News

Luke Cage, Black Panther, and Why Heroes of Color Matter

RT columnist and lifelong comics fan Tshaka Armstrong explains why it's important for everyone to see themselves in their onscreen heroes.

by | September 30, 2016 | Comments

Mike Colter as Luke Cage

In 1939 and 1940, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted a series of tests to study black children’s attitudes about race; they became known as the Kenneth and Mamie Clark doll experiments. If you are unfamiliar, the study demonstrated that, when given a black and a white doll to play with, black children consistently picked white dolls as the “beautiful” ones, or the dolls who were “good,” with the black dolls being “bad.” Positive sentiment was consistently biased toward the white dolls. That hasn’t changed much, even 70 years later. News outlets and various organizations have replicated these experiments with similar results in the last decade. Representation matters.

Nichelle Nichols, Joe Morton, Louis Gossett Jr., Billy Dee Williams, LeVar Burton, Wesley Snipes, Gina Torres, Anthony Mackie, Viola Davis, Laurence Fishburne, John Boyega, and others have delivered stellar performances that defied stereotypes in various sci-fi, fantasy/adventure, or superhero films — but outside of Star Trek, The Matrix, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the lack of breakout roles in major motion pictures has long left persons of color with few aspirational characters to admire onscreen. However, the tide is turning, and my sons may now have more choices than I once had.

Why is this important when we’ve had successful shows with black leads or casts like The Wire, Empire, and How To Get Away With Murder? Simple: it’s mythology. Good vs. evil. Superheroes and fantasy often mirror our highest ideals for who we might become if we’re virtuous in the face of some overwhelming circumstance. These stories represent our versions of King Arthur, Odysseus, Hercules, and Tarzan.

This year I had the unmitigated joy of watching some of my favorite fictional heroes come to life. They weren’t jiving, they weren’t “the muscle,” they weren’t completely hot-tempered and angry at the world, they weren’t just sidekicks standing in the shadows. They were fully realized characters, with depth and dignity. They were power under control, the embodiment of strength, tempered by wisdom or humility. I was able see the fullness of my ethnicity brought to life onscreen in T’Challa of Wakanda, a.k.a. the Black Panther, and Luke Cage, a.k.a. Power Man.

Frequently in film and in the media, black men and women in America have been painted in one light, with one brush. Since the first actor who played a slave, a servant, or a pimp, many of us nerdy types never could have imagined seeing our heroes onscreen as multi-dimensional human beings who were more than just slick, slang-talkin’ jive turkeys or “magical negroes.” Sure, Luke Cage sees its title character channeling some of the badassery of 1970s blaxploitation heroes like John Shaft, but under the vision and guidance of showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker, Cage’s swagger isn’t some puffed-up false bravado written from the perspective of someone unfamiliar with the culture.

luke-cage-cottonmouth

Mahershala Ali as Cottonmouth

Cage and all of the characters in Netflix’s new series are complex. Mahershala Ali’s Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes will go down as one of the best Marvel villains to date. Then there’s Detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick) and nurse Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), two fierce sistas who hold their own with powerful performances among a powerful cast of characters. Fiyah!

The show even triumphantly tackles “the N word” with compelling monologues delivered by Cage and his nemesis Cottonmouth, explaining why any thinking human being would or would not want to be called a “nigga.” You may not agree with either’s take, but it’s hard to disagree with their reasoning. In short, the show eschews the simplicity of a media-derived monolithic black culture, illuminating the variety and diversity of thought and affect present in any ethnic group. There is no hive mind in the streets of Luke Cage‘s Harlem, but there is a sense of empowerment. We’re not blindsided by the need for outside help to make our ‘hood better. There’s no cultural appropriation. Cage is Harlem’s hero — Harlem’s answer to Harlem’s problems — and that sense of empowerment is profoundly important if we’re going to change the mental bondage revealed in the Kenneth and Mamie doll studies.

Empowerment is one of the aspects of Captain America: Civil War that delighted my soul. During the end credits sequence, Captain America thanked T’Challa for housing Bucky and cautioned him about what the potential backlash could be for doing so, saying, “If they find out you have him, they will come for you.” As the camera panned out to the giant Black Panther statue overlooking Wakanda’s capital and T’Challa said, “Then let them come,” I damn near shed a tear. T’Challa and Wakanda are not worried about America. They’re not concerned about what S.H.I.E.L.D. might do. They don’t require the permission of American or European governments to operate in their own sovereignty, protecting their own interests. There’s no need for acceptance or assimilation. That is power. That is freedom. At our core, that’s what we all want. The power to be free, not the illusion of such.

Children who look at toys and subconsciously dislike themselves aren’t mentally free, and media plays a significant role in that. My sons, your sons, need to see Christopher Reeves, Steve McQueens, and Rocky Balboas that look like them. Our daughters need to see Julia Robertses, Dame Judy Denches, and Elizabeth Taylors that look like they do. Our daughters deserve to see characters like Cage‘s Misty Knight, or Panther‘s Dora Milaje. As Cage showrunner Coker said, “America is ready for a bulletproof black man” — now more than ever. Whether we like it or not, our fantasies, our symbols, have meanings that speak to our souls. The characters make a statement about our own humanity and we see pieces of ourselves in them.

luke-cage-black-panther

Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther

It’s kind of ironic as I reflect on what Civil War meant to me in light of the fact that one of the first trailers we watched before the movie was for Tarzan — an old story that leans on a Western cultural trope that the European man must dominate and save wild Africa.  A prolific cliché used throughout American media. A notion that flies in the face of persons of color having the power to be free because, ultimately, we need someone else to fly in and oppress — ahem, I mean save — us. I’m thankful that my father raised me with a very powerful sense of my cultural heritage — kind of hard not to do with the name Tshaka — and when I watched the brief Civil War exchange between T’Chaka and T’Challa, all the dad feels hit me. All the old school respect for one’s elders hit me. The impact of what this fictional creation represents, and its significance to young boys and girls of color, hit me. This is needed. This is important.

Often, what children see, they want to be. What they are most inundated with shapes their worldview, for better or for worse. And, ultimately that’s what seeing powerful images of blackness, or Asian-ness (Ghost in the Shell‘s missed opportunity), or any ethnicity, is all about. A sense of power, of confidence. If you’re of Scottish descent, how did you feel the first time you watched William Wallace fight for freedom in Braveheart? I never heard anyone complain about Rocky Balboa’s sense of cultural pride. He was the Italian Stallion, and audiences fell in love with the story regardless. Never once have I heard it referred to as “that Italian movie” the way movies with black leads or casts are often referred to as “black movies.” Let that sink in for a moment.

This is basic anthropology.

Representation matters, and until we see more frequent and diverse stories featuring people of color in sci-fi/adventure, fantasy and superhero roles on the big and small screens, our stories — which are just human stories — will continue to be just “black stories” to much of America, and those doll experiments will continue to produce similar results.


Tshaka Armstrong is a huge nerd and activist who also writes for foxla.com and his own site, tshakaexplainsitall.com, where he talks about food, bearding properly, tech, family, and equality.

Follow Tshaka on Twitter: @tshakaarmstrong

Tag Cloud

Opinion Showtime Song of Ice and Fire franchise Film Festival CBS All Access Rocketman name the review crossover chucky Marathons Sundance animated 007 stop motion Funimation Legendary HBO Music 99% adventure batman OneApp Pop 24 frames TLC green book Turner Classic Movies Sony Pictures cooking australia hidden camera A&E golden globes CBS binge indie FOX razzies zombie toy story political drama football Tubi Awards psycho Fantasy First Reviews BAFTA police drama SXSW theme song discovery laika The Purge unscripted trailers Apple Nat Geo Trivia comiccon Lucasfilm casting zero dark thirty hollywood Disney Netflix Christmas movies FX on Hulu Black Mirror crime thriller sequels TV renewals festival 2016 based on movie christmas movies dogs television NBC Amazon Super Bowl TCA Winter 2020 best video on demand Star Trek comedies Black History Month child's play thriller Lifetime Reality Competition El Rey 21st Century Fox TIFF Disney Channel The Arrangement archives APB Fox Searchlight Chernobyl 20th Century Fox Mary Poppins Returns Tumblr scary movies pirates of the caribbean space Spike comics Apple TV+ book adaptation E3 FX spanish language supernatural worst Amazon Prime The Walking Dead Shondaland Ghostbusters superhero Trophy Talk Action Alien award winner universal monsters jurassic park teaser USA Network rotten movies we love Amazon Studios Winter TV Red Carpet elevated horror Amazon Prime Video Baby Yoda Summer 71st Emmy Awards sag awards TCM Rocky Comic Book Disney streaming service Pop TV godzilla Emmy Nominations joker Adult Swim Pixar Avengers richard e. Grant talk show zombies Stephen King series prank sitcom aliens USA free movies Paramount Plus jamie lee curtis Fall TV Vudu ViacomCBS MCU golden globe awards Trailer Marvel Studios First Look festivals Cosplay movies slashers The Witch BBC One technology Western Ellie Kemper ABC Signature video Animation Christmas Drama comic books Lionsgate cartoon 72 Emmy Awards Television Critics Association serial killer hispanic Pirates canceled TV shows latino rt archives GIFs Arrowverse Quiz Set visit 45 blaxploitation stand-up comedy Hallmark Christmas movies rotten medical drama Holidays 4/20 Logo psychological thriller Toys Mary poppins Spring TV VOD boxoffice black politics Marvel emmy awards Cannes Schedule Superheroes ABC Cartoon Network nfl transformers Classic Film Turner monster movies obituary Epix worst movies disaster Netflix Photos AMC CNN Esquire Reality TV One documentaries GoT YouTube Premium Marvel Television Interview heist movie kaiju TruTV cats Shudder TCA 2017 Horror streaming scorecard Food Network Election science fiction Television Academy Martial Arts Disney+ Disney Plus Broadway cinemax Binge Guide Paramount comic Academy Awards boxing adaptation Film Endgame BBC America anthology WGN cancelled IFC Grammys game of thrones cults DC Comics witnail Infographic a nightmare on elm street Superheroe doctor who Mindy Kaling italian Year in Review DC streaming service Sci-Fi Walt Disney Pictures TV Land Sundance Now Awards Tour Emmys news south america Lifetime Christmas movies Calendar miniseries indiana jones die hard Exclusive Video Valentine's Day Spectrum Originals biography harry potter dc films japanese ESPN ratings Starz Ovation concert PlayStation twilight deadpool romance parents American Society of Cinematographers social media Bravo VH1 CMT Winners king kong SundanceTV Writers Guild of America 2019 dragons ghosts Family Musicals Rock venice Apple TV Plus NYCC TBS Video Games anime dramedy Fox News RT History Mystery all-time Crunchyroll cars james bond YouTube satire composers screenings directors critics vampires versus LGBT PaleyFest Heroines mockumentary Polls and Games PBS strong female leads Travel Channel mutant foreign docudrama OWN Anna Paquin Countdown See It Skip It Dark Horse Comics E! diversity Creative Arts Emmys Comedy classics canceled criterion telelvision Thanksgiving 2017 CW Seed Freeform Comics on TV BET Awards Britbox WarnerMedia new star wars movies Masterpiece popular historical drama crime drama DGA breaking bad spinoff travel YA Extras revenge Certified Fresh renewed TV shows superman Captain marvel Peacock reviews Mary Tyler Moore BET spy thriller true crime quibi romantic comedy rom-coms TV sports 93rd Oscars children's TV Musical Kids & Family MTV Rom-Com natural history singing competition Discovery Channel Comedy Central HBO Max Crackle book Holiday 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards crime nbcuniversal ABC Family IFC Films reboot Acorn TV TNT fast and furious GLAAD Hear Us Out Biopics San Diego Comic-Con remakes Tarantino Brie Larson Best and Worst halloween tv Tomatazos toronto X-Men Sundance TV hist Box Office Paramount Network FXX Premiere Dates Elton John women spider-man Pride Month Country Character Guide blockbusters Columbia Pictures cops DC Universe New York Comic Con President what to watch stoner Star Wars dark A24 2021 MSNBC History tv talk werewolf Oscars Disney Plus dceu Teen cancelled television cancelled TV shows docuseries documentary Chilling Adventures of Sabrina HBO Go mission: impossible spain Podcast Pet Sematary fresh screen actors guild Warner Bros. The Walt Disney Company RT21 facebook spanish SDCC Watching Series movie LGBTQ robots 2020 Mudbound Hulu Nominations The Academy Sneak Peek Nickelodeon YouTube Red war independent justice league 2018 nature Syfy halloween game show kong blockbuster cancelled TV series period drama ID kids ITV Universal VICE french TCA finale 2015 Women's History Month BBC TCA Awards Hallmark DirecTV Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt The CW National Geographic sequel asian-american