts from both Frankie Faison and Mike Colter as Pop and Cage, respectively. We know that Cage is going to embrace his powers at some point, so the tension isn’t there. If there was a reason why Cage isn’t interested in being a superhero, it would be more understandable, but instead the scene gifts us with a bunch of clunky backstory about prison, his dead wife Reva, and an experimentation of some kind. This naked exposition undoubtedly could have waited for another episode and only serves to muddy the waters.
Later, Cage has a chance to stop Shameek and his friend Chico from participating in a heist but chooses to do nothing instead. After again standing by when he could have saved Shameek, he justifies his inaction by telling Pop: “You live and die by your choices.” Pop disagrees, telling Cage that he tries to get kids off the streets and into the barbershop where they can be saved. Following this line of logic, doing nothing is almost as bad as participating.
The thing is, the episode itself disproves this. Shameek was lured into the barbershop and still chose to kill quite a few people, including one of his partners, in cold blood. Here, there could be an interesting discussion about whether Shameek could be saved or whether he was worth saving. What is Luke Cage’s responsibility to young men like Shameek, lured by the siren song of money, power, and respect through violence?
The episode chooses to not even touch these ideas. Instead, to get Luke Cage back into fighting form, it once again retreats to the confusing backstory of prison and Reva. After a, frankly terrible, speech from Reva about loneliness and prison convinces Cage not to run away, he suddenly decides to save his landlord from the Councilwoman’s group of extortionists.
Adding to these under-cooked themes of blackness and responsibility are a mélange of random ideas and scenes. It feels a lot like this episode just threw a lot of things at the wall and saw what stuck for use in future episodes. First, the sex scene between Cage and Misty Knight was hot but didn’t really add much to our understanding of the two characters. Also, the introduction of Shades was ridiculous and added yet more unnecessary exposition about shadowy things we don’t know and/or care about. To make his presence doubly pointless, Cottonmouth’s underling later says that Chico told them who his conspirator was with his dying breath, so Shades’ entire reason for being there doesn’t make sense. It could be argued that the scene of Cottonmouth playing soulful keyboard was an indication of his closeness with Harlem through music, but I’m tempted to call it even more padding. Finally, the Councilwoman’s motives were too obscured, coming off as a little too hypocritical in needing the money but hating the business of getting it. The dialogue was also all over the map, and I groaned at several lines (I have a list, but the winner, or, more accurately, loser, was definitely “Everyone has a gun, no-one has a father”).
I’m not saying all of these things to hate on the show, and I actually enjoyed “Moment Of Truth” more than it may seem from this review. It’s just that there is so much potential in this show. For one, the cast is fantastic all-around. Frankie Faison as Pop is a wonder, and Colter plays Cage with a marvelous world-weariness that can’t quite hide his innate pride. Mahershala Ali is a great scenery-chewing villain, and he is legitimately terrifying when he beats Shameek to death. We didn’t see too much of Simone Missick as Detective Misty Knight, but she has a ton of chemistry with Colter and I hope she turns up more.
I’m just slightly disappointed here because Luke Cage has a real opportunity here to examine superheroes from a unique and unapologetically black perspective. All the pieces are in place, and the talent is there. But for now, the ambition is outstripping the focus and actual ground-level storytelling. With high expectations must come high execution. I truly believe this show can be something special and, despite my criticisms here, I know that I’m already itching to watch the next one.
• The music was consistently fantastic throughout the episode. I’m still not sure about intercutting the Paradise concert and the heist, but nobody can deny that Raphael Saadiq kills it on stage.
• I liked Mike Colter’s casual lifting of the washing machine. His physicality and magnetism allow him to quietly dominate any scene he is a part of.
• I really liked Shameek’s little dance after he murders the gunrunners. You can see all the terror and adrenaline and bravado he has in that two-step. Also liked Shameek’s little goodbye wave after Patricia leaves the barber shop. I can only hope that we will be seeing more of Jermel Howard in flashbacks.
• A moment I didn’t like was Cage’s “Impossible. You stand out in any room you're in.” Indicative of the whole episode, saying too much. Should’ve just went with “Impossible.”
• Cage is packing “The Invisible Man” by Ellison. Also, “Black Folktales”, “Attica” and “Outliers”.
• “I’m not for hire”
Photo Credit: Netflix/Marvel