John “Bushmaster” McIver (Mustafa Shakir) and Luke Cage (Mike Colter) in a scene from Marvel’s Luke Cage (2018). Available on Netflix June 22, 2018
Since its premiere in 2016, the Marvel series, Luke Cage has used the comic book genre of storytelling to examine the impact of interlocking systems of racial, gender and economic oppression on Black Americans’ relationships to each other. In season one the show focused on the conflict between the heroes, Luke Cage and Detective Misty Knight and the villains, Cornel “Cottonmouth” Stokes, Mariah Dillard née Stokes and Cage’s estranged brother, Willis “Diamondback” Stryker. In season two, American-Jamaican antihero, John “Bushmaster” McIver enters the fray and disrupts what was previously an exclusively Black American battle to dominate Harlem.
Most reviewers have only briefly discussed this season’s subplot around intra-racial Black American-Black Jamaican conflict. However, the ethnic/national conflict in the storyline is one of its most crucial contributions to the series’ ongoing interrogations of Black diasporic experiences. In an interview with Angelica Bastién of Vulture, showrunner, Cheo Hodari Coker stated that he pursued this storyline because he saw it as an opportunity to recognize Jamaican contributions to the development of U.S. Black popular culture (in particular, hip hop music) and explore different forms of race consciousness among Black Americans and Black Jamaicans. The fact that Luke Cage became a popular topic of discussion this summer among Jamaicans, is testament to the importance of exploring these transnational Black connections, including conflicts.
The show has received widespread praise for featuring the most Jamaican characters ever seen on a U.S. television show, as well as criticism from Jamaicans and non-Jamaicans for the clearly uneven accents among the Black American actors who played Jamaicans. Many viewers, like me, enjoyed season two, while agreeing that it would have been stronger aesthetically with better accent work and subtitling that accurately reflected Jamaican language. For others, the accents were completely unrepresentative of Jamaican speech and inexcusable. The discourses around intra-Black conflicts and hierarchies therefore operate within the storyline as well as the space of public opinion about the show’s Jamaican accents and limited casting of Jamaicans.
Critics of Luke Cage’s casting decisions have mostly focused on the producers’ oversights, without a larger effort to probe the mostly white-controlled U.S. television industry as a whole. As in the fictional storyline where Black people battle to dominate Harlem, white supremacy looms in the background as the initiator of intra-Black creative hierarchies in U.S. television and film. Some critics of Luke Cage have argued that the series has not focused enough on white anti-Black racism. I agree that there is room for stories that more closely examine structural racism in the U.S., such as gentrification in Harlem. However, the series’ current focus on intra-racial conflicts is also crucial to an understanding of anti-Black racism. I therefore want to offer the following insights: First, Luke Cage contains important commentary about white supremacy’s fundamental role in the characters’ intra-racial tensions. This is discernible in the backstory of the McIver/Stokes-Dillard feud, which involved the American Stokes’ collusion with white people to betray the Jamaican McIvers. In order to analyze the effects of anti-Black racism, we must not only examine its direct manifestations through white and Black conflicts, but also its latent impact on intra-Black relationships. Second, to engender a deeper conversation about the accent/casting controversy, we should assess the broader context of creative hierarchies in the U.S. television and film industries. This includes examining the historical misrepresentations of Jamaicans/Caribbeans, including by Black Americans. These misrepresentations are the root of the cynicism which many Jamaicans have for American producers. Here, the opinions of Jamaicans in the film and TV industries can add a crucial insight into their positioning within these industries globally. Both the series’ juxtaposing of Black American and Black Jamaican racial experiences; as well as the conversations about flawed accents and casting are important to assessing Luke Cage’s contribution to candidly highlighting ethnic/national conflicts among Black people. This is unprecedented on U.S. television. Luke Cage season two could therefore serve as a useful popular cultural reference for Black studies’ ongoing project to deconstruct Blackness in all of its manifestations, and question the limits of the discipline’s current emphasis on U.S. Black experiences.
The turf war that defines most of Luke Cage season two is very similar to the civil war that takes place in its Marvel movie counterpart, Black Panther (2018). In both cases, the intra-racial battle to control physical space and military and socio-economic power indexes wider struggles for Black self-determination that have existed since the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans. Harlem is an excellent place in which to explore these contentions given its centrality in Black/African Diasporic history as a main site for internal U.S. and global Black immigration during the twentieth century. Though its historical title, “The Black Mecca” is not often used today, Harlem remains significant to studies of Black diasporic mobilities.
Each of the show’s major characters have staked a claim on Harlem in different ways. Following her murder of her cousin, Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali) in season one, Mariah Dillard née Stokes (Alfre Woodard), has asserted that she is queen of Harlem and is on a mission to “keep Harlem Black,” while John “Bushmaster” McIver (Mustafa Shakir) sees the control of Harlem as his birthright, which was stolen by Mariah’s family. Detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick) and Luke Cage (Mike Colter) endeavor to keep Harlem safe from the criminals who would destroy it, namely Dillard and McIver. The main personal conflicts are between Dillard, McIver, and Cage, with control of the nightclub, Harlem’s Paradise, serving as a prerequisite for control of Harlem. Bushmaster—a moniker taken from his family’s brand of rum—is a U.S.-born, Jamaican-raised don who heads Jamaica’s main gang with plans to conquer the Black criminal enterprise in New York as well. Like Cage, he has superhuman abilities of strength and regeneration. He harnesses his power through a fictional herbal mixture called nightshade, and practices the Afro-Brazilian martial art of capoeira. The producers’ choices to make McIver Jamaican (and not from an unnamed Caribbean country as in the comics), credit Afro-Caribbean naturopathy as the harnesser of his strength, and designate capoeira as his characteristic fighting genre indicates a conscious engagement with Black culture that is limited in the comics. These creative choices also underscore McIver’s assertion of a Black identity that is very reflective of continental African influences in the Americas and a Black radical tradition forged within a Black majority context. As I discuss later, the different forms of Black consciousness articulated by the Jamaican and American characters are key to how their conflicts unfold.
Harlem’s Paradise, Bushmaster Rum and the Stokes-Dillard wealth are John McIver’s birthright since the Jamaican McIver and American Stokes patriarchs founded the businesses decades ago, before the Stokes family colluded with Irish and Italian gangsters to murder John’s parents. McIver is not a classic villain; he mostly kills characters the viewers dislike, and his major objective is to enact vengeance on Dillard. Most accurately, he is the antagonist to Cage’s protagonist, and the only character who can beat Cage in a fair fight. Unsurprisingly, he sees an affinity between himself and Cage, uttering more than once, “We cudda been bredren (brothers/friends),” and suggests that they join forces. Cage’s humiliation at being bested by McIver and his obsession with distancing himself from him, ultimately leads him to almost strangle his antagonist in the final episode.
Eventually, Dillard is murdered by her own daughter and Cage becomes the new owner of Harlem’s Paradise, which she has cunningly willed to him. He is about to meet with the Italian crime family and attempting to reconcile between his need to be Harlem’s law-abiding hero and traversing the criminal enterprise that is linked to that place’s power hierarchies. Meanwhile, McIver is back in Jamaica recovering from his defeat. His tragic flaw was that he underestimated his outsider status. Though he is American by birth, his Jamaican parentage and upbringing mark him as an alien. This is represented mostly in hilarious comments made by the Black American characters about Jamaicans, but this hilarity is accompanied by a more pernicious animosity. Essentially, McIver and his family become symbols for the othering of Jamaicans by U.S-born and raised Blacks, and in effect un-American Blackness. They also forcefully resist this othering.
In episode ten, the conflict between Jamaican immigrants and native-born Black Americans get articulated in an argument between Paul “Anansi” Mackintosh (Sahr Ngaujah), John McIver’s uncle, and Mariah Dillard. Referencing the Stokes family’s betrayal of his own, he declares that Black Americans are “lazy” and complicit in white imperialism. This is an insult commonly used by Africans and Caribbeans against Black Americans. Dillard hits back: “Every Jamaican likes to talk that maroon shit!” and states that the country got “enslaved by the World Bank.” This is essentially a debate about which Black person is more liberated. Caribbeans’ history of Black radicalism was forged through resistance to slavery and British colonialism. Within this Black majority context, self-government is a major source of pride. McIver asserts several times his admiration for Jamaican historical icons like global Black nationalist leader, Marcus Garvey and Ashanti/Jamaican warrior queen, Nanny of the Maroons. The fact that he is incapable of distinguishing between his quest for vengeance on the Stokes-Dillard family and Jamaican anti-colonial activism, underscores that he considers his Black enemies to be tools of the larger white power structure.
Dillard, like Luke Cage and the other Black American characters, assert a Black consciousness borne from survival of direct domination in a white majority country, including slavery, Jim Crow segregation and current manifestations of anti-Black racism. Cage struggles between being a respectable Black man in America and releasing his anger at systemic racism, while Dillard’s experiences with colorism, sexism, and racism become key motivators in her mission to rule Harlem. She has chosen to cooperate with whites in order to accumulate wealth and power while “keeping Harlem Black”. Of course, the characters’ choices are not bound by their different expressions of race consciousness, and Black radicalism in Jamaica and the United States is far more nuanced than what is portrayed on the show. However, the Stokes’ betrayal of the McIvers in collusion with white people, is amplified because of the two families’ different ethnicities/nationalities. Dillard continues this racial betrayal when she conspires with Asian gangsters to frame John McIver for producing a deadly strain of heroin as part of her plan to get rid of him. Similarly, the feuds between McIver’s hero, Marcus Garvey, and other Black leaders went beyond ideology; it was also a contention between a native-born U.S. Black leadership and the influence of a foreigner, though not all of Garvey’s Black detractors were American. The “Garvey Must Go” campaign formed by prominent Black American men in the 1920s and the Black spies that infiltrated the Universal Negro Improvement Association worked parallel to and with the white U.S. government to have him imprisoned then deported – exploiting his foreign status.
Fans will likely sympathize with McIver, and many, including me want the character to return in season three. This might indicate the show’s successful exploration of the intersections of race, ethnicity, and nationality in Black people’s marginalization. However, the producers may not have expected that they would be accused of marginalizing Jamaicans through their casting choices and representations of the accent.
Luke Cage has inadvertently added another dimension to an ongoing debate about creative hierarchies among Black people in the U.S. television and film industries. An example of this is the 2017 controversy following Samuel L. Jackson’s critique of the casting of Black British actor, Daniel Kaluuya as the star of the American film, Get Out (2017), and Hollywood’s purported privileging of Black British actors over Black American ones. Jackson was called out by Kaluuya and others for being ethnocentric. For some commentators, his statement was also oblivious to the representational advantages Black American actors have, and the numerous chances they get to depict African and Caribbean people.
As an American TV show, it follows logically that most of Luke Cage’s actors would be American, and for the scenes filmed in Jamaica, Jamaicans were cast in speaking roles. However, the central Jamaican characters, most supporting roles and limited-speaking roles were played by Americans, and there were obvious inconsistencies in their accents. I disagree with the broad critical position some people have taken in scrutinizing all of the non-Jamaican actors; and some of these criticisms border on cultural policing. My own opinion is that while some accents were appalling, others like those of the actors playing McIver and his aunt and uncle (Mustafa Shakir, Sahr Ngaujah, and Heather Alicia Simms) were satisfactory or very good. Having had my Jamaican play produced in the U.S. with mostly American actors I know how difficult it is for Americans to sound Jamaican. I have also had to do foreign accents a few times as an actor. It is grueling, which is why the ideal is to cast native speakers.
There were open auditions for the speaking roles, including for the lead Jamaican character, John “Bushmaster” McIver. However, filming takes place in New York where there are many Jamaicans and Jamaican-descended actors, raising questions – particularly regarding the casting of speaking extras like the members of the Brooklyn-based Stylers posse. The presumed oversight generated a Twitter thread between disgruntled viewers, showrunner, Cheo Hodari Coker and Mustafa Shakir, who plays John “Bushmaster” McIver. This thread adds an important dimension to the controversy by displaying how viewers/fans spoke back to the producers and got responses. The viewers asked why the producers did not work harder to develop the accents and/or cast more Jamaicans. In their responses, Coker and Shakir emphasized the positive visibilities that Luke Cage has provided around Jamaica’s history of Black radicalism, including its discussions of historical figures like Nanny of the Maroons and Marcus Garvey. These responses appeared dismissive and were called out as such. Shakir and Coker subsequently apologized for the unintentional offense in their previous responses and emphasized their love and respect for Jamaicans. Consequently, each side seemed to be using different notions of what constituted proper Jamaican representation.
Many shows have been critiqued for flawed accents. However, there are racial-national implications when people of color are being depicted. For a long time, Hollywood and the TV industry have reinforced exotic notions of Caribbean people, which the region’s tourism industry has also reproduced. This exoticism has roots in transatlantic slavery and colonialism, and Europeans’ racist obsession with consuming the Caribbean Other for economic gain, sexual pleasure and entertainment. The development of modern theatre and film throughout the Americas is marked by these racialized legacies that were most clearly manifested in blackface minstrelsy, and carnivalesque and popular theatre traditions that both subverted and reinforced stereotypes. The influences of historical racial caricaturing even appear in some Caribbean plays, films, and TV shows.
Most criticisms of Caribbean exoticism in the media have been directed at Hollywood. However, the TV industry has arguably been more offensive. The random Jamaican characters on U.S. television, including shows produced by Black people, have usually bordered on, or displayed explicit caricaturing. This includes the character, Russell Montego on the Black sitcom, Living Single and the famous parody of Jamaican dancehall artiste, Shabba Ranks on the Wayans’ In Living Color. Jamaica also occasionally emerges as a punchline in standup comedy, like Chris Rock’s Netflix special, Tamborine (2018). The character of Lester Tibideaux on The Cosby Show, played by Jamaican actor/director/writer, Dennis Scott, is an exception to the rule because he was not the butt of the joke and Scott’s real accent added another layer of complexity to the role. Within this historical context, authentic-sounding accents come to serve as criteria on which to measure producers’ interest in the country’s complexities. Even actors who try but fail to develop good accents might be equated unfairly with those who intentionally distort it.
In the above-cited Twitter discussion, Shakir stated that the producers put significant thought into the Jamaican representations including trying not to “play into past stereotypes.” This wasn’t entirely successful, particularly in a scene where McIver misuses what seems to be an obeah ritual. However, in many ways Luke Cage subverts the norm of other American TV shows by creating fascinating Jamaican characters. The character of John McIver, despite the violence he commits, is emotionally layered and this nuance is accentuated by Shakir’s performance. Additionally, the show’s juxtaposition of McIver’s criminality with the respectability of his law-abiding aunt and uncle introduces a story of Jamaican immigrant ingenuity which is not usually visible in mainstream U.S. media. Coker is correct that the show also provides a glimpse into Jamaican history, with which most Americans are unfamiliar. Luke Cage also engages Jamaican language. The Jamaican characters’ code-switching between English and Patwa and use of distinctly Jamaican/Caribbean terms, indicates to me that the producers aimed to connect affectively with Jamaican/Caribbean viewers. But these transnational connections are fraught with tensions, buoyed by Americans’ relative cultural, economic and other privileges in global mass media. If they further explore the Jamaican element of the storyline in season three, this might provide an opportunity for Luke Cage’s producers to engage more profoundly with Jamaica, including through accent work and casting.
With the aim of obtaining a Jamaican actor’s perspective on the accent/ casting controversy, I spoke with Karl O’Brien Williams, a New York-based Jamaican actor and playwright who began his career in Jamaican theatre and film. Williams cannot represent the entire Jamaican acting community in the U.S., but his experiential insights are important. He didn’t audition for any of the roles in Luke Cage because he had another job. He is also unperturbed by the show’s accent/casting issues, because the Jamaican accent is hard to master, and he thinks by fixating on it critics risk reducing Jamaicanness to speech. We discussed structural factors that determine Jamaican actors’ visibilities globally, including casting networks, actors’ unions and color/racial typecasting; and the need for more opportunities for Caribbean writers, producers and casting agents in regional and global film and TV industries. He also stated that in the white-controlled Marvel Cinematic Universe, Cheo Coker may not be as powerful as his critics believe him to be. The conflict about creative authority is therefore fundamentally a clash about which Black people have the most real or imagined proximity to predominantly white-controlled power structures. It is the root of the McIver/Stokes feud in Luke Cage and of ongoing intra-racial ethnic/national/economic tensions throughout the world.
The previously discussed argument between Luke Cage’s characters, Mariah Dillard and Paul Mackintosh offers a glimpse into how unpacking ethnic/national conflicts, instead of ignoring them, can ultimately enable a more penetrating view of white supremacy as a global superstructure. When Dillard disparages Jamaica’s anti-colonial project in response to Mackintosh’s disparaging of America’s racial integration project it is primarily a retort to his efforts to shame her. However, at its core the insult asserts that no Black community/ethnicity is immune to white hegemony. As I write this, Jamaicans and other Caribbean people are confronting the rapid privatization of our beaches and sale of beachfront property to European hoteliers; in cities worldwide, gentrification is displacing mostly people of color; and the abuse of Black people in penal systems is globally normalized. There are emotional, psychic, and material stakes involved in a transnational understanding of Black experiences. This is why our intellectual project within Black studies to deconstruct intra-racial ethnic/ national conflicts and hierarchies is so urgent.
 As part of this project, the 4th Symposium of the Dakar Institute of African Studies held in Senegal this year, had as its first objective, the need to “consider the limits of the U.S.-centered Black studies model” and its geographic, and epistemological constraints.
 Misty Knight (Simone Missick) has outgrown the series in my opinion and needs her own show. Not only do we need a Black woman protagonist in a superhero TV show, she is one of the most compelling characters and often upstages Cage. The writers are obviously aware of this and poked fun of it in a hilarious dialogue between the two characters in one episode where they debated who was whose sidekick.
 I am aware that Bushmaster is the name of a type of gun, and has connotations within the rudeboy/gangster culture of the late 1970s to early 1980s in Jamaica. However, I don’t know whether this influenced the moniker, Bushmaster, which originated in the comics.
 They also do this through the character of Tilda Johnson, Mariah Dillard’s estranged daughter and owner of a herbal pharmacy.
 One of these is the notion that it is implausible for McIver to be a capoeira practitioner, which is of African/Brazilian origin, and that this is an indication of the producers’ lack of research into Jamaican culture. This undermines the work of the capoeira community in Jamaica and the character’s trait as a man who consciously grounds himself in transnational Black culture.
 Jamaica is sometimes conflated with the rest of the Caribbean in U.S. films.
 For a critical discussion on Jamaican representations in Hollywood, see Tanya Batson-Savage, “Through the Eyes of Hollywood: Reading Representations of Jamaicans in American Cinema” Small Axe (2010) 14 (2 (32): 42-55; Kevin Frank, “‘Whether Beast or Human’: The Cultural Legacies of Dread, Locks, and Dystopia.” Small Axe 11 No. 2 (2007): 46-62.
Nicosia Shakes is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Africana Studies at The College of Wooster, Ohio. She earned her PhD in Africana Studies in 2017 from Brown University. Her book manuscript, Gender, Race and Performance Space won the 2017 National Women’s Studies Association/University of Illinois Press First Book Prize and is under contract with UIP. www.nicosiashakes.com