The Buzz: Luke Cage's Battle for Ideologies

Welcome to this week’s addition of the Buzz as we look the newest addition to the Marvel Television lineup Luke Cage. We will explore how the series does great work with race and ideology while struggling to conform under the 13-episode television format.

Then we will have our next installment of what to stream for Halloween. This recommendation is of the scariest documentary you will ever see. We will also look at a trailer for a new biopic that literally gave me chills in the theater that I first saw it in.

Agree or disagree, we would love to read your comments below.

Television: Luke Cage: A black man in a hoodie who is bulletproof is a powerful image and idea in 2016. The new Marvel/Netflix television series, Luke Cage, knows the visceral power of that image. At one point in the 13-episodes, there is a montage of people in Harlem wearing hoodies riddled with self-made bullet holes in solidarity with their folk hero, Luke Cage, as he runs from the law allegedly killing police officers.

For the people of Harlem in the series, Luke Cage, played by Mike Colter, has become a living folk hero. He has the strength of John Henry and the mysterious past of Robert Johnson. When Cage is used as a symbol is when the show is at its best. As a superhero and as a character, he is not particularly engaging or interesting. But, as a symbol, as an allegory, the character of Luke Cage is inspiring.

The latest addition to the Marvel Television Universe (The MTU?) has a writer’s room that is different from most television shows. The majority, led by showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker, are African American. The same goes for the show’s directors and the majority of the cast. In return, the show makes the best argument for why diversity matters in media. There is an authentic voice in Luke Cage as the show imbues itself in black culture and ideas.

The original comic book character was a deliberate attempt to pander to the African American audience at the time. Luke Cage: Hero for Hire was Marvel’s riff on the 70’s Blaxploitation heroes ala Shaft. The modern series does not dispense on those old influences but rather took all the merits of the genre to create something unique. Blaxploitation as a genre has been much maligned but at its best, with films like Coffy, Shaft and Superfly, these were films made by black filmmakers for black audiences. These films spoke to the anger and attitudes of the time. It was hard at the time to see a black person take on the various meanings of justice while being sexy and cool at the same time. Not everyone can be the noble hero like Sidney Poitier.

Luke Cage takes the same spirit of those films. The show embraces the musicality of Blaxploitation, using the trope of live performances within the scope of the universe. Musical artists like Raphael Saadiq and Sharon Jones performs throughout the series, giving subtle depth to character motivations. The same is done with other pieces of black art, literature and images. Luke Cage is constantly shown with a book throughout the series, reading Walter Moseley and Ralph Ellison; each title offering a moment of insight into his mindset.

The central crux of Luke Cage is in the ideological makeup of what makes Harlem. Cage, trying to run from his past, is forced to face a multitude of villains, including a Harlem gangster named Cottonmouth, played by the wonderful Mahershala Ali, and a corrupt politician, played by Alfre Woodard. But, each of these battles is not only a battle between good and evil, but rather one of ideology. Harlem, and in a broader sense the black community, is at stake in these battles. The moral characters of Luke Cage and Detective Misty Knight, played by Simone Missick and Pop, an owner of a barber shop that looks after the community played by Frankie Faison, represent the ideal of black exceptionalism. On the other hand of the spectrum, the unsavory characters of show represent the idea of surviving in a system that is rigged against them. The show never dismisses any of these ideas. These two ways of thinking has to be worked in conjunction with another in order to be fully effective.

Unfortunately, while there are many things to love about Luke Cage, ultimately the series becomes a dud. To sustain the momentum of a 13-episode series, all one-hour long each, is hard to do. It is even worse, when the show operates best with a filmic structure rather than a television structure. The length of the show allows for them to explore the nuances of each supporting character, something the films never do. But, in that advantage, it becomes a hindrance. After a while, Cage is forced to be a passive hero and kind of dumb for not being able to solve the mysteries that are presented in front of him. But, the series needed to stall any eventual confrontation even after the show passes the point in which a climax was needed.

It speaks to a larger point that episodes of television are both important and arbitrary at the same time. It is important because episodes denote structure. Each episode should serve its own purpose and its own conflict/resolution to serve the ultimate conflict/resolution with the whole series. The twist at the end that brings people back for more, just presents a new conflict to be resolved. But, episodes are arbitrary in that, the number of them should serve second to the overall storytelling. Woody Allen in his Amazon show, Crisis in Six Scenes, had Amazon shorten the number of episodes he was contracted to make from eight to six because he knew he did not have enough to sustain the story he wanted to tell.

Luke Cage in the middle episodes really began to strain itself on what it wanted to tell. And that creates an unsatisfactory series. It is disappointing because there is so much to love from the performances to the presentation of ideas. But, without a plot to be a foundation to those ideas, then there is only an admirable effort to something that could have been great.

Rewind: The Nightmare: Here is our third film in recommending what is available to stream for Halloween time. Usually documentaries are not thought of to be in the horror movie genre. But, The Nightmare, directed by Rodney Ascher of Room 237 famed, has made the most terrifying documentary ever constructed. Some might say that it would give you nightmares (Yes I am proud of myself). The documentary is about the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. This is the feeling that person gets while they are sleeping of being awake and unable to move any limb on their body. The results are living nightmares. The film takes testimonials from a group of people who have experiences sleep paralysis and Ascher faithfully recreates it. What is scary about this film is that this is something that people actually experience. Horror works best when it plays on the fears of ordinary people. Here is a film of real ordinary people describing the scariest moments of their lives. You can’t help but to be a little spooked out from this documentary.

The Nightmare is available on Netflix

Coming Soon: Jackie: When I saw the trailer for Jackie, I felt a sensation that I have not felt in a long time. I had the gut reaction of “Holy sh**, I have to see that.” This is the Chilean filmmaker, Pablo Larrain’s take on the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination and the aftermath through the eyes of his wife Jackie Onassis. The film almost feels like a horror film as the PTSD of the death of a husband seems to radiate through the mood and atmosphere the trailer created. Also, Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy is a near perfect choice through their striking similarities in look. The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival where is won Best Screenplay and has garnered wide acclaim through the early screenings.

Jackie is set to be released on December 2nd.

In the Loop: Documentary filmmaker, Michael Moore has never been shy to express his political views. He has specialized in a documentary format that operates as openly opinionated and personal that has made him both loved and hated. Throughout this election cycle he has made it known how afraid he was that Donald Trump was going to win the presidency. So much so, he has unveiled that he had been secretly working on a documentary about the campaign entitled Trumpland that is now being released several weeks before the election. Surprising the public by releasing a long form piece of work, who would have thought that Michael Moore had so much in common with Beyoncé?

Team Downey, the production company ran by Robert Downey Jr. and his wife Susan Downey, has left their long partnership with Warner Brothers. Under this deal, Warner Brothers has the right of first refusal for any project under development. Through their collaboration, they had produced the Oscar-nominated film, The Judge, and is still working on the third installment of Sherlock Holmes and a live-action Pinocchio.

My favorite entertainment stories has involved the constant financial struggle of Relativity Media, the production company that once hailed by its head Ryan Kavanagh that they had created a filmic version of Moneyball where it could create films that statistically audiences will go see. But, with disasters like Ben-Hur and the most recent Masterminds, the production company had to file for bankruptcy. Now the company has filed a lawsuit against Netflix, alleging that because the streaming service breached its agreement to stream their films, it has put the studio in such financial strain that the company had to be put up for sale. The initial agreement was signed in 2010 and Relativity receives between $100 and $300 million under the deal. Relativity alleges that while they have had to put their business for sale, they had helped Netflix transform themselves from a DVD-mail-in company to an over the top service in streaming. Netflix has called these allegations, “ironic and baseless.”