Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Uncomfortable Dichotomy Of "Just To Get A Rep!"

The Good: Excellent performances, Good character development, Direction
The Bad: Simple and predictable plot, Dillard's absence in the climax of the episode
The Basics: "Just To Get A Rep" is a Luke Cage episode that is split between obvious and uplifting, wonderful oratory and excessive use of the word "nigger."

By the time "Just To Get A Rep" begins, those watching Luke Cage are ready to have a frank discussion about the word "nigger." The topic is not a comfortable one, but given that the opening number in "Just To Get A Rep" throws the word around a lot before it is spoken by characters multiple times in the episode, there is no point pretending "nigger" isn't part of the Luke Cage vernacular. The character Luke Cage openly rejects the use of the word "nigger" and refuses to be treated like one, whereas many of the other characters throw the word around. And in Luke Cage many of the thugs are not throwing around the "affectionate" variation "nigga;" no, Luke Cage is packed with black characters calling one another "nigger." That's a tough thing to watch and reconcile.

For sure, viewers are supposed to understand that "nigger" is part of the vernacular of Harlem and using the word adds an authenticity to the setting that viewers would recognize as missing if it were not present. But by "Just To Get A Rep," the word "nigger" has been used on-screen and in the music that plays throughout the episode so much that it is just uncomfortable to watch Luke Cage. While Luke Cage is definitely intended to appeal to a black audience by giving viewers a hero they can cheer for because he very clearly represents their common experience, Luke Cage is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While the MCU has very wide popular appeal, the majority of the audience that has made the Marvel Cinematic Universe into a blockbuster franchise worth billions is white.

It is worth bringing up the use of the word "nigger" in Luke Cage at the outset of a review of "Just To Get A Rep" because a predominantly white audience is going to be made inherently uncomfortable by the prevalence of the word in Luke Cage. People who think like that - for whom "nigger" is part of their worldview of black people - think lowly of black people and pretty much everyone else. There is something intensely unsettling about frontloading the word "nigger" in an episode and then having one of the clearest lines of the episode being a young black woman "pleading the Eighth" (when she means "plead the Fifth"). "Just To Get A Rep" prominently features black characters using the word "nigger" as a pejorative along with an ignorant black character who people with hate in their hearts assume is the norm for black people. In other words, it is hard to be a part of the discussion on ethnicity and ignorance, "nigger" as slang vs. pejorative, use of it from white people vs. black people, when black characters are presented as both ignorant and angry. While the episode climaxes with two characters giving very articulate orations, the viewer who considers such things has to wrestle with the fact that the diction and philosophies presented are done so at essentially equal levels between the character who throws around the word "nigger" and the one who rejects it. Luke Cage objects whenever anyone calls him "nigger" and rejects the thought behind it, but he speaks as well and seems to have as much love for Harlem as Stokes, who throws the word around plenty and constantly utilizes the services of people using the word. As with so many things, Luke Cage is troubling because it makes it impossible to dismiss the word "nigger" as an arcane, hate-filled word that should not be used by anyone of any ethnicity, because the heroes and villains of the episode use it or are surrounded by it in equal measure.

"Just To Get A Rep" picks the story back up from where the show was focused in "Who's Gonna Take The Weight?" (reviewed here!) because "Step In The Arena" (reviewed here!) was very much a divergence from the prior episode. "Step In The Arena" was split between simply digging Luke Cage and Connie out of the physical hole they were in, while the main plotline came to a standstill. "Just To Get A Rep" deals with the ramifications of "Who's Gonna Take The Weight?" well.

While Stokes watches a performance in the Harlem Paradise Club, Claire Temple is robbed elsewhere in Harlem. Temple chases down her assailant and takes back her purse, while Stokes learns that the robbing of the Crispus Attucks Center left him broke. Stokes charges his people with going to the streets of Harlem to take money off the business owners there. Shades Alvarez doubts his potential effectiveness, but Stokes's goons take to the streets and tell everyone they rob that the protection money is being taken because of Luke Cage. When Aisha's father's baseball ring is stolen, she comes after Luke Cage. At the barber shop, Dapper Dan dresses Luke Cage for Pop's funeral. When Aisha comes in, though, the well-dressed Luke Cage goes through Harlem getting back what was taken for a musician, a stripper, and Aisha.

Shades advises Stokes to sell off the club, which Stokes rejects. Luke Cage arrives and in the fight that Stokes's goons initiate, Shades recognizes Luke Cage for who he was in prison. As Claire Temple tries to figure out her place in the world while talking to her mom, Shades shows Stokes footage of a prototype weapon that might be enough to stop Luke Cage. Knight is told that Scarfe is under IAB investigation. Stokes wants the guns from the junkyard trade back in order to get good with Domingo and Diamondback, so Scarfe is put on recovering them from the gun disposal unit. While Stokes and Cage are among those who speak at Pop's funeral, Scarfe considers rejecting his predicament instead of doing Stokes's bidding.

"Just To Get A Rep" might have a complicated element to the philosophy behind it, but it is a generally simple hour of television. Stokes reacts to losing his influence and Luke Cage goes to the streets to protect the citizens of Harlem from his dramatic overreaction before Pop's funeral. But "Just To Get A Rep" is solidly entertaining. Cornell Stokes attempts to seize power and, once he figures out Luke Cage's true nature, he tries to inspire the community to rally to his perspective. And it works until Luke Cage speaks.

Luke Cage's oration at Pop's funeral is the stuff of great inspirational speeches and while it is wonderful, those who are watching Luke Cage as a season will find it somewhat odd that it is coming from Luke Cage. Mariah Dillard is noticeably absent from "Just To Get A Rep." While it makes sense that Cornell Stokes would use Pop's funeral to try to advance his agenda, he is a known criminal surrounded by criminals. Dillard plays politics and the huge community funeral seems like an opportunity for her and her absence is palpable. But also, several likes Luke Cage delivers sound exactly like things one would expect from a career politician like Mariah Dillard. In that way, "Just To Get A Rep" seems to be servicing the episode's plot and conflict more than a realistic sense of the Harlem setting in Luke Cage.

One of the best acting moments in "Just To Get A Rep" comes from Theo Rossi's performance of epiphany. As Shades Alvarez recognizes Luke Cage - which, following on the heels of "Step In The Arena," finally makes sense as Cage's baldness and clean-shaven look is entirely different from his look as Carl Lucas - as the man he once knew as Carl Lucas, Rossi gives an incredible reaction. Director Marc Jobst almost misses a key opportunity to capture the shot by framing it so far back, but Rossi manages to project his look so the reaction is a great one of true revelation to his character.

Mike Colter continues to deliver an amazing performance in "Just To Get A Rep." Anyone able to watch the episode and not admit that Colter is one of the best-looking actors of all time, is either blind or has a very odd measure for beauty. But in "Just To Get A Rep," Colter proves once again that it is more than just the clothes that make a man and his inspirational speech at Pop's funeral makes the audience completely believe in Luke Cage. Luke Cage is presented in "Just To Get A Rep" as a man of action who speaks like a hope-inspired politician. It's a wonderful combination of character attributes to define a hero and Colter sells the balance amazingly well.

Mahershala Ali does well with portraying Cornell Stokes in "Just To Get A Rep." Stokes is a man losing everything who is not aware of just how far he has fallen. Ali does an excellent job of playing Stokes as smart-enough to be a contender in Harlem's mob culture by the way he plays Stokes formulating his strategy for getting the weapons Diamondback has. Ali matches Colter for his level of screen presence, which complicates the debate surrounding the two characters and their positions in Harlem.

Jidenna opens "Just To Get A Rep" with an impressive performance, even if it is riddled with him throwing around the word "nigga" and its more potent variant. The song is good and his stage presence is energetic, even if he slurs the refrain. The return of Claire Temple to the narrative is enough to thrill anyone who loves the other elements of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but her return serves no real function within the episode itself.

"Just To Get A Rep" might spark a genuine conversation among its viewers about the uncomfortable language that is shared among blacks and those racist against blacks, but on its own it barely advances the Luke Cage story.

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Luke Cage - The Complete First Season, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the debut season here!

For other works with Frank Whaley, please visit my reviews of:
World Trade Center
Swimming With Sharks
Pulp Fiction


For other Marvel movie, television season and episode reviews, please check out my Marvel Cinematic Universe Review Index Page for a listing of those reviews!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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