Like every nerd everywhere, I’ve been loving up on Netflix’s Luke Cage recently. Of particular interest to me is Cottonmouth’s story– his story and his cousin’s, Black Mariah. Throwing aside my Marvel nerdiness for the moment– Cottonmouth and Diamondback are both the names of members of the Serpent Society, but on Luke Cage they aren’t snake monsters? Wait, they are also classic Luke Cage villains? WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?!?– I’ve see enough to both despise the character and feel sorry for him, for who he could have been.
Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes is played with ostentatious charisma by Mahershala Ali, and he deserves attention for his performance. Even though the character is an obvious trainwreck, the opposite of admirable, he’s also entertainingly frightening and hard to look away from. Though none of his sentiments and speeches stand up to scrutiny, he even occasionally seems to be making sincere point.
Cottonmouth is many things– a proud, misguided black man; a possible musical genius– but here are the traits that seized my attention as I was watching this show:
-Style: Cottonmouth has a distinctive personal style– beautifully tailored suits that show off his wealth, but are strangely mismatched. Diamond ear studs and diamond pinkie rings. Always an extra piece of jewelry to pull focus from an otherwise immaculate outfit. A gorgeous office done up in warm wood, that beautiful backlit bar cabinet… and then that garish Biggie Smalls portrait, used to such good effect in one scene, but always casting a red glow throughout the place, drawing the eye away from the fine and back to the overpowering, the ugly and the vulgar.
Plus, bloody knuckles and bloody suits are almost never in style.
-Personality: Cottonmouth is magnetic as all hell, but consider how he conducts himself. He laughs at others– oh, that laugh!– he mocks, he threatens, then mocks again; he is filled with overconfidence and uncontrollable rage that drives him to do foolish things. He sometimes apologizes, but never for who he is, or for his deepest and most terrible mistakes. He takes no responsibility for Pops’ murder, for the damage his thugs and, yes, his rocket launcher causes Harlem. When it comes time for payback it is his underlings who literally take the fall. Off of buildings.
And, thanks to his connections to a crooked mortuary, he’s used to being able to make all his problems disappear in a cloud of smoke and money. He spends his life feeling untouchable… and if he could just learn to back down, he would be. But he only ever doubles down, no matter how atrocious his mistakes.
-Rhetoric and Philosophy: Fear. Fear the outsiders, fear the superhumans, fear the traitors in our midst. Only I can save you from these outside forces. Me. The man whose thugs are presently shaking you down, whose surrogates will rob you and lie to you, who enriches only himself while literally tearing the home he purports to love down to street level and below. I, your greatest threat, I am your only savior.
-Misogyny: Cottonmouth’s misogyny is almost subtle compared to the rest of his personality. However, significant women are notably absent from his life– save of course for his cousin Mariah, whom he finds inventive new ways to underestimate and disrespect. He does have a string of beautiful young women walking through his doors as paid companions, but these ladies are so insignificant in his life that we never even see him with them. We do see that women are afraid to be alone with him as well, but that’s okay. Cottonmouth prefers the company of men — men in extremely questionable suits.
When Cottonmouth dies, it’s not at Luke Cage’s hands– though the big man has motive and opportunity– but at the hands of a politically active woman. He manages to seal his own fate by throwing an unforgivable insult at a sexual abuse survivor, telling her she and all her gender are beneath his notice and then irrevocably falling from grace.
Cottonmouth is Donald J. Trump. It’s an insult to Cottonmouth, of course, since the character’s essence is that he isn’t the person he wanted to become. Cottonmouth is tragic, filled with guilt while Trump is exactly the man he’s always wanted to be. Cottonmouth is a virtual pile of wicked charm, Trump makes faces on stage most of us would never allow in our mirror. Still, the eerie similarities, the bad decisions, the graceless fall–these things draw the eye; it sees what it sees and cannot look away.