I know what you’re thinking:
Lex…what in blazes are you going on about?
Now, it’s funny that you mention that. I say this because recently, prior to the debut of Luke Cage, showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker sat down with SciFiNow to explain how and why he thought the show was a Hip-Hop Western.
As someone who has studied and taken great interest in the genre—despite its glaring issues with revisionist history (i.e. erasing the fact that 99% of cowboys were either Black, Mexican, or Indigenous) and the outright racism against the Indigenous peoples of this land—and would like to direct movies in this genre one day, I was immediately onboard with this interpretation, nevermind the fact that Luke Cage already had me at Sweet Christma—I mean “Hello”.
Moving on, while perusing through all the reactions to Luke Cage online, I found that there was some slight confusion from those who didn’t necessarily see the Western connection. But since I’m here to clear up said confusion, here’s a short explanation:
Luke Cage presents itself as neo-Western. It is complete with all the trappings and tropes of the Old West, but firmly planted in “the city” and the present day.
This ensures that fans of the Western genre are immediately able to follow recognizable tropes while acknowledging that Luke Cage, as its own entity, doesn’t necessarily have to be married to these tropes and can even subvert them.
I would be too.
Which is why I took the liberty of outlining eleven reasons why Luke Cage functions as a Western:
1. Luke Cage is a “Mysterious Stranger”.
To be clear, Luke takes the form of many western tropes. He serves a “The Bartender” at Harlem’s Paradise for a short while before having to abandon that for obvious vigilante reasons. He shares some attributes (as someone originally from Georgia) with “The Southern Gentleman”—mostly the non-racist ones—which is especially the case in his initial scene with Misty when he is trying to pick her up (or was that the other way around? Hmmm).
Or as he said…“ponder a woman”.
That said, one of the more fully fleshed out roles that Luke occupies is the role of “Mysterious Stranger”. While everyone knows ol’ dude as “Luke Cage”, nobody really knows him (prior to his heroism and vigilantism).
The real him. I’m talking the “Carl Lucas” him.
He intentionally doesn’t talk about himself or his upbringing. He’s a good guy trying to escape his unsavory past. He’s weary from escaping Seagate and from narrowly escaping the brouhaha that broke out in Hell’s Kitchen.
The exception to the former part of this trope is Pops (who I’ll get too soon). Pops is the only one here who knows all about Luke from jump street and that’s only because Pops has a personal connection to Luke due to his deceased wife, Reva.
2. Luke Cage is also an “Outlaw”.
When Luke finally decides to don The Black Hoodie of Destiny™, Luke briefly becomes the Hero of Harlem before morphing into an “Outlaw” due to having the nerve to face off against Cottonmouth—who is the “law” of Harlem (which I will elaborate on soon as well).
After having the cajones to oppose both Cottonmouth (Cornell Stokes) and his cousin, [Black] Mariah, Luke is branded a dangerous criminal who must be stopped at all costs…even though he’s actually helping the town. Because Luke doesn’t want to play by Stoke’s rules and has to operate around them, he assumes the position of operating outside of Stoke’s law, further branding him an “Outlaw”.
Of course, because the townspeople of Harlem aren’t asinine and see the good that Luke is doing, Luke’s able to subvert the unsavory parts of that title by becoming a beloved anti-hero.
3. Pops is the Quintessential “Barber”.
Besides Pops’ self-titled barbershop being the cornerstone of Harlem, Pops himself functions as “The Barber”—aka the hub of all of information and exposition in Luke Cage. While Pops ain’t out in these skreets performing surgery on people like Ye Olde Times and while he probably isn’t the best barber around, his shop does in fact serve as the show’s central meeting place outside of Harlem’s Paradise (this show’s “saloon”).
In fact, to drive this point how, during one particular episode, the villain—Cottonmouth—shows up for a tense shave in order to confront Pops and Luke about any information regarding Chico and the stolen money. This in itself is a trope of the Western Barbershop (that is the villain receiving a shave before confronting the hero…in the barbershop).
Even after Pops (also known as Black Uncle Ben™) meets a tragic end, Luke (along with Claire and Bobby) uses the barbershop as his base of operations. So much so that everyone who’s attempting to look for and/or track down Luke automatically comes to the shop.
4. Claire fills the role of “Frontier Doctor”.
Part of the reason I like Luke Cage so much is because Claire gets to do much more as a character here than the other Netflix shows that she appears in (Daredevil and Jessica Jones).
And due to this character upgrade, she becomes “The Frontier Doctor”.
While Hell’s Kitchen was pretty dark, grimy, and tough, Harlem is another beast entirely as Turk confirms during his crossover in Luke Cage.
“Harlem niggas”, according to him, are not only unstable and viciously violent, but they are also wildly protective of their turf and will use any means to protect it. This in turn subjects Harlem to unprecedented amounts of violence and decay…most of which the townspeople have to contend with.
Claire finds herself in the middle of it all. While she serves as the primary doctor for the superpowered Luke Cage, she also finds herself treating other characters throughout the series during high-stakes situations (particularly Scarfe and Misty).
Because of this urgency, she is ingenious and tough as “The Frontier Doctor”. And that’s because she has to be. Since she isn’t an “official” doctor in a hospital setting, she has to utilize Harlem and the environment around her in order to come up with quick solutions to serve the people that come to her from help (especially Luke). And while there are slivers of an optimist leftover in Claire, it would not be too far-fetched to say that her tenure in Hell’s Kitchen quite literally beat a lot of said optimism out of her, making her even more of a tough ass (as cemented by her introduction in Luke Cage).
If this trajectory continues, I would not be shocked if she is eventually able to set up her own base as a doctor and morph into “town doctor” where she would now have access to better supplies, medicine, and equipment.
5. Cottonmouth is “the law” of the land.
I don’t think it’s assumptive to call Cottonmouth the “Sheriff” of Harlem. He is essentially “the law” of the land.
While there is the illusion of the city council (Mariah included) and law enforcement making and attempting to enforce the rules, Cottonmouth assumes the position as “law” of the land mainly because he has most of the police force on his payroll and has his cousin Mariah in the council pulling strings.
Putting it bluntly, he has made Harlem his bitch, but attempts to treat it benevolently (as shown by his willingness to parley with Pop’s at his barbershop before Tone goes rogue and his desire to pour his money back into the community).
So, when Luke—“The Outlaw”—decides to mosey on up into to Harlem’s Paradise and tell him what for, Cottonmouth naturally takes umbrage with that and seeks to obsessively snuff him out. And it is that [impatient] obsessiveness that ultimately causes both his downfall and Mariah’s slow decent into taking over his legacy.
6. Harlem’s Paradise is Luke Cage’s “Saloon”.
Cottonmouth’s “club”, Harlem’s Paradise, serves as this neo-Western’s “Saloon” as well as the other central meeting place of our titular characters.
And in this club, the typical “Saloon” traits are on display. Good music (good piano playing especially via Cottonmouth), gambling, smoking, occasionally scantily-clad women, and other examples of vices and debauchery. And since the hero of the story, Luke, works here at one point as a bartender and other central characters frequent the club at other points (Misty in her debut, for example), it’s safe to say that all characters—hero or villain—enjoy some time at this “Saloon”.
Add that to the fact that one of the film’s central, climatic moments (the hostage situation orchestrated by Diamondback) happens at this here club, and the case for Harlem’s Paradise being a “Saloon” is pretty clear.
7. Speaking of Cottonmouth, check out these nicknames.
One of the most interesting and humorous parts of this show was hearing some of the nicknames that these characters had.
Diamondback. Cottonmouth. Black Mariah.
While we know that the latter name was re-appropriated for the purpose of addressing colorism (and thereby making some sense of the character’s weird history), the former two, both named after particularly deadly snakes, just give us that badass, “Western” feel. I mean, when you think of the Old West, you think of particularly catchy names (particularly when it comes to outlaws).
Billy the Kid. Kissin’ Kate Barlow. Butch Cassidy. The Sundance Kid.
The list is endless and Luke Cage definitely adds to it.
8. Harlem is a living, breathing character in its own right.
Even as we follow of the main plot of the series (that is Luke trying to wrestle Harlem’s “soul” away from the likes of Cottonmouth and Mariah), we cannot help but be captivated by the setting of Harlem…like we would with a normal “Western” setting. On top of it being Black as hell like I’ve talked about before, all characters of the story have to routinely deal with the “elements” of Harlem.
The culture. The food. The community. The people. The crime. The corruption. The decay. The music. The history.
Harlem, like any good “Western” locale, becomes a character in its own right…aiding, abetting, and/or hindering our titular characters as it sees fit.
9. The music is crucial to the series.
Like any good Western with a bomb ass soundtrack, the same applies in this case except greater care is given to the music so that it is basically interwoven with the series.
There are various live performances at Harlem’s Paradise that include artists like Faith Evans and Jidenna. A freestyle is given to us live from Method Man as he talks to Sway about Luke Cage. Most of the titular characters of the series (particular Luke and Stokes) have catchy and memorable theme songs that play every time they appear onscreen.
Music is the lifeblood of this series. It provides the footprint, the ambiance, and sometimes the motivation.
10. Let your yeses be yeses and your curses be creative.
Any good fan of the Western knows that curse words of that heyday are a bit different than they are now. Rather than saying straight up “bitch”, “fuck”, “shit” or whatever else, curses were usually more creative.
Most of them sought to either insult your intelligence or abilities (“dee-fool”), insult you based on your family or anyone close to you, insult you due to your indulgence in a certain vice, or insult you using some animal or inanimate object. Some just existed for the express purpose of cursing in general…because sometimes you just feel like it (“go to Halifax” = go to hell; “geewax” = Jesus; “dang my melt/dang your melt” = damn me/damn you, and etc).
In this particular case, Luke’s utterance of “Sweet Christmas” immediately comes to mind. Now, I’ve only watched the series once (and I plan to watch it one more time for the express purpose of finally reviewing it), but if I remember correctly, he doesn’t really curse that much. “Sweet Christmas” is about all the cursing he does and it becomes such a common placeholder for more “offensive” terms that Diamondback points this out when they’re younger, implying how annoying it is.
11. The series basically ends with a memorable “standoff”.
There is nothing more commonly associated with the Western than the ol’ reliable “Standoff” (also known as “The Showdown”).
At the climax of the series, Luke has to begrudgingly face his past in order to save Harlem. Said past literally takes the form of his half-brother, Diamondback. Diamondback himself brings in some good, ol’ “Western” motivation by the name of vengeance, so this ups all the stakes.
And while these men don’t physically have guns to “sling”, the “guns” that they do have take the form of superhero strength (Luke because of The Seagate Experiments and Diamondback because of a Hammertech suit that looks like Bobo Fett made a pimp suit after consulting the likes of Judge Dredd [fgets credit for that]).
Of course, as the story necessitates, Luke eventually bests Diamondback due to his superior heart and strength. And in doing so, he delivers the townspeople of Harlem from evil, gets the [Frontier Doctor] girl, and sheds his role as “Outlaw” all while assuming his new role as protector of Harlem.
And frankly, lovers of the Zoo, if all of these things don’t make Luke Cage a worthy Western, I don’t know what else does.
Images From: Gawker, LiveForFilm.com, HitRemote.com, Giphy.com, Collider, Simplephobia, Black Girl Nerds, Marvel, Netflix, Luke Cage, Tumblr, The Wrap, Indirewire, WatchLoud