The Unbreakable Superhero Breaks Netflix

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Sweet Christmas! Luke Cage barreled its way onto Netflix on September 30th to huge anticipation. So much so, that on Saturday at around 12pm Netflix issued a statement that their website had crashed. It’s largely believed that the sheer volume of Luke Cage viewers flocking to the streaming website was enough to cripple it. Whether or not you attribute the crash to the surge of people watching the show, there’s an undeniable fact that has risen from the circumstance: people are hungry for diversity in content.

Luke Cage is a black superhero that came to prominence in the 1970s but was first introduced in the Netflix universe with the Jessica Jones series that premiered last year. Since then, people have hungered for this character. It made me wonder: why Luke Cage, a show about a street-level superhero, got so much attention.

 

Diverse Audiences want Diverse Content
Having only seen 8 episodes at the time of this blog post, this show is unapologetically black. In its opening scenes, we’re in a barbershop in Harlem and hear patrons as they argue about basketball and talk about life. When was the last time you saw a TV show revel in its own culture? References to hip-hop and prominent black literary figures are bountiful in the series, and executive producer Cheo Hodari Coker says, “it’s about being a part of the culture in a different way, and for a new context.”

That’s what storytelling is – it’s hyper-designed empathy. When you watch Luke Cage, and if you’re not black, you’re not actively thinking about the fact that this show isn’t for you because you didn’t grow up in Harlem. You think about the struggles that Luke Cage must suffer. You see a man who makes a promise to a father-figure. In the series, you see a man take on the burden of raising his community up from the ashes. Anyone can relate to that. The vehicle in which the show is presented is different, and people embraced it. Through familiar story elements, characters, and their aspirations, we have a conduit into a culture that hasn’t been this boldly represented before.

I heard an interesting argument among film and TV pundits: some white audiences are apprehensive about Luke Cage because it wasn’t made about them and therefore not for them. One critic noted that those ideas don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. Just because something is not made about you doesn’t mean it’s not for you. If that’s truly your argument, than any story of fantastical means –like an invulnerable hero with super strength – isn’t for you because it’s not about you – a normal person living in the real world. Luke Cage may not be intrinsically about you but it is for you. It’s for the person who yearns to affect change in their community but feels like they don’t have the strength to do so.

 

The Perfect Storm
The whole idea of releasing a show all at once on a streaming platform doesn’t necessarily make sense when you ponder it. The nature of network television is to create content that people will tune in every week and then that viewership turns into cash. Why are these Netflix shows making such an impact on our culture – in particular, Luke Cage?

It must be because of the nature of the “binge-watch.” It has almost become a badge of honor… “I watched it all over the weekend!” “Oh yeah, well, I watched it all Friday night!” Those conversations seem familiar, yes? In our all-connected, all-the-time culture, no one wants to be ostracized for not watching a show. We want to be a part of the conversation; it’s in our very DNA. So when a show as groundbreaking as Luke Cage stomps its way into our zeitgeist, people have to watch and be able to contribute.

When you combine that factor with the socio-political yearning for a show that talks about being black in America, you get the perfect storm. Without sinking too much into “melting pot” clichés, we have so many points of view that we’ve barely tapped into, yet. Shows like Luke Cage, Fresh Off the Boat, and Transparent give us direct avenues into cultures that we haven’t seen in mainstream media, and those stories yearn to be heard.

 

I didn’t grow up black in Harlem. I grew up Hispanic in a predominantly white town in the South. Luke Cage means something to me because it gives me hope that there can be voices and artists out there that can talk about certain cultural experiences in a relatable, engaging way. Whether or not you believe superhero shows are positive influences, there’s an undeniable boon to our culture when we introduce new voices and new points of view that empower our people with something we desperately need – empathy.

 

by Benton Olivares