‘Whatever You’re Interested In, Your Character Can Be Interested In, Too’
CHEO HODARI COKER, executive producer and showrunner of the ‘Luke Cage’ Netix series, talks to the curators of MARVEL: UNIVERSE OF SUPER HEROES, Ben Saunders and Brooks Peck.
CHEO HODARI COKER’S ORIGIN STORY is not so different from those of the Super Heroes he has both revered and written. Born in rural Connecticut in 1972, Coker has valour in his blood. His grandfather was a member of the Tuskeegee Airmen, a group of African American military pilots that served during World War II. From his aunt, a magazine editor, he got the literary sense that would become his signature.
Growing up, Coker loved comic books, and immersed himself in the works of Tolkien – including “The Silmarillion.” (“I was basically the black kid from ‘Stranger Things,’” Coker says of his childhood.) Another great passion of his was hip-hop, a genre that exploded into mainstream consciousness in the late 1980s and which helped bridge the gap between his mother’s well-moneyed side of the family – his former fighter pilot grandfather drove a Porsche and imported Perrier before it was commercially available in the United States – and that of his father, an alcoholic, who worked as a janitor and lived in a tough part of town.
Equally influenced by comic book heroes and rap icons, Coker’s keen sense of narrative and talent for writing became the superpowers that carried him from Connecticut to the vibrant world of hip-hop, where he became a top-tier music journalist with by-lines in major publications including The Source, Vibe, Rap Pages, XXL, URB and many more. After publishing a biography of the Notorious B.I.G., Coker entered the world of screenwriting, ultimately writing for such series as “Southland” and “Ray Donovan” before arriving in the Marvel Universe, where Coker now serves as executive producer and showrunner of Marvel's “Luke Cage.” Given his lifelong passions, this role is one Coker is perfectly suited for.
“Reading all these comic books and playing Dungeons & Dragons,” Coker says, “who knew that they would actually be the best preparation for my current job?”
Coker sat down with MARVEL: UNIVERSE OF SUPER HEROES curators Ben Saunders and Brooks Peck for a sprawling conversation about comics, hip-hop, “Luke Cage” and being unabashed geeks.
When did you start thinking about being a writer or creator?
CHEO COKER: My aunt, Valerie Wilson Wesley, was the executive editor of Essence magazine. The idea that you could become a journalist was not an abstract thought. I would read Essence and see what she was doing. The summer before I started at Stanford, one of my friends from school year abroad, this guy named Tony Arthur – Tony’s a good friend of mine – lived in Brooklyn. We went to his place. I think we were walking by a bodega, and that’s when I saw my first issue of The Source magazine. It was basically a college-educated approach to hip-hop.
I often say most hip-hop journalists are from either the school of Greg Tate or the school of Nelson George. My friend Rob Mariott is definitely a Tate-ite. I’m a Georgian. Bones Malone is also another pioneering hip-hop journalist. None of us knew what we were doing. We just knew we wanted to write about this culture. If you found somebody who was writing about it, you were like, “Oh, man, you’re a mutant too.” You would just kind of follow each other. That’s how it built. After a certain point in school, as these magazines were really starting to expand, I got the opportunity to start writing. I was a kid; it was kind of a hip-hop version of “Almost Famous.” That spark was what started everything, honestly.
While at Stanford, Coker interned at Newsweek as a fact checker while also writing for The Stanford Daily, The Source and Rap Pages. It wasn’t unusual for him to skip class and fly to an interview with Ice Cube in California or Magic Mike in Florida. After graduating, he moved to Los Angeles, profiling musicians like Snoop Dogg, Warren G and director John Singleton for the LA Times, while also writing for other entertainment publications.
CHEO COKER: One of the magazines I used to write for, and prob- ably one of the best places I’ve ever written for was Premiere magazine. What was interesting for me about writing for Premiere was they saw me as the pop-culture geek. It wasn’t like, because I was black and coming from hip-hop, they’d send me any time Will Smith did a movie. No, they saw me as, “He had ‘Star Wars’ bed sheets. Let’s send him to talk to George Lucas about these prequels.” So that’s what I did. I got to go to the ranch and meet George Lucas and hang out. It was geek heaven. It was incredible. I still talk about it.
But while his adventures in journalism could be thrilling, Coker realized he was ultimately still writing about other people pursuing their dreams, rather than pursuing his own. Inspired by his uncle, the screenwriter Richard Wesley, Coker decided to try his hand at writing for film. He collaborated with his uncle on “Flow,” a story inspired by Coker’s own experiences in the infamous East Coast vs. West Coast hip-hop feuds of the 1990s. The sale of this script led to Coker writing a number of other screenplays, along with his book “Unbelievable: The Life, Death, and Afterlife of the Notorious B.I.G.” The book was adapted into the 2009 film “Notorious,” which led to Coker writing for television shows including “Southland,” “The Walking Dead,” “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “Almost Human,” “Ray Donovan” and, ultimately, to his current role as executive producer of “Luke Cage.”
“To me, Harlem has always been both the Washington, DC and Las Vegas of black culture.”
How exactly did you come to work on “Luke Cage”?
Cheo Hodari Coker during the interview. © SC Exhibitions
CHEO COKER: Netflix announced they were doing “Jessica Jones,” “Daredevil,” “Luke Cage,” and “Iron Fist.” I was lucky that after “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones” found their creators and showrunners and went into production, they were looking for someone for “Luke Cage.” I just went in. I was talking about my passion not only for the character, but also being a Marvel geek and knowing the opportunity and the vibe of what they were going for with Netflix – the fact that all four shows were going to be interlinked in a certain way. I was just being completely geeky: I had a Jack Kirby “Fantastic Four,” which I think was the first Black Panther cover. I brought that issue with me. I brought “Luke Cage” with me. I bought a “Luke Cage” doll. I was a complete fanboy, it was terrible! I think what they saw was how much of a fan I was, but at the same time I could talk story and about my experience on shows like “Ray Donovan,” of working with top actors and writing for people that really took the craft seriously.
After officially landing the job and assembling his writing staff, Coker turned his focus on the creative direction of “Luke Cage.” He took his own love for Harlem and hip-hop and began working them into the script, modernizing the protagonist without removing him from his origins in comics and always taking seriously his status as an African American Super Hero icon. For Coker, the opportunity to build Luke’s world was a dream come true.
What were some of your favourite comics as a kid?
CHEO COKER: My all-time favourite is probably John Byrne and Chris Claremont’s run on “X-Men,” particularly “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” That whole arc I still love – one all-time highpoint being that brief moment Wolverine ends up going into the sewers underneath the Hellfire Club.
There was this kid... in Mansfield Middle School. His name is Austin North. Austin was the first person I ever met that collected comics. I remember I bought the first three or four issues of “Groo the Wanderer.” Groo was a quirky, kind of funny character. For whatever reason, Austin said: “I'll give you these four Frank Miller, Chris Claremont ‘Wolverine’ issues” – which I have actually in my office in Los Angeles tagged up on the wall – “for your ‘Groo the Wanderer.’” That was probably the most uneven trade since Manhattan was sold off for beads.
Those were the first “X-Men”-related issues I started reading, and I just fell in love. That Frank Miller, Chris Claremont collaboration, to me, has always been the template of what mature comic book storytelling is about.
Another one, of course, for me, is the X-Men graphic novel “God Loves, Man Kills.” That was another thing that just turned me on to the fact that truly serious stories could be told with Super Heroes. I also loved “Alpha Flight.” Another story I loved was the famous Spider-Man story “Kraven’s Last Hunt.” When Kraven kills Peter Parker, and then all those months of thinking he’s dead – now they do it all the time, so it’s like “whatever.” Back then, though, when you’re waiting month to month for the comic to come out, it was just like, I couldn’t believe it.
That was the thing about the storytelling. With these characters, you really can tell all different interpretations, which can be connected to things you’re interested in, but you can do it through the prism of the character. I guess Frank Miller or Frank and Chris at some point were ob- sessed with Samurai culture and said, even though Wolverine’s Canadian, let’s give him this whole past in Japan. I mean, it makes no sense, but when you read it in the context of a comic, it’s incredible.
Is there a particular “Luke Cage” story from your childhood that sticks out in your memory?
CHEO COKER: My memories of Luke Cage are more of a vibe, because I read more of the “Power Man and Iron Fist” comic than I read actual Luke Cage in “Hero for Hire.” The thing is that Luke Cage is … as old as I am. I was born December 12, 1972. The first issue of “Luke Cage,” I don’t know when in ’72 it hits.
By the time I’m really reading “Luke Cage,” he’s showing up in “Daredevil” – in the middle of Bullseye versus Elektra. I was following Frank Miller from place to place when I was in the middle of reading that. I think at some point I read “Power Man and Iron Fist,” – flash forward 30 years later, and I’m writing on “The Defenders.”
Coker’s next step was determining how to tell Luke Cage’s story in a way that would stand on its own while also making sense within the Marvel Universe. At Netflix, he had a large staff, millions of dollars, and 13 episodes a season with which to do it.
CHEO COKER: I remember getting the screenplays for “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones” and being so intimidated – like, “What the hell am I going to do?” Each of those interpretations had a serious antagonist … a classic antagonist. Kingpin is always going to be an antagonist for “Daredevil.” You have “Elektra” out there at some point. You have the great “Bullseye” run. You have all different characters that come through “Daredevil,” which make sense in terms of pinning good guy versus bad guy. “Jessica Jones” – after reading the Brian Michael Bendis run of “Alias” and the way he remixed the Marvel Universe – what he did with the Purple Man in that comic, that makes one incredible antagonist.
“Luke Cage” – in every comic on every cover – represents a new villain: Chemistro, Piranha Jones, or Mr. Fish, all kind of one-offs. Yes, with Diamondback, there’s a little bit of an arc. The thing about Diamondback – in “Jessica Jones” with the Reva storyline is, the natural inclination would’ve been “I can do an interpretation of Luke Cage where he came as a hood and then straightened himself out. I could have Reva being Diamondback’s girlfriend and that whole thing.” But once they introduce Reva in “Jessica Jones” and the whole thing happened with her getting murdered, I’m like, “Now what am I going to do? How do we get past this?”
In his research, Coker realized many characters in the Luke Cage universe hadn’t been interpreted since the mid-’70s. For him, this opened the possibility of taking creative liberties when writing these characters for 21st-century television.
CHEO COKER: As long as I’m being respectful to the material, I can interpret these characters in a way that can give you the vibe, but then we’re allowed as a writing staff to take them in another direction. We just said, “We are going to use some familiar names, but we’re going to interpret them differently.” I’d always assumed I was going to do a Luke Cage set in Greenwich Village because, when we’re trying to figure out who’s where, “Daredevil” is at the time Hell’s Kitchen. Before they moved “Jessica Jones” to the Hell’s Kitch- en area, her whole thing is supposed to be the Village. I figured Luke could be in the Village because he’s already tied to what Melissa did in her series. I was on this conference call, and Joe Quesada, who consults, was saying, “Hey, Luke Cage’s origins are Harlem, so why not do Harlem?”
The way Coker sees it, placing Luke Cage in Harlem made it possible to tell stories related to actual black history and modern black culture.
CHEO COKER: To me, Harlem has always been both the Washington, DC and Las Vegas of black culture. You have the politicians. You have the political movements. You have the Adam Clayton Pow- ells, the Shirley Chisholms and the Charles Rangels that come out of Harlem. You have Malcom X – his formative political years in terms of mirroring the lives of black people and his interpretation of what black power was – that happens in Harlem. Martin Luther King, of course, has very important stops in Harlem. Then at the same time, you also have Nicky Barnes. You have Frank Lucas. You have all these criminal under lords. Then on top of all that, you have the Apollo Theater. You’ve got the music – Duke Ellington, the Cotton Club. You have all this culture.
So I’m thinking, “Okay, this could be the world in which we set our version of ‘Luke Cage.’” That would allow us, from a television standpoint, to have music and characters based on actual Harlem characters. At the same time, it gives us a different flavour and vibe than anything the other shows are doing. The thing that’s really cool about Marvel is that as friendly as I am with Steven DeKnight, Drew, Melissa, Marco, Doug and all the various show writers, it’s kind of its own club. We’re also competitive with each other in a fun way – not like we’re not going to help each other – but we always want to do something different. It’s like “Oh, man, ‘Daredevil’ is doing this and ‘Jessica Jones’ is doing this. Why don’t we flip this?”
Those first two episodes are so tight. You absolutely hit it out of the park. And I love the complexity of the Cottonmouth character. He gets such a rich backstory.
CHEO COKER: We got lucky. I was lucky Melissa Rosenberg picked the perfect Luke Cage with actor Mike Colter. I think it’s some of the best casting since Sean Connery was cast as James Bond. It’s one of those just indelible roles. Mike knows it. Mike knows no matter what he does for the rest of his life, he’s going to be Luke Cage.
Then, of course, we discover Simone, who as Misty is just amazing. It’s funny, because I say discover, but I’ve known Simone for years. Dorian Missick I knew as an actor and worked with on “Southland.” It was just funny. When they were auditioning for the show, Simone was reading dialogue to Dorian off camera. Then, when he flipped the camera and she was auditioning for Misty Knight, you would hear Dorian read lines, and she would do lines. She submitted like everyone else. We had hundreds of submissions. From the second you saw her in that first audition before we brought her in, it was like, “She’s different. There’s something here.” When we brought her in to read, it was just like, forget about it.
I think there needs to be a Misty Knight show. I’d love to see Simone in that!
CHEO COKER: We’ll see what happens. The thing is also, Chris, Theo, Rossi as Shades – Charles Murray, you know, who was my No. 2, or, as he says, my 1A – Charles had worked with Theo on “Sons of Anarchy” and spoke very highly of him. I was sceptical at first. Theo did such a good job at playing an acquiescent character on “Sons of Anarchy.” Is he brawny enough? But man, when you see him in the first season and in Season two, he’s Shades. Alfre Woodard as Black Mariah is just incredible. And Erik LaRay Harvey as Diamondback – he gave an audition as Cottonmouth which was so good that it changed my thoughts on the character. I initially thought that Cottonmouth was going to be an older actor like a Ving Rhames, but when Erik LaRay Harvey auditioned for Cottonmouth, his audition was so good it was like, “Wait a minute: he’s so strong; he’s younger; he’s got different energy, let’s switch it up. Let’s make him a younger interpretation of this character.”
Eventually, actor Mahershala Ali – who would go on to win the 2017 Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, for his performance in “Moonlight” – was cast as Cottonmouth.
CHEO COKER: Nobody was talking about Mahershala like that at the time. Everyone loved him as an actor, loved him as a person, loved what he did on “House of Cards” and the other shows, but no one could really see the spark he had.
But our casting director said, “Mahershala is about to blow. He’s really good. You guys have gotta think about it.” It wasn’t a question about audition because it was an offer. It was funny, because I read some interviews on him. Very few people even know how deep his hip-hop background is, because he’s actually an MC – like, he raps for real. There were certain things in the way he answered the questions and other things and his vibe, I said, “You know what? … Let’s try it.”
So, they tried it – and it worked.
CHEO COKER: Then literally, from the first time, when he set foot on a sound stage and we had our table reads, it was like, “Oh, my God, this dude is next level.” The combination of all those people together – of Mike and Mahershala’s chemistry opposite each other; Frankie Faison as Pop; Alfre playing Black Mariah; Simone and what she did with Misty Knight, with Theo playing Shades, with Warner who plays Tone, and even some of the smaller parts – everybody together, all of a sudden just elevated everything to this next level.
I discovered director Paul McGuigan because of being a fan of “Sherlock” … he directed the pilot of “Scandal,” and he’s directed other successful pilots. People were like, “this guy is really good.” I fell in love with “Sherlock,” there was actually an episode of it: “A Scandal in Belgravia” – he directed. When I saw that episode, there were certain things he did with the camera and these cutaways … old-school camera tricks and just his perspective and the vibe, it was like, “This is the guy to do it.” He came in with such a great vision of what Harlem should look like. That, together with Manuel Billeter’s cinematography – and again, old hip-hop relationships, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge – the music all came together.
“Luke Cage” has garnered significant media attention for its incorporation of hip-hop. Seasons one and two have featured myriad tracks, along with appearances by musicians including Method Man, KRS-One, Faith Evans, Rakim and many more. Infusing the genre into the world of Luke Cage is, of course, a job uniquely well suited to Coker.
That shot where Cottonmouth is standing in front of the Biggie portrait in the final episode of Season one, and he moves forward and it’s like he’s wearing the crown, was that in the script?
CHEO COKER: It’s the perfect combination of all my life experiences with the alchemy of what happens on-set. I wrote that line about how the crown draws your eye “because everyone wants to be the king.” What I had initially written in the script was a description of a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting called “Charles I.” In that painting – if you ever look at the painting – there’s actually an inscription on the bottom where it says “most young kings get their heads cut off.” The whole speech was supposed to be a metaphor about looking at that painting and seeing where you fit. There’s also, of course, a Basquiat crown in the upper left-hand corner. That’s what in my mind I was referring to, but then we couldn’t get the clearance. One of the things that held up the clearance was if you look at that painting, there’s basically a Superman logo. Of course, being a Marvel show … it couldn’t happen.
Not wanting to jettison the crown reference, Coker remembered an image from the back of a Notorious B.I.G. album in which the hip-hop icon wore a crown. Conceived by venerated hip-hop journalist Dream Hampton and shot by photographer Barron Claiborne, the photo originally ran in the magazine Rap Pages. For Coker, it made sense to place this image, so famous in hip-hop culture, into the world of Luke Cage.
CHEO COKER: We were able to secure the rights, through Barron, of a different out-take of that photo. To me, it was interesting, because some people were like, “Do you want to put a hip-hop icon in the middle of your show?” My thing was that it was also a shout out to Biggie, because Biggie changed my life. Interviewing him and the pieces I wrote about him led to me writing the book about his life, which led me to writing the movie about his life, which led to me writing for television in the first place and having the opportunity to create the show. So on one hand it was a shout out to Big, on the other it was a shout out to Basquiat, although we ultimately got the rights to another Basquiat painting – the whole thing with the crown. It was also trying to stay true to the words. Then Paul, on-set with Manuel, found that if Mahershala stepped forward to a certain mark, the crown was perfectly framed.
“The thing that makes rappers unique is that they understand what it is to have an alter ego, which is an essential part of comic book storytelling.”
I love the deep presence of hip-hop in this show, particularly because I’ve always seen comics – particularly Super Hero comics – and hip-hop as interrelated art forms. They borrow from one another, and there are so many hip-hop artists who can’t wait to get into their own comic book. There are also all those tribute covers Marvel does. I also think that for a long time, both had to fight to be taken seriously as an art form.
CHEO COKER: The thing that makes rappers unique is that they understand what it is to have an alter ego, which is an essential part of comic book storytelling. One of the more interesting conversations I had with Biggie was he would tell me about how he would be with his mom, and all she knew him as was Chris; Chrissy Poo is what she called him. But on Fulton Street and in other parts of Brooklyn, he was Big Chris. He was B.I.G. He was Biggie. He had already started selling drugs and getting into the street life, because his friend Chico introduced him to it. What Big described to me was how his mother would set off for work and leave him wearing one thing, because he was going to take himself to school. He would go up on the roof of their apartment building at 226 St. James and change into clothes more befitting of somebody of his street stature and be somebody else on the street.
When I was writing the first draft of the screenplay, in my head the analogy was that Chris Wallace is Peter Parker. Voletta Wallace, his mother, is Aunt May. When he goes up on the roof and changes, he’s Spider-Man. Spider-Man’s main point of drama was that Aunt May would find out he was Spider-Man. One of his big contentions was, “Oh my God, I’m going to get caught doing some of this stuff,” and mom is going to be all, “Not my Christopher, because my Chris doesn’t sell drugs. My Chris doesn’t do any of these things.” Where Peter Parker meets Spider-Man, their problems converge. When Chris Wallace meets Notorious B.I.G., their problems converge. That was always in my head.
How did that Method Man appearance come about?
CHEO COKER: The first year of a show, people don’t really know what the show is. It was hard for us to get many people to come on the show as artists. But I’ve known Meth for a long time, and we’ve always had a lot of respect for each other. I needed an actor who could convincingly act and be a version of himself, but then at the same time also perform musically. Akela Cooper and Charles Murray wrote the episode. I said to them that this really could be our “Harder They Come” episode.
“The Harder They Come” is a Jamaican movie directed by Perry Henzell, starring Jimmy Cliff, about a young guy who inadvertently becomes a gangster. All he wants to do is make a record, and he makes a record, but it’s rejected. Once he’s on the run, the record becomes the most popular record on the island. All of a sudden, he becomes this gangster and music star simultaneously. The thought was, “Luke Cage is on the run in Episode 12. What if he runs into somebody and that somebody makes a song about him?” The thing about New York is everybody walks around. It’s entirely possible, because Luke Cage really exists, that he would run into somebody. So what would happen if Luke Cage ran into Method Man? If Meth were to go on the radio soon after that – if there is a realm of possibility that he would write a freestyle about it. This is a hard thing to pull off, because you have to make sure the acting moment doesn’t feel corny, and you have to make sure the hip-hop moment also feels real. Meth was game. I got in touch with him, and we talked. I was like: “You know, these are some of the things it would be cool for you to talk about.” He wrote the rhyme, and then we recorded it. It was just gold. It was magic. I really had to fight for that moment, because both Marvel and Netflix were sceptical about it. The thing you find about both companies is that both are very smart and very passionate. They were asking the right questions, saying, “If Luke Cage is on the run, why would he have this conversation? Why would he stop? Is this going to be corny?” Basically I said, “You have to understand that hip-hop happens at the speed of thought. If a rapper really did run into a Super Hero, he would rhyme about it for one.”
For Coker, it also made sense to use the costumes in “Luke Cage” – primarily popular streetwear – as statements reflecting both classic hip-hop fashion and current racial politics in America. The official Carhartt x Luke Cage clothing line is available online.
From the Marvel Defenders 7” Vinyl Disc Collection: the “Luke Cage” single featuring “Bulletproof Love” and “Mes- merized.” Available at: disneymusic.shop.musictoday.com © Disney, MARVEL
Music is inextricably woven into the fabric of Marvel’s “Luke Cage.” The original comics that brought the character to life didn’t just draw inspiration from the music-centric Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, they went on to influence generations of R&B and hip-hop artists.
For the Netflix series, showrunner Cheo Coker used his contacts in the music industry to bring the sound of Luke Cage’s New York to life in vibrant, visceral fashion, appointing acclaimed composers Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad to create the soundtrack and main title, enlisting legendary musicians (including Raphael Saadiq, Faith Evans, the Delfonics, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, DJ D-Nice and many others) for cameo musical performances, licensing tracks by artists such as Mobb Deep and Wu-Tang Clan to score key sequences, and even naming every episode after a different song. (Season one’s titles are drawn from the catalogue of renowned rap act Gang Starr, while Season two’s episodes each bear the name of a track by seminal hip-hop duo Pete Rock & CL Smooth.)
I think the fashion statement of the Carhartt hoodie Luke Cage wears is also a political statement, and that was something we really want to remind our exhibition audience about – that fashion can be political, clothes can be political. We want to show that hoodie, and to show the holes in that hoodie.
CHEO COKER: On one hand, Carhartt and Timberland is my era of hip-hop. That Lords Of the Underground, Das EFX, Notorious B.I.G. “Machine Gun Funk” – that’s when I was grown and in college, going to clubs. I was out the house – that was how we dressed. Everyone in hip-hop, kind of, has their own favourite fashion era. Carhartt and Timberland boots is my era. That’s why musically, I wanted the show to have a mid-’90s New York hip-hop vibe.
Then also, of course, with Trayvon Martin, we knew having a black man in a hoodie was going to be political. I wanted to be political, but I wanted to be political in a way that didn’t overwhelm the comic book story we’re telling. “God Loves, Man Kills” is incredibly political, but also tells a great comic book story. We wanted to tell a story that would reflect the actual politics of what’s happening with black people, but at the same time not alienate the audience by saying that the show was only for black people. The show is what I call “inclusively black.” What I mean is that I’m showing an interpretation of black culture in the way black people live and talk about black culture, but doing it in a way that it’s bringing anybody that’s interested in it into the narrative.
For example, like Danny Boyle – the best example with Danny Boyle is, I didn’t really know anything about hero- in or Scotland, but “Trainspotting” just pulled me in like a vortex. We just had the same kind of interpretation: rather than explain hip-hop culture to this universe, we’ll just do it; let’s just show it. People will figure it out. I might not know who all these people are. I might not have ever read George Pelecanos or Walter Mosley, but now, with the magic of Google and the fact that you’re already online because you’re watching things on Netflix, I just figured people would write down references and look them up. And bam, it gives you a second, third, almost fourth inter- pretation of the show.
Your version of Cage is very much a post-hip-hop version. But the original Cage is a pre-hip-hop concept. There’s that moment in Episode 3 where, before he goes in and busts up the bad guys at the community centre, we see the ear buds and we know he’s listening to Wu-Tang. What do you think 1972-era, yellow silk-shirt-we-aring Luke Cage was listening to?
CHEO COKER: James Brown, Isaac Hayes. He’s probably listening to Mandrill. He’s probably listening to LaMott. If he’s listening to funk jazz, he’s listening to Roy Ayers. He’s listening to Donald Byrd. If I could do a ’70s version of “Luke Cage,” there would be Quincy Jones’ “The Dude,” all types of stuff in there. That’s why there’s so much music. I pick every single piece of music for the show. That’s why there’s Nina Simone. My mother always listened to Nina Simone. That particular record that had “Plain Gold Ring” on it. I wanted the show to sound like New York and to pull from all these different influences.
I love the look of ’70s Cage. I first read him in “The Defenders” and loved the way he carried himself and those yellow silk shirts. You’re probably familiar with the writing of the great Dwayne McDuffie. McDuffie, who died tragically young, was an African American writer of many Super Hero comics and also a principal creator for the “Justice League” animated cartoon series.
CHEO COKER: Absolutely.
He had a love-hate relationship with that era of Cage, as well as an investment in it. He felt that there was a stereotypical idea about black masculinity he was trying to get beyond and created the Buck Wild character for Milestone as a way of dealing with some of that stuff.
CHEO COKER: The thing I felt was important is that rather than running away from the black exploitation roots of “Luke Cage,” we decided to embrace it. I’ve always been a huge fan of Gordon Parks and “Shaft” – “Shaft’s Big Score” and “Shaft in Africa” – and Richard Roundtree’s interpretation of “Shaft,” in addition to “Superfly” and the other movies from that era. The thing about it, you have to go all the way back to the very first poster for “Shaft,” which read: “Hotter than Bond. Cooler than Bullet.”
All black exploitation is, is giving a black male star the ability to do all the cool stuff that Sean Connery, Lee Marvin, John Wayne and a lot of other film stars of the late ’60s and early ’70s were doing. Kicking the villains behind, getting the hot girl, jumping off in the flashy car and driving off into the sunset. That’s all black exploitation really is, because black men have been playing second and third lackeys – the fourth guy in the picture who, ultimately, is going to get killed – for so long. That’s why there was this hyper-masculine interpretation like, “We don’t have to take whitey’s crap anymore. Now we’re the stars.” Marvel Comics’ offi ces, if I’m not mistaken, were actually near Times Square. That’s why Daredevil was from Hell’s Kitchen, because Hell’s Kitchen is that area from like, 39th until 45th. That whole area of New York was what you were seeing. When you would hit 42nd Street back in the day, that was the 42nd Street of porn theatres and hookers on the street and people snatching change and pocketbooks. All that stuff, basically, is right outside the Marvel offices. As these various authors are walking out of their offices to go home on the subway, what are they seeing besides all the XXX? They’re seeing “Shaft.” They’re seeing “Superfly.” They’re seeing “J.D.’s Revenge.”
At some point, somebody said, “Hey, we don’t have any black characters, and this black exploitation thing’s taking off at the box office. Can we do something with a black guy? I know a Black Panther. Yes, of course, he’s black. And we have him with The Avengers as Wakandan. But what about a Black American?.”
“I felt that was very important, not to run away from Luke Cage’s blackness, but to deal with it in such a way that anybody watching the show would identify with it.”
There’s a guy, who blogs under the name of Snoopy Jenkins, who wrote a piece called “Superman is a White Boy.” He’s mostly talking about the movies in that piece, but one of the things he basically says is that because of the long history of American racism the image of a radically empowered black person – a super-powered black man – is inherently subversive. He says that makes writing genuinely black Super Heroes impossible, because they always end up looking like people of colour but internalizing white values. And if you think about how threatening the image of a black man who can lift a car over his head would actually be to white supremacists, you begin to understand how difficult and complicated it is to write a convincing street-level black American Super Hero.
CHEO COKER: Of course – you can go all the way back to Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice: The Allegory of the Black Eunuchs.” Here he really lays down the stereotypes in terms of the white man being the brain but giving the black man the brawn and physicality and eventually the body and, of course, the penis, which, then, makes them the black hyper-super-masculine ideal. If you read “Soul on Ice,” it gets deep into sexual archetypes and everything else.
But that logic also has its limitations. Maybe the most subversive thing about Luke Cage is not that you have a bulletproof black man who’s an incredible physical specimen, but that at the same time he’s sensitive. He can be brawny, but he is a deeply sensitive, feeling man.
I read everything – good and bad – about people’s interpretation of Luke Cage, and some people didn’t like that he is sensitive. To me, though, particularly being someone over six-feet tall and weighing 250 pounds, I find my size intimidates people without my meaning it to. I’m the furthest thing from that, but that’s kind of what it is when you’re a black man of this size. People make assumptions. If you’re white in this size and somebody calls the cops, the cops will talk to you. If you’re black at this size and I lose my temper, the cops will shoot me. I know this from working on “Southland” and going out with cops and their mentality, and how they deal with threats. So, being a black male of size, you learn from a very early age, not exactly to acquiesce, but basically to say to the world, “I’m not a threat.” Channel those complexities through a character who subsequently is bulletproof, and there’s a lot of politics there. The thing I felt was important, and that we as a writing staff felt was important, was not running away from that.
It was very important to me that Luke Cage be a black Super Hero, not a Super Hero who happened to be black. But in doing that, making his blackness an indelible part of his character, it’s no more than being Canadian is an indelible part of Wolverine’s character; or, thinking about Banshee, I think of Ireland; or, thinking of Moira MacTaggert as Scottish, or Nightcrawler as German or even Colossus being Russian. Yes, it’s an important part of who they are as people in their character, but at the same time, it’s not done in a way that doesn’t allow you to put yourself in their shoes when you’re watching them go through different stories. I felt that was very important, not to run away from Luke Cage’s blackness, but to deal with it in such a way that anybody watching the show would identify with it. I think that’s one of the reasons why the show proved to be outwardly popular on Netflix, because so many different people were interested.
The music brings them in. The hardcore geeks get into it. Some people love the show, and there are people out there who hate it. Trust me, after Episode 7 there were loads of people who were pissed about what happened with Cottonmouth. But the one thing people did not stop doing was they didn’t stop talking about the show. They’re still passionate about the show one way or the other. I feel that’s where art really comes from. You can’t please everybody, but you want everybody to at the very least think about what you were trying to accomplish. Something we really went for was just being provocative, at the very least having something to say. People might not agree with what we’re saying, but we at least have to have had said it. I think that was very important.
When you talk about Luke Cage being a black Super Hero versus a Super Hero who just happens to be black – I think that was the challenge I was most hoping you would confront coming into the show. Because Luke’s different from, say, the Falcon or War Ma- chine, who are essentially already military guys inside the mili- tary-industrial complex. Luke is an outsider, an ex-con – framed and railroaded, but still a man who has done time in jail. So, he’s that much harder to do, which is another reason why I was so amazed at how you did it.
CHEO COKER: I remember when the show first dropped. We were actually getting comments like, “Where are the white people? It’s been 20 minutes, and there are no white characters.” When I was growing up, Harrison Ford was so much a part of my childhood – as Han Solo and in all three “Indiana Jones” movies: “Raiders,” “Temple of Doom” and “Last Crusade.” In all of those, you probably go 25 to 35 minutes before seeing a single black character with any lines of dialogue. In fact, in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” it’s not until the movie’s practically over and he’s getting ready to escape and talking to the captain of the boat he smuggles off on, but that didn’t take away from me identifying with Harrison Ford as a hero.
But that’s also why I know the power of representation. My sons are age 12. We went to the movie theatre right around the time I was getting ready to start “Luke Cage,” and the “Winter Soldier” trailer came out. Their excitement about seeing Falcon made me realize that when people are able to see themselves, it makes a difference.
Representation in the world of Super Heroes has been especially rel- evant in the last year [2017–18], with the record-setting box office takings and critical embrace of both “Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman,” which, together, grossed more than a billion dollars in the United States.
CHEO COKER: I was reading online reactions to “Wonder Woman,” people coming out of the theatre saying they’ve never seen an interpretation where the woman is the hero, and all the women are heroic and doing Super Hero things. People just came out of the theatre on fire. That’s what white male Super Heroes have been doing for 20, 35, 40, 50 years, since “James Bond.” It’s not a superiority thing as much as it is a representation thing. The pressure on black heroes is that if you’re the Jackie Robinson of Super Heroes, what does that pressure feel like? Who is Luke Cage? That was the kind of thing that, without getting deep into it, we really explored in the second season.
It’s really something we didn’t want to shy away from – what are the realities of being a black man in society and being bulletproof? How does being bulletproof change the ecology of a neighbourhood?, which is what Season one is really all about. It’s Episode 5 when Cottonmouth’s coming up against Luke Cage and trying to set the neighbourhood against him; these are the kinds of things that you have to deal with.
Detail of the street-level heroes gallery in the MARVEL: UNIVERSE OF SUPER HEROES exhibition, MoPOP, 2018. © Christine Mitchell
So, Cheo, one final question: What does Marvel mean to you?
CHEO COKER: Marvel to me is empowerment. It’s Spider-Man’s credo: “With great power comes great responsibility,” and seeing how people with power interpret that on a daily basis. You think about that power as both a showrunner and creator of a Marvel show.
But I also think about that power in terms of being a fan of these comic books and being a fan of these characters and thinking about what would it be like to have these powers. What would it be like to live in a society where these powers help you protect society but also ostracize you from society? That’s something I always think about.
The interview has been edited and introduced by Katie Bain.