The idea of an indestructible man in central Harlem arrives at an auspicious time. As the Black Lives Matter movement marches on, the amount of black men becoming hashtags increases every day. The new Netflix series Luke Cage , about a black superhero with indestructible skin, provides a necessary story about black empowerment. Told in hour-long segments, it blends the comic-book world with both the noir and blaxploitation genres, successfully creating a stylish and compelling season of television. Notorious writer Cheo Hodari Coker has created a the show that centers on the black experience: our humanity, our complex identities, our motivations—and means—for survival.
The original Marvel comic Luke Cage, Hero for Hire made its debut in June 1972 when blaxploitation films were at its peak. The main protagonist—who first went by the name Carl Lucas—was born and raised in Harlem, where he commits petty crimes in a youth gang called the Rivals. As Carl grows up and seeks out a legitimate job, his childhood friend and gangmate Willis Stryker (a.k.a. Diamondback) becomes more invested in violence. Later, while wrongfully imprisoned at Seagate Prison, Carl becomes a part of a cell regeneration experiment that causes him to have superhuman strength and durability, most notably the power to be bulletproof.
More than four decades later, Coker has modernized this noir story and created a striking and "inclusively black" program that dovetails with Marvel's efforts to become more inclusive. The comic publisher has enlisted Roxane Gay as the first black woman to write a Marvel comic book, Ta-Nehisi Coates has taken over the Black Panther comic, and Ryan Coogler is directing the Black Panther movie.
When I met with Coker at Red Rooster, one of the most famous comfort-food restaurants in Harlem, he was dressed in a crisp suit not unlike Mahershala Ali's character Cottonmouth. As we ate cornbread, collard greens, mac and cheese, and fried chicken, he regaled me with his history of being a black nerd, affinity for Luke Cage and hip-hop culture, and his hopes for what the audience will take away from the story.
VICE: So I read in one of your past interviews that you wanted Luke Cage to be more tied to black empowerment than blaxploitation. Can you explain a bit more about that for those who are familiar with those nuances?
Cheo Hodari Coker: It's not that we're not proud of our blaxploitation roots. We embrace it really more musically than anything else because of the way that Adrien Young, Ali, and Shaheed Muhammed [created] the original score. [It's] kind of like a mix of Marvin Gaye's Trouble Man with little dashes of Bernard Herman or Ennio Morricone. By getting a 30-piece orchestra, we were really able to make very distinct musical choices. The further you get into the series, it becomes much more apparent and deeper.
[As the season went on] we became more confident in the show's ability to express itself musically without using other songs and so with the exception of the song that we have coming with Method Man…
Whoa, that's exciting.
Well, the moment with Method Man is interesting. I was kind of apprehensive about using it in the trailer because I wanted to save it. But I'm realizing that you have to reveal little bits to keep things going. When people see Method Man and get deeper into it in terms of the context of the episode, there's a moment that really is just incredible. Without spoiling it, it's one of my favorite moments in the entire series.
"This show is kind of about subverting expectations. This is a show where heroes come in hoodies."
I want to talk about the significance of the hoodie because immediately I thought of Trayvon Martin and its link to black criminality. Yet Luke Cage is the hero—or trying to be—so I'm trying to figure out that middle ground. Was that a distinct choice that you decided to do that with the hoodie?
Luke Cage's whole appeal is that he doesn't wear a mask, he doesn't wear a cape, you can find him at the barber shop. He's not hiding, he's not going anywhere. I wanted to show that black men in hoodies can be anything. I mean, I've been wearing hoodies since Stanford so but I also know that if someone rolls up on me and sees me in a hoodie they're not gonna see Stanford, they're not gonna see Hotchkiss. They're gonna make their own assumptions about who it is I am and what it is I'm about. This show is kind of about subverting expectations. This is a show where heroes come in hoodies. This is a show where the villain is a frustrated musician, where politicians can be completely sincere and also at the same time completely ruthless.
Right. I remember the one part where Cottonmouth and Mariah are sitting in the park and they make mentions of invaders, which sort of reminds me of gentrification. How do you decide who the enemy is?
Mariah actually believes in what she's doing and Cottonmouth is like, "Come on, it's all a front. We are criminals, this is the shit that we do." They are both about power. They are not about the people. It's all about controlling what they have and they can't control the people who's buying what and how it's changing. So it was a way to kind of look at gentrification.
If you look at the history of Harlem, Harlem comes from Haarlem. It was Dutch. It was a different ethnic ghetto before the great migration of black people who came from the south, and all over the place, looking for the promised land. When that influx happened in the Great Migration and this demographic change, it became like black and white flight. But at the same there was always these different sinners. Gangsters have always been there. Gangsters were there during the Jazz Age and the hip-hop age. It's always been a continuation but it all happens in one place. So if you add a bulletproof black man with superpowers into that, no matter where you point the camera, you have an interesting story that both is black but at the same time, simultaneously, deeply Marvel. That's the whole thing was that I wanted to prove: that you could sell a story that was Marvel but then by adding culture as a different kind of special effect, you can enhance the story that is being told so it's automatically different than anything that you've seen.
"My favorite Paul Mooney joke of all time is when he said that he was only black on nights and weekends because otherwise it's too stressful."
I keep thinking about the doubling of identities and how seamlessly they change depending on where they are. It made me think about the psychologies of the heroes and villains especially in a place like Harlem where you know gentrification is happening.
I can't remember if it was W.E.B. Dubois who [first talked about] the notion of black double consciousness, of having to be two people at once is what we call code-switching. My favorite Paul Mooney joke of all time is when he said that he was only black on nights and weekends because otherwise it's too stressful. That's a really subtle joke, but it's something that we've all gone through because of having to subvert elements of your culture to just get through a workplace where you are not the norm. That's what I think white people take for granted; they can fully be themselves in any environment whereas black people that assimilate and move up constantly have to be able to switch. In a way, hip-hop was the first art form that said, "Nah, we're gonna kick down the door to the mainstream and we are not dressing up." It became a cultural evolution and its own paradox. So that's kind of what a show like this represents in being a hip-hop comic-book show, because we are using the attitude of hip-hop to change the way that you tell this kind of story.
Another thing that stuck out to me when I was watching a couple episodes was the intergenerational conflict, which is young black and Latino guys versus the older characters.
One of the most profound rap lyrics ever for me was Notorious B.I.G.'s " Things Done Changed" where he said, "Back in the days our parents used to take care of us / Look at them now they even fuckin' scared of us / Callin' the city for help because they can't maintain / Damn, shit done changed." The disconnect that Shameek and Chico have from their parents is that they try and make their own way and they are not really trying to fit into the system. It's them seeing an opportunity to rob Cottonmouth and that kind of sets the whole engine. Pop, as an ex-hood, is not afraid of these kids. He's somebody that's basically trying to provide them with a different life in a better way. That's what the barbershop represents: safety. These kids are not strong enough to say, "I'm scared, I don't wanna be out here in the streets, I need an alternative." So the barbershop becomes the one place.
The role of black women also stuck out. I really loved Misty's characterization because she understands the life and culture, but she is trying to do her own thing, too. She still has so much autonomy and she has so much strength in ways that diverge from her male counterparts.
You know, I've always grown up around educated, independent black women. My mother was a single mom and dropped out of college to have me. I watched her basically work her way through night school to finish her degree. And then when I was nine years old, she got her law degree. Then I saw her turn that into a master's in social work. Eventually she became the commissioner of the Department of Social Services of Connecticut. As a little kid, she used to take me to the library because she always had to study and that's how I became a reader. That's kind of how I fell in love with books, that and her reading to me.
I wanted women [on the show] that reflected the realities of the kind of women that I would be around, like my mother or my aunt Valerie that was the executive editor of Essence magazine. I remember my Essence internship. I mean, that was heaven on earth because I was around all of these beautiful, dynamic sisters. All you were around were Mistys and Mariahs: women with power and focus and poise. But you very rarely see that [on TV and in film]. You can show fully fleshed-out women that have careers and do things but they aren't always pining for men.
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Luke Cage is now streaming on Netflix.