‘Luke Cage’ Creator on Black Lives Matter and Bringing the N-Word to the MCU
Marvel’s latest Netflix star Luke Cage is TV’s first black superhero in over 20 years. And he’s bulletproof. Here’s why that matters.
When Marvel’s Luke Cage brings the ruckus, it’s unstoppable, like a bulletproof black man, hoodie up, striding through gunfire untouched.
There are shades of Shaft in that walk, and a bit of John Wayne, too. But make no mistake, the Luke Cage now starring in his own Netflix show, 44 years after his comic-book debut, is unmistakably a superhero for today.
This is a black hero from Harlem with soulful eyes and a tragic past, who was thrown in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, then tortured and bestowed with the power to hurl men through walls. He’s built like a mountain, immovable and vast. He’s indestructible; bullets pierce his clothes, but not his skin. His only “costume” is a hoodie; when it’s up, he wears it like a cape.
Four years and too many hashtags after the killing of Trayvon Martin, the significance of that hoodie, and of Marvel TV’s first black, bulletproof superhero is undeniable.
“All black art is always judged to illuminate our experience and prove that our stories and our history and our lives matter,” says Cheo Hodari Coker, executive producer and showrunner of Luke Cage. “And that goes back to Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, take your pick. Telling this kind of story is no different.
“It was important to me that we have a hero that was black—and he didn’t just happen to be black,” he continues. “His identity is a part of him.”
Harlem, black history, and the traditions of Westerns, hip-hop, blaxploitation, and superhero comic books run deep through Luke Cage’s veins, influencing a hyperliterate superhero drama unlike anything else on TV. There are villains, like Mahershala Ali’s rising crime lord Cottonmouth and his scheming politician cousin Mariah (Alfre Woodard). And there are good cops like popular Marvel heroine Misty Knight (Simone Missick), here making her onscreen debut.
And there are boisterous action scenes of righteous destruction, soundtracked with hip-hop deep cuts and ’70s soul and funk. (Coker is a former music journalist). There are bitter references to slavery, gentrification, and racism. There are flashes of doomed romance, as we meet Luke’s ex-wife while witnessing his prison origin story. And, not long into the first episode, there is the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first-ever mention of the N-word—the first of many times it’s used throughout the show.
The Daily Beast talked to Coker about his influences in making Luke Cage, how he pulled off the year’s best hallway fight scene, why our culture needs a bulletproof black hero, and the magnificence of Mike Colter, who plays Luke.
This is Marvel’s first show starring a black hero and it seems to acknowledge that significance through all the musical, political, and literary history woven throughout. Was there a sense of that significance on set and did it come with any pressures?
You know, we lean into the drama more than the quote-unquote superhero moments. I unfortunately read every single review. I live and die by every review, and one of them said basically that when you’re watching the show, you don’t really see all the stuff you expect from a superhero story, and they were kind of disappointed. But for me, that was criticism that I was actually happy about. I wanted the show to feel different because now that superhero stories are the new Western, you kind of expect every motif. There’s this notion that, OK, if you have a superhero story, the hero has to appear and get his powers in the first five minutes. And we didn’t do that with this. Because everybody knows it’s Marvel, everybody knows what a superhero story is.
So why not take the audience on a journey, let them know Harlem, let them know what it is to be around this place. Let them see Mike—I can’t separate the two, in my mind Mike Colter and Luke Cage are the same person—trying to figure his way out after everything he’s been through. Then we come to the end of the first episode and he finally does use his powers, and that’s the moment of truth. If you’ve done that, rather than making another superhero show, what you’ve really done is you’ve remade Unforgiven as a superhero story, motif and all, with elements of Shaft and other blaxploitation films. So it’s kind of a mixture between blaxploitation and Western, for me.
Definitely. The first time Shades and Cottonmouth’s goons walk into Pop’s barbershop felt like that moment in old Westerns when bad guys walk into a saloon. I actually did forget all about the superpowers until the end of that first episode, too.
That’s funny because for me, I always wanted the show to work without the powers. It’s like anything else, we gotta make sure we’re not falling into the “oh my God, we’re running out of plot. Let’s explode something!” I always wanted the reverse: I wanted the powers to be an enhancement to the storytelling because in my mind, we’ve created a drama that can compete with anything else out there. And the fact that it’s also a superhero show and a deep-meaning show just enhances everything else.
Was there anything about Luke Cage’s history you particularly wanted to bring out? You obviously reference his blaxploitation roots and got in a great moment where we see Luke in his comic book costume, with the tiara and yellow shirt.
It’s interesting because you see different iterations of Luke [in comics history]. There’s the belligerent Luke of the blaxploitation era, ’cause the Marvel powers that be first interpreted him as essentially a bulletproof Shaft, and Shaft was not really known as the most polite person in the world. So when he came on the scene, he had a certain urgency and belligerence. His thing was like, “All this superhero stuff is great but I need to get paid.” So there’s that attitude.
And then Heroes for Hire was always more playful because you have him and Iron Fist and the various villains that they fought on a per-issue basis. But I think the character began to carry a more serious weight when Brian Michael Bendis reintroduced him more recently in Alias, which is what Jessica Jones is based on. So what I saw was the new Luke, without the tiara and without the cape, who was a more brawny and sensitive dude. That gave us the opportunity to really translate it into live-action, as long as you could find the right actor.
And Marvel definitely found him in Mike Colter.
Mike is the best casting to my mind since Sean Connery was first cast as James Bond. He’s such a perfect mixture of intelligence and levity. He has a light way of doing off-the-cuff humor, but when it’s time to put the hoodie up and go all out, you can totally buy him as a kickass superhero. That’s the hardest thing when you’re talking about the depiction of African Americans, especially African-American men: You either see the brawn or you see the sensitivity, but you never see both in the same character. I wanted to prove that you can have someone that’s 6-foot-3, 235 pounds that can kick down a door but, at the same time, also have this intelligence and be warm and be a lot of things. Because what happens is people look at you and they think one thing, but you can be a bunch of other things.
He contains multitudes. And the show doesn’t shy away from that, nor from real-life issues like gentrification or racism. It also references Black Lives Matter both explicitly and symbolically, through Luke’s hoodie. Superhero stories are often crafted as commentary on current events, but what did it mean to you to do that through Luke Cage?
One of my biggest influences is the Chris Claremont graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills, because that’s really the graphic novel that introduces the fact that Magneto is a Holocaust survivor with a very militant, never-again attitude about being a mutant that represents, to a certain extent, a Malcolm X point of view about, “Why are we gonna turn the other cheek when they hunt us?” And Professor Xavier represents a more inclusive, Martin Luther King Jr.-like, “Let’s assimilate with humans and show that even though we’re mutants, we’re just like everybody else.” I think Stan Lee and Chris Claremont and everybody else recognize that through superheroes and superpowers, they could help people understand prejudice and fear in ways that you couldn’t with just politics and history alone.
And so with this show, you have the opportunity to kind of use it as a Trojan horse with which you can introduce a host of other issues besides it being a superhero story. ‘Cause my opinion is, I kind of view the show like a Bob Marley record. When you listen to Burnin’ or Catch a Fire or Survival or any of Bob’s records, they’re just beautiful music and you nod your head and it’s mellow, but if you really, really listen? There’s so much politics and so much history, so much about the condition of black people. It works on two different levels. It isn’t a polemic. And I really think that with this kind of show, you can do both. What I wanted to prove is that you can enjoy a superhero show and still be part of what’s happening in the world.
When I talked to Simone Missick, who plays Misty Knight, she talked about how Eric Garner was killed while the show was shooting in New York, and how you can’t tell a story about a black person in America without it being political because a black person’s very existence is political.
Here’s the thing: My grandfather was a Tuskegee airman. He flew for the 100th Squadron. And he would say that when you’re one of the first black pilots, there’s a lot of pressure because if you mess up, it’s gonna have a direct effect on how black people are treated back in the States. They’re already saying that there are certain things you can’t do because of the color of your skin, so you have a responsibility to be a good pilot but you’re also on kind of a social mission at the same time. But the one thing he used to say is, “All that’s well and good, but when you're getting shot at, you can’t forget to fly the plane.”
What I take that as is that with all these things happening in the world, added to the pressure of just trying to create a piece of art that will stand up to everything else that’s out there, you try to be true to the story. You don’t necessarily think about the significance of what you’re doing at the time. But when it comes back, you realize that you have just collectively absorbed everything and put it into your art and you’re kind of surprised with how it belongs to this continuum.
Sometimes people will ask a question like, “Is this the Black Lives Matter hero show?” And what I would say about that is all black art is always judged to illuminate our experience and prove that our stories and our history and our lives matter. And that goes back to Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, take your pick. Telling this kind of story is no different because the pressure of being black, no matter what else you’re doing, is you have the history of your ancestors on your shoulders. And so in this case, it was important to me that we have a hero that was black—and he didn’t just happen to be black. His identity is a part of him.
The show also deals head-on with how different people use the N-word. Luke abhors it. When a kid who uses it tries pointing a gun at Luke’s head, he goes, “I’m not tired enough to let nobody call me that word.” Why did it feel important for him to take a definitive stance on that?
People take that word for granted. The thing about that word is that it’s used so much today and it has no meaning. It’s here in all these different songs—I don’t care if it’s Drake, I don’t care if it’s Lil Wayne. The N-word is almost used for rhythm. It’s like a cadence almost and the significance of the word is lost. So because the show is inclusively black and a deep dive into black culture, my approach to the storytelling was, in my mind, no different than Scorsese in Casino and Goodfellas or Woody Allen in Manhattan: You basically are letting the audience eavesdrop in on a culture. The characters are talking amongst themselves and no one else is listening. And if we are eavesdropping on black people talking about the use of the N-word, everybody has a different opinion of it. Older people tend to not like that word, because they know the history of it. It’s real for them. Younger people are gonna have different viewpoints because in some cases, having listened to hip-hop and everything else, the word has a different kind of meaning. It’s almost like this weirdly positive negative.
I wanted to basically show all the different opinions that people have of this word. Mariah, in episode one, despises the word. By episode six, as she’s becoming more of a criminal, she uses it. Luke, like Pop, is about positive images. So for him to be standing in front of a building named after one of America’s greatest heroes [Revolutionary War martyr Crispus Attucks], hearing this kid use that word toward him, with the day that he’s had, it goes from this teaching moment to this wellspring of emotion. And then he uses the word out of frustration.
And then you have Cottonmouth. For him, that word represents “this is what people think about me, but I don’t give a fuck because I’m powerful in my own way.” He says, “It’s easy to underestimate a nigga. They never see you coming.” So it’s all these different viewpoints. I wanted it to be in there because it makes you think every single time you hear it about what’s being said and where that character is and what they stand for. I always thought that it would be more offensive for people to tell me when I can’t use the word, as opposed to using the word in a way that I think illustrates both its power and how we as a community have such a conflicted viewpoint on it.
Let’s talk about the hallway fight scene in episode three, when Wu-Tang’s “Bring the Ruckus” plays and we get that image of Luke walking imperviously through bullets. It calls to mind that famous fight in Daredevil, except here Luke’s fighting style demands a different approach. What were some of the challenges in putting that scene together?
Guillermo Navarro, who directed that episode, is an Oscar-winning cinematographer. He shot Desperado for Robert Rodriguez and also shot Jackie Brown. So he’s a master at using a practical location and making the claustrophobic nature of a hall become its own world. When we got to the location and saw all those steps, we were like, “Should we actually build a hallway where we could do things we wouldn’t here?” Guillermo just went to the location and was like, “No. We’re gonna make this thing work.” We basically shot that whole sequence over three days.
Luke can’t really punch or kick the kind of ass that Daredevil does because with his strength, he would kill people. So what Matt Owens captured in the script and the rest of the team captured in that whole shoot, is what I call “Smack Fu.” So you’ll notice that when he’s putting people through walls, it’s almost like he’s picking up a toddler and putting them up on a counter or something. It’s like, “Here you go. Get out of my way. I need to get to here.” It’s that kind of thing. What’s great about Mike is that as soon as we explained “Smack Fu,” he was able to just coordinate his movement and make that look real. We saw it like, “Oh my god, there’s an energy to the way that he’s doing this.”
That’s kind of how the music works, too. Knowing that Luke is bulletproof, and knowing how this effort is going to be different than the Daredevil hallway fight, which was more about how relentless Matt Murdock is and how exhausted he is in that iconic second episode, my take on this thing was that this is gonna be Luke’s workout, and that’s why he’s wearing the headphones. He knows that he can’t be shot, so this is gonna be him working off steam while he basically has to put Cottonmouth temporarily out of business. A lot of that is him being, “Let me put my music on and I’m gonna smack my way down the hallway.”
Then there’s Misty Knight, who’s really the show’s breakout character. Comic book Misty was inspired in part by Pam Grier and blaxploitation, so she’s a detective but she also knows martial arts (and has a bionic arm). What was your vision for how to bring her to the screen?
I wanted Misty to be a real woman. I wanted her to be assured and confident and a character that wouldn’t necessarily be self-conscious. Someone that could be a good detective but at the same time could also be sensitive about what it means to be a detective in a place like Harlem. Sometimes what they say about cops is that if you’re a cop, you’re not black or white—you’re blue. I wanted to show someone that was a lot like some of the detectives that I met while I was writing Southland, who were people deeply connected to their community, but at the same time deeply connected to being a policeman or woman.
So with Misty, you have someone who is dedicated to her job, and as the series goes on, begins to question what it is to be inside that system and to see the limitations of it. She kind of resents the fact that Luke is able to do things without any rules. It’s also important just to have somebody that isn’t a secondary character, but a fully fleshed out character with emotions and different feelings and her own story. This is the biggest influence of The Wire on me: McNulty and Bunk and the rest of the cops have their own world and their own vision, but when they’re on the criminal side, those characters are also fully fleshed out. So you’re able to be a part of this world and understand all these perspectives.
Alfre Woodard’s Mariah is also an update on the character Black Mariah, who was a much flatter, more stereotypical figure in the comics. In the show, she’s like a real-life villain: she’s this beloved face of a community who appropriates the language of movements like Black Lives Matter for her own political and criminal gain.
That was the thing about Alfre. I remember when [Marvel TV head] Jeph Loeb and I had come out of our first meeting with her. Of course, with Alfre, you’re kind of nervous ’cause she’s won all these Emmys and she’s just such an incredible actress. And when you meet her outside of her character, she’s so maternal; she’s such a warm presence that you wonder, well, can she play a villain? But there was something she said over that lunch that in my mind cemented who her character was. She said, “I love my family. If anybody come after my family, I’ll cut a motherfucker.” (Laughs) So when she said that, I said, “Okay. Wow. Underneath this, she has that edge.”
That allowed us to build somebody who uses the language of politics, but ultimately really values power. For her, it’s not so much about keeping Harlem black as it is about keeping her family in the green, as she says. It’s kind of cynical in terms of the politics, but that was the difference. We took some liberties in making Cottonmouth and Mariah related and have it be a family crime story. That way, you’re able to talk about the things that are happening in Harlem that make Harlem seem all the more real. But then as she evolves—Mariah really begins to take a deeper turn into almost a Michael Corleone-type character. She begins to realize that she's much better at this than she ever anticipated.
There’s such great character work in the show, Mariah included. Does it worry you that the conversation about the show has mostly revolved around politics?
I think the main thing, honestly, is that we embrace the politics of the moment, we embrace the fact that because Luke is the first superhero show since M.A.N.T.I.S. to have an African-American lead, that it’s important. But then at the same time, this is a fun show. And it’s an adult show. I know there’s gonna be people like, “Oh, I can’t wait for my kids to watch it.” I’m like, “Would you want your kids to play a DMX record?