I must begin with my mother. She was a professional woman and a businessperson. Everyone in the family depended on her, including my father. If there was a problem, she fixed it. Once, I showed up at the border between Zimbabwe and Botswana and realized I had forgotten my papers at home, which was 300 miles away. The border agents called my mother. She was at home. She sorted it out with them—I do not know how, but she did. Just before leaving the border stop, my mother told me over the phone: “I will not always be there for you. I may die. What will you do then? Your father is smart but he can’t do anything that requires focus. You are now a man. You must stop depending on me so much.” That conversation has never left me.
And it returned to me several times while watching Netflix’s new TV series Luke Cage, and not because of its main character, Luke Cage (a beefy Mike Colter), but many of its secondary characters. Before I go into that, a brief description of the show. Luke Cage is about a black man, Cage, who, while in a prison in Georgia, was the subject of an experiment on skin and injury regeneration that, by accident, transformed him into a man with superhero qualities. What can he do? Not get killed by bullets and smash to bits all sorts of things with iron-hard muscles. After breaking out of prison, he relocates to Harlem, which is being transformed by gentrification, and keeps things lowkey. He cleans the floor of a barbershop, and washs dishes at a new and fancy club called Harlem Paradise. But the neighborhood needs not just a strong black man, but a very, very, very strong black man. Like so many black neighborhoods, Harlem has gangsters with guns and crooked cops with guns, and all are killing lots of black men. Cage is the perfect superhero for the hood and its set of problems. But here is the thing. Though Cage is at the center of the show, he is surrounded by black and brown women who work hard and get things done.
There is Misty Knight (Simone Missick), a detective who is investigating Harlem’s top gangsters and has had a romantic encounter with Cage. There is Inspector Priscilla Ridley (Keren Pittman), Knight’s boss and a woman who while solving crimes is also juggling the demands of corrupt black politicians, racist and gun-nutty white cops, a scandal-hungry press, and social justice activists. There is Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), a nurse who really should be a surgeon in the top hospital of the county. If your life is threatened by a bullet wound, Temple is the one you want by your side. She not only knows the details of the human body, but has the bricolage instincts of MacGyver—meaning she can make things happen with whatever is available. (She also falls in love with Cage.) There is Patricia Wilson (Cassandra Freeman), who always dresses smartly and is a single parent raising a very smart son.
As if that were not enough, the most competent villains in this film are also black women. There is the psychologist Reva Connors (Parisa Fitz-Henley), who works for a private corporation that runs the prison and conducts experiments on inmates. And, finally, there is Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), a city councilmember and the heir of a family that built its empire from criminal operations. Her male cousin, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), is the top gangster of Harlem, and her grandmother was a cross between Al Capone and Bessie Smith. Dillard is certainly one of the most fascinating characters ever to enter the universe of television. A lawyer by training, and advocate of gentrification (she says it will be good for black people), she is in control but always exudes nervous energy.
But be it for good or bad, these black women get the things that need to be done done. I honestly can think of TV no show that has given as much room, as much attention, as much love to black women as Luke Cage. Sure, the superhero can break walls, throw men down the street like a football, and bend and break guns with one hand. But this is all in the realm of fantasy. What is believable, and therefore more socially useful in the sense of creating positive roles, are the women (nurse, single mother, detective, store owner). They are in our world, they are real cool, they shoot straight. And as was the case with my mother, who would have loved this show because she would have seen herself in it, they are there when you need them.